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Close-up: Graham Downes

Architect pushes for more intelligent design in the city

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Can good design change the world?

Architect Graham Downes makes a pretty good argument. He’s a big proponent of making projects more open and accessible to the public, citing Petco Park as an example. Accessibility breeds improved communication and interaction, ultimately building more respectful and tolerant communities.

“Quality of life is everything for me,” said Downes in a recent interview. “I care about where the most people live -- where something good has the highest opportunity for a resonant impact, like a ripple effect. You make one good move in an urban context in a highly built up area and it resonates to affect a lot of people’s lives.”

Downes, 56, has honed his craft and vision during a career that has spanned nearly two decades in San Diego and several years in his native South Africa. Graham Downes Architecture, headquartered in San Diego with offices in Las Vegas and Phoenix, has become a top design firm for chic restaurants, boutique hotels, retail stores and commercial offices.

He also has created several subsidiaries that fall under his “Blokhaus” brand, encompassing development, construction and other design elements. Graham Downes Architecture employs 18, with a total of 32 employees at all Blokhaus companies.

Architect Graham Downes has plans to redevelop the Bankers Hill neighborhood along with other projects around the city.

Downes is known for his contemporary, minimalist design, seen in the Hard Rock Hotel, the Basic restaurant and Thin bar downtown, and the Tower 23 hotel in Pacific Beach. The structures reflect the architect’s devotion to Bauhaus design principles, which favor function and simplicity over embellishments.

“We don’t like any extra stuff at all. If it’s there and it’s decorative, then it’s necessary and it’s part of the equation. Otherwise, we avoid at all times superfluous accoutrements,” he said. “We like to take as many things away as we can, and if the concept still stands, then it’s fine.”

The firm’s projects are largely in urban areas, with an emphasis on infill and redevelopment. He is passionate about adaptive reuse, recycling and repurposing buildings for cost-efficiency, sustainability and to highlight existing character.

The Basic bar and restaurant, for example, was converted from a 1912 warehouse in the East Village. Its open design features original brick walls, exposed ducts and beams, high ceilings and industrial garage doors.

Though the firm typically doesn’t bother with LEED certification, Graham Downes Architecture has always practiced principles of sustainability, conservation and energy efficiency, he said.

Current local projects include a new 24,000-square-foot harbor-front restaurant, the $3.5 million renovation of Tom Ham’s Lighthouse, the repositioning of a 142-unit resort in San Marcos and the rebranding of the shopping district along University Avenue in Hillcrest. Graham Downes Architecture’s Las Vegas and Phoenix offices also have projects going, along with the design of Love Culture retail stores nationwide and a Hard Rock Hotel in Jamaica.

Downes said revenues for the firm were disappointing but better than expected in 2012, and anticipates revenues in 2013 to top last year’s by 50 percent. He’s bullish about 2014, and said it will likely be the firm’s best year ever.

“The real estate market is coming back in Southern California, particularly in the multifamily sector. There’s a bit of a feeding frenzy on available properties, and people pushing to get multifamily under way, because there’s available financing,” he said. “The hotel market is always there for us because remodels need to take place and there’s constant activity in terms of repositioning, remarketing and rebranding.”

Still, he said the developer community is going to “think very carefully” about new product, after the last several years of too-rapid development.

Downes made news last fall when he bought three properties at Fifth Avenue and Maple Street in Bankers Hill: an apartment complex, the Mandarin House restaurant and the historic Britt Scripps Inn. He’s already renovated and sold the apartment complex, but plans for the other two properties are still in flux.

“We don’t quite know what we’re going to do there at this point in time,” he said.

The firm is considering the creation of multitenant commercial activity on the ground level that includes the inn along with adjacent condominiums. In this scenario, a third party would likely purchase the site and build the condos.

“Whatever we do,” he said, “we aim to make a big difference in Bankers Hill,” which is also where Downes resides in a 103-year-old historic house.

He has said previously that his goal is to bring vitality to the area on the west side of Balboa Park by launching the construction of more compelling, modern buildings and more businesses for residents.

Downes was also hoping to kick-start redevelopment in Barrio Logan, but has since put those plans on hold.

“The prognosis for development progress in Barrio Logan is too slow for me -- but I’ll go back there. I still have an acre there,” he said.

Downes has a reputation for speaking frankly about hot-button issues, such as the homeless situation that he said makes development in the northwest side of Barrio Logan so challenging.

“There’s a big issue with campsites on the sidewalks,” he said. “All the activity on the street makes it extremely hard for developers, for leasing, being a tenant and being a landlord. It’s out of control. It’s uncontained, there’s no plan for it, and it makes business extremely difficult. When the streets are cleaned up and everything is safer and savory, then I’ll come back.”

He also doesn’t mince words when it comes to talking about what’s wrong with design in San Diego.

“I’d like to see buildings that copy each other a little less. There’s a proliferation of styles that piggyback on others,” he said. “I’m extremely averse to the whole idea of Mediterranean, Italianate, cute, quaint, village-y type buildings that continue to be built. It’s very irritating to me.”

He’d rather see more utilitarian buildings with strong character, less fussiness and more experimentation. The city, he said, is home to so much innovation in medicine, biotech, pharmaceuticals and defense. Yet the building industry remains conservative.

And he said he’d like to see more facilities provide complete public accessibility, letting the public migrate where it will. The result, he said, would be a better downtown and a better quality of life.

“I can’t change the culture; I can only do my piece,” he said.

-Klam is a San Diego-based freelance writer.

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