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Horton Plaza redevelopment nearing final stage of planning

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The public has given its feedback during the past few months, and in July the preferred design concept for the redevelopment of Horton Plaza -- the Cabrillo Arch plan -- was laid out with further adjustments made by its designers and presented again to San Diegans for more input.

Incorporating ideas from the two other plans preferred less by the public, named the Forum and Landform plans, the latest version of the Cabrillo Arch concept had some notable additions and subtractions, as compared to the version shown in June. Of the other two, Landform drew the most praise, but it was the “energy” around the Cabrillo Arch idea that led to its choosing. (watch video)

“They both have a lot more energy,” said Chelsea McCann, project manager for the Portland, Ore.-based architectural firm Walker Macy, of the Landform and Cabrillo Arch plans. “However, there was overwhelmingly more support for the arch.”

Walker Macy is leading the project’s designing. The main inspiration for the design is a reflection on the old Cabrillo Theater’s arches and the Spanish missionary architecture found in the city’s history.

“It’s formal, yet it’s rotated on the grid of the city,” added Doug Macy, principal of Walker Macy. “That’s where the energy comes.”

A rendering depicts a vision for the next step in the historic center's evolution, set to be completed in 2014. Plans include an amphitheater lined with electric luminaries, a Native American-inspired mosaic floor and possibly a digital video screen on the Bradley Building. The new design maintains the architectural integrity of the original park while offering easier pedestrian access to its core. Image courtesy of Walker Macy

The plan, as it stood when it was unveiled, drew in ideas popular within Landform, including increased areas of shading. Plans call for it to include three kiosks totaling 1,200 square feet of space reserved for things like retail, food and beverage, or a number of things yet to be determined. Each of them will come with an extended shade canopy covered in vegetation.

The largest of the kiosks, designated for the southeast corner of the plaza, is expected to have grade-level restrooms and a rooftop deck, accessible by short stairways from both the street-level southeastern edge of the plaza and the grade-level plaza amphitheater. Shade trees are planned for both the eastern Fourth Avenue edge and the southern edge adjacent to the Balboa Theater.

Still planned are upright electric luminaries circling the amphitheater-style arch, an idea Macy said was drawn from the glowing luminary lanterns crafted by the region’s Native Americans. Adding to that, current plans call for the tiles of the plaza floor to take on the mosaic patterns often seen in local Native American basketry and art, gently thinning to a more solid pattern toward the entrance to Horton Plaza Park.

Many questions remain though, both from the public and the design team, about just how to incorporate the adjacent face of the Bradley Building, which is separately owned and rests on the western perimeter of the new plaza’s design.

Agreements may have to be forged to make some suggestions possible, but among the ideas is making the plaza-facing side of the building a semipermanent home for rotating local art displays, while transforming the wall into a movie screen on specified nights.

An aerial view of Horton Plaza taken in 1914. Photo courtesy of San Diego History Center

Macy said that a similar plan used in Portland’s Pioneer Square often draws several thousand viewers, blankets and chairs in hand, on movie nights and creates a welcoming, family-friendly space.

Also in question is an interactive water feature. Though popular enough to gain momentum after the first forum in April, the water feature’s cost and its practicality in drought-prone San Diego weighed heavily on both the public and the Walker Macy team after the June forum, when Macy revealed that it could be a source of cost overruns. According to Macy, the idea of an interactive fountain translates into roughly $1.5 million, plus the additional cost of maintenance.

The idea makes sense for Portland, he said, where there is rarely a shortage of rain and a dedicated staff for city fountain maintenance. But in San Diego, there is a higher probability of extended periods with a nonfunctional interactive fountain.

“That was one of the elements that we got mixed feedback from the community on,” McCann said. It was a little surprising, Macy added, because the water features are typically widely adored.

Plans for the interactive water feature, he said, aren’t necessarily dead, but it seems more likely that it won’t make the final list of priorities, as McCann pointed out that preliminary cost estimates, without the fountain, are already on target.

In addition to that, Mark Caro, project manager for the project’s lead agency, Centre City Development Corp., said that the project is already bringing the element of water back to Horton Plaza with the restoration of the historic fountain in the center of Horton Plaza Park.

As planned from the beginning, Horton Plaza Park, across Broadway from the historic U.S. Grant Hotel, is expected to be restored to its historical state. The park has undergone numerous changes since its late-1800s birth, most notably after the 1920s. More obvious recent changes include the filling of the grassy areas with larger vegetation, meant as a deterrent to loitering.

The restoration will once again square off the corners of the park -- rounded over time -- return it to grass, reintroduce iconic lighting present there in the early 20th century, and re-incarnate the now-out-of-use fountain that is the park’s centerpiece. Even the decorative lighting built into the fountain will be brought back to life.

The historical significance of the park, which became the center of downtown’s first development after Alonzo Horton purchased the then-barren land in 1867, leaves little wiggle room for changes outside historic parameters, Macy said in response to a question from the crowd.

Forensic work is still under way, Macy said, to determine the material originally used in paving the four walkways into the park and the roundabout circling the fountain. The intent is to return that to original form as well.

Caro said there aren’t any known sources of money that are likely to bring a new interactive water feature back into the mix.

“At some point, some sponsor could step forward and offer to contribute money, but right now, as far as we know, if that water feature were to go in, then we would have to look at what would be compromised -- if it’s quality of the material or if it’s a certain design aspect that we’ve been talking about.”

Funding for the project is budgeted at $8 million, made available through a more than $35 million development agreement between Westfield and CCDC, which will provide the redevelopment money while Westfield manages the plaza for 25 years.

Caro said that funding should be safeguarded from the redevelopment battle that had been brewing in Sacramento for months, as the state worked out a budget amid large deficits. On top of the fact that the funds were allocated and approved by the city long before recent legislation placed redevelopment money at risk, Caro said the money should be further protected when the city completes the process of adhering to a provision passed by the Legislature. That piece of legislation, Assembly Bill 27, will allow redevelopment agencies to remain if their host cities follow certain guidelines.

“As I understand it, it allows redevelopment agencies to exist, granted they contribute a certain amount of dollars (to other parts of the budget),” Caro said. “As I understand it, the city is opting into AB 27."

Some adjustments to the plan are still likely, and the project is expected to be a topic of discussion at the Sept. 21 meeting of the Centre City Advisory Committee. The CCDC Board of Directors expects to consider the proposal with its finalized design refinements at its regular Sept. 28 meeting.

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