San Diego Orchids & Onions winners, 20 years later

Gone to seed

“We build our buildings and then our buildings build us.” The thought belongs to Winston Churchill, and I don’t think anyone would argue the point that the "built environment,” as it is referred to these days, has an effect on our spirits. I’m not just talking about-the ambiance in a bar or restaurant or the efforts of mall shops to look like museum galleries. I’m talking about the reason we cringe at churches that look like converted school gyms or space stations and why we gag at cardboard-box strip malls and tract housing, the primordial soup that spawned the bored generation.

Rancho Bernardo

Rancho Bernardo

It is a rare building today that is actually a pleasure to look at, let alone beautiful enough to inspire noble sentiments. Too often we are grateful for something that is merely inoffensive. But against this great flood of antihuman architecture, San Diego is to be credited with preserving something of the democratic spirit in the Orchids & Onions architecture awards. The awards provide for a sort of accountability on the part of those who plan and build to those they plan and build for.

Old Town

Old Town

Mike Stepner is the co-creator of the awards and also the urban-design coordinator for the City of San Diego. He says, “You hear constantly at the council or planning commission, people saying. The reason we’re not doing this is because it got an Onion,’ or ‘The reason we’re doing this is because it got an Orchid,’ and acting accordingly, because [the award] has become quite an important thing in creating interest in the community.” He goes on to say that the awards have helped create design controls for downtown and were one of several factors to help bring positive changes in Mission Valley, both of which were desperately needed. The awards serve to spark public debate, create public interest, and ultimately, to help change the face of San Diego for the better.

Pacific Plaza

Pacific Plaza

But when the spotlight goes out, what becomes of an Orchid or an Onion? If the buildings themselves don't change, what about people’s opinions of them? I looked at several of the first documented winners, those from 1976, to find out. Some have disappeared and others were difficult to investigate, possibly because most people would rather forget the ’70s than take a closer look 20 years later.

Community Concourse

Community Concourse

Every year the public submits nominations for the awards. Nominees are then photographed, the photos are made into a slide show, and the juries look at the slides and make their initial picks. I took a similar tack. I had a slide show made of the 1976 Orchids & Onions and showed it to two of the members of the ’76 jury, architects Jim Nicoloff and Walt Collins. (In 1976 the juries were composed of professionals in various design categories. In 1993 the public was given the reins from start to finish.) I also showed the slides to the six members of the 1995 jury, all community activists from throughout the county, to see how sensibilities might have changed with the shift to a nonprofessional jury and the passage of 20 years.

Chesterton Elementary School

Chesterton Elementary School

The ’95 jury opened by dubbing 1976 Orchid-winner Rancho Bernardo “the ultimate suburb.” Nicoloff and Collins concurred, calling it “one of the few really successful and well-planned new towns in America today.” At its best, RB is an echo of an Italian village like Assisi — red-tile roofs dotting a hillside, masses of leafy trees hiding the streets and shopping centers. Now and then, the wilderness creeps in. An undeveloped hill rises naked above the housing, accented by an empty ravine running below. There is even a lake, a “jewel in the auburn sea” (apologies to Shakespeare), which fills one of the valleys. Many houses stand along the ridge, and it is easily the best view in the community.

Bubble Machine

Bubble Machine

But the echo fades as I get closer. Apartment and townhouse complexes, always a challenge to make beautiful, come in at least three styles. There are blocky, recessed-rectangle, dirty-cream boxes, punctuated at regular intervals by angled, red-tile roofs. Clusters of identical wood houses painted in shades of brown, beige, tan, taupe, and camel, reminiscent of military compounds. Finally, the more modern, pastel Lego-building-block confections that need no further introduction, unless it is to mention the red-tile roofs.

The houses are a step up. The older neighborhoods were around when the Orchid was given, and there is a real variety here. Many houses are stucco and tile, since these materials hold up well in the California climate. But the stuccos are painted different colors and are often outnumbered by wood houses, some painted, with roofs of wood or shingle. Some are ranch-style, some rise several stories. Gardens abound. Yards vary in size and shape.

But in the newer neighborhoods, the ones with names like Meridian and Promenade, the houses vary by fractions. They are not identical, but the differences are minuscule, both in color and scheme. They are evenly spaced on plots that are nearly identical, peach and cream, with tile roofs the color of milk-based tomato sauce. Occasionally, a pale blue and slate-gray collective is thrown in for contrast, but it too is too much the same with itself. I look down from the top of a hill on a gauntlet of such houses, running in two even rows along a broad boulevard, like an armor-backed caterpillar, each house a segment of its massive body.

In this newer RB, I get lost because I can find no place by which to locate myself amid the murderous sameness. I am surprised to see a woman unloading a car, surprised to hear music coming from an upstairs window or at anything that makes one house different from the rest. Suburbia doesn’t have to be this way, so what seed lies in its nature that drives it to this uniformity?

The ’95 jury has an answer. They say it is a place for “superficial” people who “want sameness, people just like them, with houses just like theirs,” who “need regulations, need restrictions, need everything organized, orderly, in a uniform manner.” They call it a place “where people can get away from places that have points.... It’s a segregated enclave for the affluent,” where people “give in to the need to want to separate [themselves]. Where separation from your community is the point. Where all the urban and social virtues go away is the point. If people who have the money [to move to suburbia]...do that, then they take their money with them. And it limits the ability of those neighborhoods...if they wanted to improve...their school. That’s why our urban neighborhoods are in decay. It hurts the larger community.”

Up to a point, the ’76 jury members agree. “The red-tile roofs are monotonous after a while. I think there should be more freedom allowed in the design motifs,” Jim says. “Subdivisions in general do tend to continue the urban sprawl thing, or suburban sprawl. It kind of acts against the development of the downtown area. Maybe the West Coast, after years of going horizontally, needs to take a second look and think more in terms of vertical growth.”

“But," Walt adds, “if an individual or family wants to live in a planned community, that’s their prerogative. I will not be communist enough to say that they should all live in a downtown urban area.”

Jim continues. “| Rancho Bernardo] is probably one of the best examples of a planned community. [It is] organized in a way that is fairly complete. A complete well-planned new town ought to be to a certain degree self-supporting.... In that sense I would say that Rancho Bernardo was very successful.”

RB resident Rob Calderhead agrees. “I think most services are available here. Low crime rate, nice homes, planned communities. It’s a great setup for kids, especially when our children were younger.” A Rancho Bernardo mother, Shera O’Neal, adds that she was attracted by the school system. “It seems to have a little bit higher-quality education as far as test scores, what is offered in the schools.” Ray Wilson, principal at Westwood Elementary School, thinks so, too. He says that there is a “true partnership between community and schools that really makes our schools a cut above.” He cites high PTA participation and community support of school goals.

One member of the ’76 jury speaks to this. “Some of the so-called rabble-rouser architects in the ’70s, they were saying the same [negative] things [the ’95 jury is] saying. I can name you probably a dozen of them that are now living in Tierrasanta, Scripps Ranch, raising their kids.”

As I continue my drive through Happyland, it is hard to imagine anything violent going on. One of the eight goals listed in the community plan is to “support utilization of crime-prevention techniques such as neighborhood alert units and crime-free design techniques.” It seems to have paid off. Residents call the area “safe.” Score one for suburbia.

But Shera O’Neal tells me she “would like it to be a little bit friendlier.” (For that matter, so would I. I wandered door to door for two days to get resident opinions of the community, and nearly all of them declined to speak to me.) “They’re friendly, they wave and hi at you and all that, but somehow it seems not to be an area where you can settle into real close friendships.” She says that there doesn’t seem to be a real sense of community, although the children do better than the adults. “[The adults] don’t seem to want to take time, the effort that it takes to build real true friendships. Maybe they’re just driven to play,” she concludes, “and get more stuff.”

So is it at least a refuge for our children? Maybe for a while, but Calderhead sees a chink in the suburban armor. “[It’s] not as good for teenagers. The situation for youth is probably the most needy.”

“We’ve come full circle,” one jury member proclaims. “The cry to revive downtown is something that is replicated in every city across the country.”

Tom Fetter owns the 1976 Orchid-winning Bubble Machine Car Wash and gas station on the corner of 11th Avenue and G Street, downtown. The ’95 jury sees the boxy, wood-paneled building as “commercial folk art” and concludes, “Orchid then? Yes. Orchid today? No. We would pass on it. It wouldn’t make the cut.”

While Orchids & Onions may no longer have much interest in Tom Fetter’s gas station, he still has an interest in Orchids & Onions. His office occupies the upstairs floor of a house built in 1902 and possesses all the charm and warmth oTa well-appointed home, complete with romping puppy. The walls are wood and wallpaper, rich browns and blues and burgundies, complemented by oriental rugs. Original paintings abound, cathedrals and waterscapes. A woman does paperwork in front of a fireplace at a table that might otherwise seat a formal dinner party. Tom’s desk faces out from a corner, and behind him is a large, curved window of antique glass.

Tom, while not overly familiar, is as warm and open as his office, and he speaks with a deep, deliberate voice. He takes me into one of the office rooms and shows me the 20-year-old Orchid hanging on a wall. Of the program, he says, “I think it’s significant [to have] rewards for excellence and achievement, whether it’s a motion picture production or any kind of creative endeavor, and I would include architecture in that. The rewards, particularly in architecture, are sometimes both indirect and deferred. I think having a recognition of both good and bad is an excellent thing. There’s too much incentive to just build the cheapest, most practical, commercially feasible facility.

“Frankly, I think it should have a greater stature than it [does]. If I could influence it, I would try to make it more of an institutionalized thing, like the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. It almost needs to have some group such as the press who would do it.”

The ’76 jury called the Bubble Machine a “well-landscaped oasis,” and while Fetter did not design it, he has maintained it since Becoming owner in the mid-’70s. The Bubble Machine set a new “high standard” for gas stations, which up to that point had been, according to Fetter, “dumpy, metal, prefab, cookie-cutter kind of gas stations.” He tells me that the Bubble Machine was the first to attempt to fit with the architectural context of its locale, to use wood, and to make use of landscaping. Fetter has been behind the construction of several other aesthetically oriented service stations in the San Diego area.

It is the landscaping that makes the Bubble Machine what it is. Fetter’s curved office window looks out on the station, and as city views go, it is not a bad one. I count four well-placed rose bushes, three small flowering trees, two full trees, and numerous clusters of flowers, all on this small commercial plot. The building itself is draped in bougainvillea.

Despite all this, Fetter tells me business at the G Street Bubble Machine is “very marginal.” He cites the arrival of the trolley on 12th and the loss of traffic that has followed downtown’s decline. Asked, then, whether it is cost-effective to maintain the trees and rose bushes, he says, “I think it’s vitally important.... I think any structure, whether it be a physical structure or a landscape, that’s attractive downtown is significant for two reasons. One is, it’s apt to be seen by a large number of people. Secondly, the balance of downtown tends to be kind of an asphalt-paved jungle. So I think things that are done well downtown stand out and are noticed.” People downtown need these things.

People downtown also need a place to sit outside and eat their lunch. They get it in the Orchid-winning Charles C. Dail Community Concourse, which extends behind the City Administration Building, at 202 West C Street. The concourse is shaped like a graham cracker with a sizable bite taken out of one corner. The cracker is surrounded by the administration building at the base, the old convention/performing arts center and a parking garage on one side. Downtown Johnny Brown’s Restaurant and the Civic Center Plaza on top, and Third Avenue on the remaining side. The bite is occupied by the Civic Theatre.

It gets greener as I move from bottom to top. A hedge curls around the theater and out into the plaza, creating a space for tables and benches, shaded by overhanging trees. More trees flank the steps leading up to the plaza and also mark the end of the marble-like terrazzo paving, which begins as a circular map of early San Diego and surrounding area. From the circle, the sections radiate in all directions, like rays from the sun. It’s a good place to make a speech, sort of a leveled Greek amphitheater. Past the trees and up the steps, large concrete planters house indeterminate shrubs, and Malcolm Leland’s fountain sculpture. Bow Wave, heralds the entrance to the plaza.

But it is nothing visual that “makes this place happen,” according to the ’95 jury. It is the California Coffee Works, an espresso stand just below the fountain. Reggie Martinez works there, and he says, “We’re the heartbeat here, we’re the pulse. If it wasn’t for us, those people [civic and business people and conventioneers] would fall asleep, basically.” It is a mildly alarming thought, a government asleep, but not an unfunny one.

I ask Reggie if people actually use the place at lunch time. “Yeah. I mean, I think there would be more people here if there were more chairs and stuff available. But yeah, a lot of people come down here at lunch, kind of relax, get away from the office, breathe some fresh air.”

Both juries are with him on the lack of chairs, and here is where the criticism begins. One of the ’76 jury’ members says, “I think the space is kind of cold, because I think they could have added seating, more landscaping, more features to make it a people-type place. It’s really a windswept kind of place, the way it is right now.... You don’t see people sitting on the steps eating their lunch like you would in some other urban areas.” From the ’95 group, “[The plaza] comes crashing into the ground. There’s no kind of pedestrian amenities. There’s nothing in the wide open space at the base of these buildings.” Both juries also agree that the concourse deserved the Orchid, however, “be-cause something is better than nothing. It’s not a great city space by a long shot, but it is the only civic space we have.” Their judgment is best summed up when they pronounce it a “courtesy Orchid.”

In a way, a public concourse also enters the realm of the symbolic. Its glory or infamy are to some extent the glory or infamy of the city, and the people behind the building of the concourse had some idea of that. A plaque on one of the concourse walls reads, “Conceived by citizens of vision, this community concourse is dedicated by the people of San Diego as a tribute to culture, industry, and good government.”

Lofty sentiments, but ironic, to hear Robert Mosher tell it. Mosher is a retired architect who worked in San Diego for 40 years, designed Muir College at UCSD, and knows enough about the planning of the concourse to have an informed opinion. His clear blue eyes are merry and lively, and his voice soars and dips from laughing comment to gruff judgment. His office is what one would expect from an architect, all clean lines and ordered spaces.

Conceived by citizens of vision? Not so, says Mosher. “It was just a yahoo operation from beginning to end. Bless their hearts, they were doing their best; they just didn’t have the vision, and they didn’t have the knowledge, and the judgment to go out and hire the best. They [the community leaders pushing for the concourse] were made up of very sincere, honest, forthright, good people...but they didn’t think very big, because San Diego was just a hick town.”

Mosher, on the other hand, did think big. In 1962 he voiced his concerns about the concourse, which had not yet been built, in an address to his fellow architects. “San Diego is at the cross-roads. It can either continue to grow, building hit or miss, creating architectural mediocrity and urban confusion, or it can set a new standard of environmental accomplishment that will proclaim its determination to be a great mature city.

“The building of the Community Concourse will eventually set the character of our entire city...we must take the position that those whose firms have the responsibility of carrying out the development of this project are given every possible chance to perform their task with skill and creativity.... To be a great city, we must apply the best thinking we possess to the problem, and we must take whatever time is necessary to ensure that the results will be not just adequate, but masterful!”

Sadly, the concourse failed on every point. To begin with, they picked Sam Hamill to be the master planner for the concourse. “Sam was a nice man,” recalls Mosher. “Sam was a gentleman. But he was not a planner. He made something like 18 different schemes...and he said, ‘Gentlemen, here are your opportunities. Just pick one.’ Great architects go with one scheme. They study it to the point where they know what is right to do, and they sell it. There is a good solution, there aren’t 18 good solutions.... I could see that there was really little hope for anything really fine coming out of it.” So much for greatness.

Mosher continues. “Then they picked the architects.” Mosher’s firm was considered for the theater, but once he found out that the time schedule, budget, and program were fixed, he dropped out of the race. When he was asked why, he “explained it to them that they were not going to be able to succeed on that basis. And they didn’t. They didn’t keep the budget, they didn’t keep the time schedule, and God knows, the program had gotten flipped around endlessly.”

The architects they picked were either mundane or unsuited, in Mosher’s opinion, with the possible exception of Harold Sadler, who did the parking garage. But “to save a little money, they stripped it of the things that made the garage a decent building by plucking off the elements that made the thing, that covered up all the cars.”

The result? “It does not come together as a real place. And it never has. You wander through it. It does not have a sense of place. I pleaded with them for years to tear up [the terrazzo]. I wanted to take all the planting away from the edges and put trees in the middle, that you could sit under, to bring people into that place. As it is now, a few people sit around the edge, and it’s just hot or gloomy or rainy or whatever, but it’s no place you want to be. Who the hell wants to stop there?

“It’s the space that resulted from plunking four buildings down," he concludes. “And that isn’t public space. That isn’t the way you get public space. That isn’t the way you make it work for people.... It not only doesn’t serve them, it’s inappropriate to a city of this type and this size and importance.”

Not surprisingly, Mosher also has some thoughts about Orchids & Onions. In 1986 the supercomputer building at UCSD, which Mosher designed, received an Onion. The jury said it was “an architectural non-addition to the UCSD campus that doesn’t live up to its scenic setting or to the extraordinary work performed inside.” Mosher laughs at the memory. “It didn’t offend me a damn bit, because I considered them to be so ignorant about why they gave it.”

He explains that the building was funded by a National Science Foundation grant that came with a six-month time limit and a low budget. “I came up with some rather interesting schemes, which were all thrown out because they said, ‘We can’t afford to do that, we don’t have time to do that, we don’t need to do that, that’s making architecture out of it, and that isn’t what we’re about, but we want you to do a good building.’ Fine enough. I got [it] all done, it’s of a piece. I’m proud of it. It’s not a great building, but I’m very proud of it; it’s a good building, [and] the people who use it, like it. To say that [it doesn’t live up to the work done inside] is totally misleading to the public. See, that’s my objection to it, it doesn’t tell the public the story.

“You’re not doing the public a service in that case. Because the public has to understand why things are the way they are, so that they will be able to apply that knowledge to making things better. How the hell are you going to get it better, if you don’t know why things were bad in the first place?”

Architecture is the expression of an artist, an architect. Leaving aside questions of personal taste and changing mores, we can assume that most architects would rather design beautiful buildings than ugly ones. How, then, does the strip mall come to pass? The simplest answer is money. The developer hires the architect and tells him he wants boxes. These boxes are the cheapest way to house and move merchandise and maximize profits. If building and maintenance costs are high, the rent is high. And if the rent is high, your tenants will move in at the cheaper mall down the street, and you will have a beautiful and empty shopping center on your hands. Consumers, after all, are not particular about the environment in which they shop for the items commonly available at strip malls. They will go where the goods are less expensive, and the goods will be less expensive where the rent is lower. Or so the theory goes.

But the theory is not foolproof. A refutation exists on Garnet Avenue, at Jewell Street, in Pacific Beach, 1976 Orchid-winner Pacific Plaza. In 1974, the La Jolla Development Corporation purchased the plaza, which was dreary even by strip mall standards. LJDC Vice President Bill Tribolet is kinder in his description. “It looked like a really underutilized piece of property. I guess you could say that both aesthetically and economically.” An Urban Land Institute report, issued in 1980, shows that the plaza was holding its own with other area businesses, but Tribolet and company thought it could do better.

They were right. They poured nearly $6 million into the site, renovating the storefronts, bringing forward some that had been lining an isolated courtyard to create a patio that invites passersby to sit down. They covered the buildings with wood shingles and added awnings, walkways, arcades, seating areas, roofs of varying heights and inclinations, and a wealth of landscaping. The result: the ULI report states that “the average sales revenue of those tenants who have remained after the renovation has increased by more than 33 percent, and the rental return to the developer has increased by more than 40 percent.”

Tribolet elaborates. “It’s been a tremendous improvement to the asset and to the overall community, but it’s also been a very good development for the owners, because the sales here have always done well. [The Vons], it’s one of their top producers per square foot. It’s a small store, but it does better than that one.”

“That one” is another Vons, across the street. It is larger, as is its parking lot. But where sycamore trees dot the plaza lot, there is nothing to break up the bleak view of the rows of cars in front of its neighbor. This lack of “greenery per parking space area” is a point of interest for landscape architect Jim Kennedy, who did the landscaping for the plaza. According to Kennedy, the lot was originally planted with eucalyptus trees, but due to poor watering procedures, the trees soon began upheaving the lot and were removed. “If the law is there that you have to put them in initially, when you construct the building,” he argues, “they better be there when they tear that building down. Because they go along with the building.”

Kennedy is responsible for much of the improvement of the plaza. His notion that the landscape goes along with the building, and is not just an added extra, is defended by the design of the plaza’s planting.

The greenery, combined with the cozy scale, make the shopper feel secluded from the parking lot and Garnet Avenue traffic, which, according to Tribolet, “helps make it a little more pedestrian, so they’ll stay a little bit longer." Longer stays mean more shopping. “The idea that Jim added a lot of value to this with a landscape plan is a real key part of the thing,” he declares. Kennedy is not completely satisfied with the maintenance of the site, noting that some of the birches are not flourishing and that “no matter what [the shrubbery] is, they trim it the same,” but it is still miles ahead of the competition next door.

In speaking of competition with discount centers such as Wal-Mart and Office Depot, he says, “I think that something like Pacific Plaza will hold up to that more than, well, certainly more than its predecessor would have done. If you put a little more money in landscaping and some of those public areas, it always comes back. The payoff takes longer, but then it goes on for longer.”

Finally, the ULI report notes that “the renovation of Pacific Plaza has had a positive impact on the area. A substantial number of the buildings located in the immediate area have been either completely renovated or have been torn down and new buildings have been erected.” Tribolet says, “I remember at the time thinking that was really a nice benefit. Sign control kind of got cleaned up, people started planting a tree or two around their developments. I think it was a nice improvement.”

Members of the ’95 jury agree. One eats lunch there every Sunday. “It’s cozy, scaled to people.”

They also still approve of the Orchid awarded to the Old Town State Park. “Historic preservation, yes,” one pronounces. Jim and Walt are still pleased as well. Walt remembers, “In 1966, when I moved to San Diego, [Old Town] was just a couple of old shacks, primarily. But I think it was 1969, when they had the 200-year anniversary of San Diego, they put money into it, and from then on it started to develop. And shortly thereafter is when Diane got the lease on this complex, which she made the Bazaar Del Mundo; and I think without her interest and money, it would be a nice park, but it wouldn’t be nearly the people place it is now.”

Walt refers to Diane Powers, whom Jim describes as an “interior designer and a self-made millionaire,” as the one chiefly responsible for the burst of color at the back of Old Town State Park that is the Bazaar Del Mundo. The wall paintings, umbrellas, flowering gardens, awnings, even the green of the shrubbery, all of it is bright, bright, bright. It is not a perfect preservation of a Spanish-style villa, but it was good enough to win a 1977 Orchid of its own. After the dull tones of the aged adobe houses and sun-bleached pioneer buildings, it pulls you in.

However, authenticity is important to the ’95 jury, and their chief praise for Old Town is that it “hasn’t been polluted or exploited.” Surprising, since for every historical dentist’s office or courthouse there is a shop selling some array of T-shirts, pottery, postcards, hats, caps, jewelry, scarves, stuffed animals, keychains, picture frames, teas, jams, candies, tiny figurines, books, dolls, magnets, and other bits of stuff. Further, Old Town received a 1981 Onion for “poor execution and follow-through of the original planning and research,” so given because “many of the constructed features are not historically accurate.” But at least it brings in the tourists.

A block and a half up the hill from Old Town stands another Orchid from 1976: Heritage Park, a collection of old San Diego homes built around the turn of the century. Al Alferos, executive director of the Save Our Heritage Organization, says that tourist draw is exactly what Heritage Park lacks. “Most of the tourists who come when they’ve seen other parts of Old Town, and the real touristy-type things, they’re into that. By the time they get up here, they say, ‘Well, what is this all about?’ ”

The restored gingerbread Victorian homes, rescued from the bulldozer by SOHO from various parts of San Diego, are lovely to look at, but then what? The Jewish temple can be walked through, and there are some specialty shops, but the interiors of the houses remain largely inaccessible. (Parts of the bed and breakfast can be toured on weekends, but it is usually closed to the public for the sake of the guests.) As a result, Heritage Park has a reputation as a “petting zoo for houses.”

It was not meant to be this way. Jim tells me that “Walt and I, at the time [the house-moving] was going on, had just completed a project...that was going to replicate a series of shops and a Victorian bandstand. It would have encouraged the type of activity that you need, sort of like a Bazaar Del Mundo, that would have brought people into the park.” But the county ran out of money for the project, and further development and house-moving will have to be done privately. There is a proposed ordinance to provide tax incentives to property owners wishing to preserve and restore historic houses, but it is unlikely that they will be moved to the park, barring an extremely generous donor.

Despite this, Alferos feels that the park is valuable. “It’s our link to our past. Without that link, we don’t have very much that we leave for our future. The kids [in the cultural/historical program at nearby Fremont Elementary] get to see this, and without this, they don’t have anything they can relate to. They can look at photographs, they can watch videos; but without them being able to see and touch and smell something like this, they don’t get the real sense of history, what San Diego was like around the turn of the century. [They do get that sense here,] and that sense here, and that will help them form the future of San Diego.”

There is some concern about this sense of history among both juries, as well as with Alferos. They lament that the buildings could not have been preserved in their original neighborhoods, their original context. Moving may save them from destruction, but it destroys some of their historical significance. But Alferos speaks for both juries when he says that “it’s best to at least have that much than not have anything at all.” Better out of context than out of existence.

One of the basic things you get taught as an architect is context,” says Jim Nicoloff, “and unfortunately, most developers, and...planners, at least in the past...never got that lesson. Context and congruity are two of the real key elements in good design and architecture.”

Small wonder, then, that Jim and his fellow jurors tossed an Onion in the direction of the ten public elementary schools built in 1976 under Proposition XX. It is hard to imagine a place where these structures could be in context, except next to a prison, or perhaps a fortress. The ’95 jury favors the former; one of them actually cried out, “Prisons!” when I showed pictures of the two sample schools. Green Elementary in San Carlos and Chesterton Elementary in the military housing area of Linda Vista. Only two samples were needed, because all ten schools share a common design, and when you’ve seen one concrete box....

I prefer the fortress comparison for a couple of reasons. The row of three-inch-wide windows some classrooms are lucky enough to have (some rooms have no natural lighting at all) look like the arrow slits found in fortress walls. And I like to think of the heavy-security design as providing a place for protection, not restraint. This is also the reasoning put forth by the planning guide the district issued to the five architects put in charge of making the general design into ten particulars. First, “Exterior windows shall be kept to a minimum in both number and size for the following reasons: minimize vandalism....”

A complete lack of exterior windows and near-total lack of windows within school grounds are not the only protections. Tall, heavily barred gates block every entrance after school hours. The walls are bunker-thick, “concrete double-Ts, a very massive kind of construction,” according to Jim Watts, current assistant to the school district architect. They are solid slabs of whatever color “drab” is and devoid of ornament. Retrofitting to make the buildings earthquake-safe has left bolts the size of softballs protruding from the walls, adding to the general gravity.

The schools look ready to withstand anything troubled youth can throw at them, short of a tank. This is probably what the jury in 1976 was getting at when they said the schools showed “little if any identification with the needs of the individual neighborhoods in which they are placed. The emphasis...is on total security from the surrounding community.”

Twenty years later, Walt Collins pushes further. “This is a perfect example of the mindset of those years when you could use technology to solve all of your environmental problems. You didn’t need outside light...you didn’t heed fresh air from the outside. You had machines that could take care of that.”

The planning guide also does away with windows in order to “minimize heat-transfer losses.” In other words, we’ll create our own climate, thank you. Windows were also scrapped for the sake of “noise control.”

Walt goes on, “I think that the district back during that time period of the ’70s looked at the kids as being a nuisance that had to be inside their buildings. They wanted the buildings to be maintained as simply and economically as possible, with as little, be it fingerprints, touching them or anything else being bothered by [the kids], so we can hose them down at the end of the day.”

Jim says that in Japan, there is a low-income class that lives in public housing consisting of concrete boxes. Each unit has a drain in the middle of the floor. Every so often, they move the people out of the building, go in with fire hoses, and hose the place down. “This is sort of that same philosophy,” he concludes. “I just think these things are disasters.”

The buildings are on the ropes, but not down. Back in ’76, the deputy superintendent of the San Diego City Schools wrote a letter of protest to the American Institute of Architects prior to the awards ceremony. He claimed that “the landscaping plans of the ten new schools will insure that the schools will be ‘good neighbors’ in their local communities.” If by that, he meant that the schools would be pleasantly obscured by attractive shrubbery, he was right, at least in the case of Green.

The school is set well back from the road, allowing for a fair-sized lawn, which rolls up a hill until it reaches the landscaping proper. Wisteria vines cover a fence surrounding the playground. Clumps of moreas line some of the walkways, and above them, around eye level, are a number of shaped xylosma bushes. And then there are the trees. Lofty, light-branched sycamores, low-spreading corals, long-needled Canary Island pines, and liquidambar line the building’s front, hiding much and drawing attention away from the rest. “It’s amazing what good landscaping can do for bad architecture,” says Jim.

Chesterton, on the other hand, is not so blessed, plant-wise, but it is not without its saving graces. The ’95 jury pronounced that “you need a colorful environment for little children,” and this school is nothing if not colorful. The school’s name has been carved in the concrete wall in front and painted burnt-orange to match the roof edges. Once inside, past the benches in the courtyard, blocks of bright royal blue that almost match the doors, comes the real highlight: the murals. “A graphic artist got a contract...to go in and put supergraphics [on the school],” Walt tells me, “and he did as much as anyone to soften the hard edges.”

Each mural is roughly 8 by 15 feet. Each is of a several-times-larger-than-life school implement on a background of two panels of intense color, one panel above the other. The glue bottle and compass are backed by purple and gold, the crayons and pencils by blue and green, and the scissors by green and orange. The implements cast big, blocky, solid-black shadows, adding to the high-contrast effect of the murals. Their size and simplicity are their charm, and they lighten the mood of the building. (I should note that Chesterton does have landscaping, and Green does have color, but not enough to repel an incoming Onion.)

If a school provides an environment in which kids can learn, that will go a long way toward drowning out attacks on its looks and context. Two teachers at Green, Sue Barnett and Judy Crawford, both speak of the advantages of a climate-sealed building. Barnett says kids are more productive in the hot weather if they are in an air-conditioned environment. Crawford elaborates on this point after I ask her iIf the lack of windows and breezes affects the kids.

“I don’t think they’re aware of it at all. I think they love the air conditioning. Every September is, of course, hellish. It really is. I’ve been here so long, I’ve lost that fear of September and the fact that I’m not going to get anything accomplished with my children until October rolls around. These children at other schools are just wasted by lunch time. They’re ready to put their heads down and take naps. If I had to weigh access to the outside world and the air conditioning, I would go with the air conditioning.”

That, coupled with what Crawford describes as a very close relationship with the community, makes an eloquent defense for the school’s being successful despite its design. But even Crawford has reservations about the fortress effect. “I was sorry to see it built that way,” she sighs, “I really was. If we could add windows somehow, I still think that would be a wonderful thing to do.”

Assistant school district architect Jim Watts shares this sentiment. “We’ve pretty much gone 180 degrees on that [idea of climate-sealed schools]. Our current new schools try to maximize natural ventilation and maximize light. Personally, as an architect working for the school district, I don’t like to be in a room where I can’t see out, where I don’t know whether it’s night or day. I mean, it just bothers me.

“And there’s an economic cost of running all that mechanical ventilation, and maintaining it, too. The district maintenance budget is not overly generous. Also, I think in San Diego’s climate, you’ve got such a wonderful climate, you really want to try to maximize that wherever you can.... We do have to address the issues of vandalism and theft...so we have to try to figure out ways to minimize the risk while not creating a fortress.”

Besides the windows issue, the district is taking other steps to prevent isolation from the community. “We invited the community to come in and start formulating a design, and then we worked through a planning task force, [composed of] community members and district people, teachers, administrators...and ourselves. And each one of these schools is different. They all respond differently to what their community says is important.... We’re not using standard designs at all.”

I visited one of the district’s newest schools, Dingeman Elementary, in Scripps Ranch, to see how all of this played out. Windows abound. The classroom units, with their slanted, shingled roofs, look more like ranch-style houses than storage facilities. It is a welcome change, one that earned the city school district a turnaround Orchid in 1984.

But while the passage of time rescued school design, it dealt a blow to Hillcrest. The now-defunct comic strip “Bloom County” once depicted the sphere in the AT&T logo as the modern-day Death Star. As I peer at that selfsame logo through the perpetually locked, tinted Plexiglas doors of the Pacific Bell building, which fills the entire block of Sixth Avenue between University and Robinson, I can see why. It would require little imagination to place this building on the Star Wars set, a garrison of the Empire, built to discourage invasion. One of the ’95 jurors referred to it as a bunker. An employee of a nearby cafe called it a “brown block” and said it looked “like a compound, with no windows and nothing pretty about it.”

The building’s four stories of blank, corrugated concrete loom ominously above the surrounding area, which is composed of one-story shops, strip malls, and restaurants. This is a shopping district, and to say that the Pacific Bell building is out of place is an understatement. Any building that requires an ID card to get inside does not belong next door to the bastion of convenience and accessibility that is a mall. It is unfriendly, and it makes me nervous, two things that do nothing to encourage the consumer spirit. Clearly, a well-deserved Onion. Twenty years later, the only change is the growth of the landscaping, which strains to hide what it surrounds.

In ’76 the jury encouraged PacBell to “develop a more human scale,” but perhaps PacBell could justly reply that it is San Diego that needs to scale down. After all, they are only as large as San Diego wants them to be. Before the mid-’70s, the PacBell building was a modest little thing, sharing the block with the “single-story, house-above-the-shop, traditional small-town buildings” that the ’95 jury recalled. But, said a Pac-Bell representative, “through the years, we worked to expand it for the needs of the business; and it provides a service, because the community was growing as well.... Every time you have new people move in or businesses move in, you need to provide them with a phone number.”

So the switching station, once staffed by operators, now houses the equipment necessary to process the vast number of calls made in the San Diego area and has had to increase in size as the city increased. It is designed to contain and protect machines, machines people want. Several businesses had to be relocated when PacTel expanded, but such is the march of progress. “We have the right, through condemnation, to acquire property because we’re providing a service to the public,” the representative explained.

Aristotle said, “It is difficult — perhaps impossible — for a city that is too populous to be well managed,” for “good management must of necessity involve good arrangement.” But an overly excessive number is incapable of sharing in arrangement, and “the beautiful comes to exist customarily in [things having a certain] number and size.” Giant telephone buildings in cozy shopping districts might be an example of the mismanagement and ugliness he had in mind.

Of course, bad buildings don’t always sit and fester. Sometimes, they bum down. More precisely, sometimes they are burned down. In 1976, Mountain Mabel’s restaurant, located at 2966 Midway Drive, was given an Onion for the botched face-lift the owners had given to the original establishment, a design-award-winning eatery named Sassandra’s. Nine years, five unsuccessful operations, and another Onion later, the building went up in flames. San Diego’s Metropolitan Arson Strike Team said it was arson, but the police keep records of arson investigations for only four years, and so I can’t tell you who performed what many considered a public service. What I can tell you is who wasn’t sorry to see it go: Hal Sadler, who designed the original building.

In 1984, when the place received its second Onion and had devolved into a nude-dancing establishment called AJ’s, he told the San Diego Tribune that he would “blow the SOB up if I could.” After the fire, he told a reporter in 1985, he joked that his friends were calling him and warning him that he was a suspect. After all, it was his baby, and he did refer to its demise as a “mercy killing.”

The restaurant had been built with a pyramid theme, with eight such shapes surrounding a central courtyard. Olive trees highlighted the redwood siding. Years later, the trees were gone, the siding was covered over, and a red-tile roof adorned each pyramid. “Buildings have personality,” Sadler mused to the Tribune reporter. “They’re special to the people who live and work in them, and certainly to those who design them.... This was a special, unique building.... It was battered and mutilated and worked over with no sense of integrity or concern.”

Similar sentiments were expressed by Diane Powers, who designed the original interior. “It deserved to bum down. It was absolutely magnificent. I was very disappointed when it changed uses, much more so when I saw what it evolved into.”

It evolved into Mountain Mabel’s, Banana Court, No Name, Macho’s, and finally AJ’s, a bar that began as a top-less joint. But the financial woes that had already forced many changes of name and format continued, and the dancers soon dropped their G-strings. A consultant to the owners at that time said this was because “There’s always gonna be women, and there’s always gonna be beer. The less the women have on, the more the guys like it. As long as you’re selling beer, you’re doing real well.” Bottomless dancing and alcohol are an illegal combination in San Diego, however, and AJ’s eventually lost its liquor license. A few months later, the fire was set and the devolution was complete.

Having sent one Onion to hell, let us move a step up to purgatory. Here we shall find our last Onion from 1976, Mission Valley. Among the often-repeated charges against the development: The ’95 jury says, “Mission Valley is probably one of the [best] examples anyone could cite of bad planning. They could have made it a major regional target. They should have left Mission Valley alone. Onions yesterday, Onions today, Onions in the future.”

Jim Nicoloff reflects, “When I was growing up there, that was Highway 80 running through the valley, and you could actually turn off the highway at various points and go to the farms. Mission Valley Center was the one thing that changed the whole character of the valley. I mean, anybody would have to be stupid to put a shopping center in the middle of a floodplain. And they did it. Maybe we should have just kept letting everything flood until somebody finally got the point and started to move out.”

The Orchids & Onions jury in 1976 made the award “for allowing a unique natural asset to be used up in a series of land-development projects creating traffic congestion, poor planning, and a ‘hodge-podge’ of land uses.”

Orchids & Onions 1979 said, “To the San Diego Museum of Architecture [that is Mission Valley]...it is suggested that admission be charged to see this sampling of every building cliche currently available.”

And from O & O 1986, “[The building of the SD Mission Multipurpose Building is] an irreverent proposal to bury early California history forever under a proposed new building.... This national issue calls for a public confession.”

“Temporary Paradise?” a 1974 report of a San Diego-area study conducted by the MIT Department of Urban Studies and Planning offered, “Mission Valley is the second ‘downtown’ of the region, and its future appears gloomy, it presents a fragmented and uninspiring image. High or bulky buildings are scattered about like pieces of an uncompleted jigsaw puzzle. Parking lots, storage yards, and fast roadways fill the spaces in between. This central valley... is now just an urban trench.”

Angeles Leira, city planner, when asked what the chief complaints about the region were from the outset, said, “Well, lack of control of development intensity, the traffic, the lack of preservation of the river, the lack of parks, the lack of pedestrian areas, the lack of design of it all.”

Finally, a follow-up to the “Temporary Paradise?” report, titled “ Toward Permanent Paradise,” issued by Citizens Coordinate for Century 3 said, “Mission Valley became a ‘catch basin’ for a mix of development — although transit-oriented residential projects, pedestrian links, and river improvements are planned.”

Plans for improvement. A possible saving grace for a region in desperate need of saving. “Few disasters are beyond all repair,” declared “ Temporary Paradise?” “It is only that repair demands money, time, and effort.” Things can get better, but it will have a price.

In 1977, soon after receiving its first Onion (though Leira does not believe the Onion to be the primary impetus), a Mission Valley Community Plan and Environmental Impact Report was begun. The plan sought to address the problems of traffic, development intensity and form, flooding, lack of public facilities, and damage to the physical environment, as well as economic and regional impacts. The plan’s overall goal was to “provide a community plan for Mission Valley which allows for its continued development as a quality regional urban center in the City of San Diego while recognizing and respecting environmental constraints and traffic needs, and encouraging the valley’s development as a community.” The plan was adopted by the city council in 1985.

In 1990 a Mission Valley Planned District report was adopted. It is a collection of regulations issued “to ensure that development and redevelopment in Mission Valley will be accomplished in a manner that enhances and preserves sensitive resource areas; improves the vehicular, bicycle, pedestrian, and public transit circulation network; provides reasonable use of property; and contributes to the aesthetic and functional well-being of the community.”

In 1985, Mission Valley actually received an Orchid for an experimental water-reclamation project that used water hyacinths to filter raw sewage. In 1992 the valley received another Orchid for its river walk preservation efforts. And Janet Flynn, a traffic reporter with Metro Traffic, has this to say about the once-infamous Mission Valley rush hour. “A few years ago…Interstate 8 on any given night was really bumper to bumper out of Mission Valley, all the way into East County. But that really changed with the opening of [Route] 52 a couple of years ago. That really alleviated a lot of the traffic. It doesn’t look like it used to at all.... When looking at the city as a whole, the Mission Valley area really isn’t, I think, a big problem.”

And so, step by step up Mount Purgatory, Mission Valley makes its way toward the place where architecture is well integrated, people-friendly, environmentally sensitive, aesthetically pleasing, and generally building us the way we would like to be built. Churchill would be pleased, not to mention the people of San Diego.

Share / Tools

  • Facebook
  • Twitter
  • Google+
  • AddThis
  • Email

More from SDReader


Log in to comment

Skip Ad

Let’s Be Friends

Subscribe for local event alerts, concerts tickets, promotions and more from the San Diego Reader