San Diego's tallest buildings – higher and higher

Downtown will never be the same

View from the 27th floor of the Harbor Club
  • View from the 27th floor of the Harbor Club
  • Photograph by Matthew Suárez

When I buy my ticket to True Romance at Rooftop Cinema Club, I have visions of vertigo from the thrill of the rise to the top of the Manchester Grand Hyatt. I am not yet aware that while the films do screen on a roof of the 497-foot-high building (the tallest waterfront building on the West Coast) it happens on the roof of the 4th floor, not the 40th. Still, stepping out onto the rooftop, past the basketball and tennis courts, and onto the outdoor theater’s green turf carpet, I get the appeal.

Photograph by Matthew Suárez

Those who spend their summers traipsing around to free outdoor movie screenings all over San Diego County may not want to shell out the $17 for a ticket ($20 includes bottomless popcorn), but for anyone like me who is exhausted by the thought of packing a cooler and dragging beach chairs to a park, it’s a convenient way to get your outdoor movie fix. My money has bought me a seat in a canvas sling chair, the use of a set of wireless headphones to drown out the crunch of my neighbor’s popcorn, and a blanket to stay warm. And then there are the hot foodstuffs, beer, wine, and cocktails available for purchase.

Symphony Towers

Symphony Towers

Photograph by Matthew Suárez

From my sling chair, while waiting for the movie to start, I’m distracted by the desire to get high. Higher than the fourth floor. I gaze up at the gleam of the setting sun reflected off the curved and mirrored façade of the 361-foot south tower of the Marriott Marina to my right. Directly ahead, beyond the screen, the 455-foot postmodern Pinnacle Marina Tower beckons. And to the back and to the left of the theater space loom the two modernist towers of the Manchester Grand Hyatt, one at 446 feet, and the other at 497.

As darkness sets in, the lights of all those surrounding high rises transform the atmosphere into something more wondrous than it was in the light. Later, during an Internet search of the four other Rooftop Cinema Club locations around the country, I discover that they’re all on the fifth floor or lower. I erroneously attribute this to height regulations and through a series of emails learn from the company’s founder and chief executive Gary Cottle, Jr. that height restrictions are not an issue — it’s all about the views. “Being surrounded by the buildings and their twinkling lights as the sun goes down is what make it’s so special.”

Still, it’s not quite enough.

Frank Busic

Frank Busic

Photograph by Matthew Suárez

Dreadfully afraid of heights

Frank Busic’s office on the 34th floor of the Symphony Towers looks out over killer views of Balboa Park, North Island, Mr. A’s, City College, and all the way to the Cuyamaca mountains. But the 54-year-old University Club manager has his desk chair arranged so that he doesn’t see any of it.

Top of the Hyatt

Top of the Hyatt

Photograph by J Public Relations

“I’m just dreadfully afraid of heights,” he says. “My employees and department heads, when they come in for a meeting, they get the view. I look the other way. I’m very purposeful about that.”

The expansive views out the floor-to-ceiling windows are a key component of the club’s appeal to its 2000 members, and as manager, Busic spends a significant amount of time giving tours and pointing out the views to guests and prospective clients. To manage his fear of heights, he does two things: stands back from the windows and avoids looking down.

Ryan Gutz

Ryan Gutz

Photograph by Matthew Suárez

On the afternoon of my visit, we stand in the 1896 Boardroom, a private event space furnished with a dark, polished wood table, and a recessed wine rack made of tropical hardwood. The windows look out over the type of view I’d envisioned when I bought my ticket to True Romance.

Harbor Club

Harbor Club

Photograph by Matthew Suárez

Reaching 499 feet above sea level, Symphony Towers is the second highest building in San Diego, behind One America Plaza, which hits 500 feet, the maximum allowed in San Diego, thanks to Federal Aviation Administration restrictions due to downtown’s proximity to the airport. From where we stand now, on the building’s top floor, we can see over the top of the Imperial Bank building and for eight blocks down 8th Avenue to Petco Park and to the Coronado Bridge beyond. Slightly west from there, the white sails of the Convention Center and the two 424-foot towers of the Harbor Club condominiums draw the eye toward Coronado Island and the ocean beyond. Thirty-four floors below us, the 923 bus rambles west on Broadway on its way toward Ocean Beach, and the red trolley glides north on Park Boulevard before turning west on C Street.

Denny Oh

Denny Oh

“Height has its advantages. You’re simply above everyone else,” Busic says.

He’s standing beside me, slightly back from the window with his arms folded and his feet planted wide apart. “The nightscape is romantic, too. Regardless of the time of day, even when the fog rolls in, it has that mystery to it.”

Harbor Club “bubble unit”

Harbor Club “bubble unit”

Photograph by Matthew Suárez

Down below, in the block bounded by 7th, 8th, Broadway, and C, a white crane rises up out of the empty space between the 24-story Imperial Bank Tower and the 27-story Union Bank Building. The 617-unit apartment building under construction in that space could rival Symphony Towers for the title of second highest building in San Diego. At its proposed 490-foot height, The Block Tower will be taller but maybe not higher than Symphony Towers. The former will rise 41 floors above ground, while the latter, which gets an additional 79 feet of height from its location on Cortez Hill, stands only 34 floors above ground. Regardless of whether or not the developers at Bosa decide to max out the apartment building’s height at 500 feet, its completion will change this particular view forever.

Tallest 15 buildings in San Diego, per The Skyscraper Center

Tallest 15 buildings in San Diego, per The Skyscraper Center

Despite his fear of heights, “Being up here and watching things happen,” is, for Busic, a big part of what he likes about his job. His fear is what he calls “manageable,” in comparison to the phobia others experience. He tells the story of a chef he was scheduled to interview for a position at the University Club but never showed up. When Busic gave up waiting for him and went back to his office, he found an email that read, “I made it up the elevator, but as soon as I walked out, my fear of heights overwhelmed me. I got back in the elevator and went back down. Sorry. Thanks for the opportunity.”

From a few steps back from the window, Busic says, “It’s fun to watch the planes land. Between 5 and 6, British Airways lands what used to be a 747. Now, it’s still a big jet, but it’s not a 747,” he says. “To have that big lumbering thing just kind of float down. It’s majestic.”

Busic’s half correct. British Airways flight 273, a non-stop from London to San Diego scheduled to land at 5 pm daily, is technically not a 747 but the larger 747-400 variant.

He points to a speck of helicopter hovering over the bay, and explains that “they’re chucking Marines out” into the water for training.

Before I head back into the elevator, Busic informs me that for a $1000 fee and between $159 and $259 per month, depending on the level of membership, I too can plug in my computer here, bring friends to dine, and take in the magic of this exclusive view between the hours of 7 am and 10 pm.

I make some mental calculations and conclude that I can enjoy the expansive view from a table at the club’s Ebb + Flow Lounge and order the Wild Mushroom Bruschetta along with a glass of Pinot Grigio for a total $1181, plus tax and tip.

Or I can head back to the highest waterfront building on the West Coast, grab a stool at the bar on the top floor, and order a Fig & Pig flatbread and a Stone IPA for $1158.50 less. The flatbread wins.

High (and loud) above the waterfront

The promises made by the opulent lobby of the Manchester Grand Hyatt don’t quite hold up in the bar on the 40th floor. From the abstract design on the brown and blue carpet to the bland furnishings, washed out lighting, and cafeteria noise level, the Top of the Hyatt feels unimaginative.

For those who get lucky and manage to snag a seat directly in front of a window, it’s easy enough to forget about the corporate atmosphere and get lost in the views of the San Diego Bay, Coronado, and the Pacific Ocean. But at 5:30 pm, an hour or so before sunset, all the window seats are taken, and the only ones left are at the bar, facing away from the windows.

A minute after I place my order, I find myself in conversation with three New Belgium employees who occupy the bar stools beside me. Kelly Poplaski and Gaitlin Fisher have come up with their manager, Brian Skiles, for a drink after a day at the 81st Annual Convention of the National Beer Wholesalers Association held here in the hotel. Poplaski, 33, is San Diego born and raised, and she had no idea the bar was here until Skiles recommended it.

“I like landmarks,” Skiles says. “And this is the highest bar on the West Coast.”

Well, almost. There are other bars that are actually higher. Spire 73 in downtown LA is on the 73rd floor and purports to be the highest open-air bar in the Western Hemisphere, but if we’re talking highest waterfront bar, then yes. Still, it’s up high, and technically, you can see the view even from the barstools if you swivel around and lean your back on the bar. Poplaski, Skyles, and Fisher do just that, pointing at helicopters and the Coronado Bridge.

“I’m a little mesmerized by the view,” Poplaski says, “I can’t wait for sunset.”

(Later, an Instagram search for photos tagged with #topofthehyatt yields an abundance of sunsets and snapshots of the quotations printed on the windows — quotations from people including Jimi Hendrix, JK Rowling, and Thomas Edison. This triggers my inner curmudgeon, the one who goes off on tirades about the instagrammification of the universe. And what’s with quotations printed on windows anyway? Isn’t the view inspiration enough?)

Now, I turn my attentions to Angel Cortez, the 53-year-old bartender who buffs a wine glass with a black cloth napkin and expresses similar disappointment in the atmosphere, when compared to the way it looked before the renovation three years ago.

“It happens with all the new bars that are opening: too much glass, too much metal, too much plastic, and the noise just bounces off,” he says. “Before, it was kind of like a Victorian style bar, with a lot of dark areas.” Columns that stood in the middle of the space, he explains, were eliminated in order to make sure the view could be seen from every seat in the house.

But Cortez, who stands facing the panoramic view for hours at a time, confesses that he’s usually too busy to pay much attention to it. But early in his shift, on days when he opens the bar, he does get the chance to enjoy it.

“We’re here about an hour and a half before we open, prepping everything,” he says. “And on Saturday and Sunday, I love to look out and see all the sailboats.”

He excuses himself to take an order and make a couple of drinks. Then he returns a few minutes later to continue buffing glasses.

“The best selling point of this place is the view,” he says. “I just hope they do something about the noise.”

Bird’s eye

In 1982, when the Reader ran a story similar to this one, there were exactly no residential high rises, and only one of today’s top 20 highest buildings in San Diego existed at all. The Union Bank building at 530 B Street was completed in 1969, and while it currently occupies position #18 on San Diego’s highest 20 (388 feet), by 2020, it will be bumped from the list by the second Pinnacle Tower at 15th and Island, and by Savina at Kettner and Ash. At the time of this writing, there are ten buildings either proposed or under construction that will stand 400 feet or taller.

On a sunny Wednesday afternoon in late September, I get to view it all from above in the passenger seat of an R44 Raven II helicopter. My pilot, Ryan Gutz of Rotor Zen Helicopter Tours, starts out north from Signature Flight Support (on the back side of Lindbergh Field). As we fly over Mission Bay, Mount Soledad, and La Jolla Shores, he points out fancy estates on the cliffs, a high school marching band practicing formations on a football field, kayak tour groups in La Jolla cove, and backed-up traffic heading south on the 5. But my own thrill starts as we head back down south, over the airport runway and the boats in the harbor, toward the buildings downtown.

Gutz says that when he first began flying 17 years ago, he loved it for the technical challenge of learning to operate the helicopter and understand weather patterns and navigation. But now that all that “nerdy stuff” is second nature to him, so he focuses on the flying.

“I love to get up above to see the view and take people up in the air,” he says, explaining that many clients are celebrating birthdays or anniversaries, and because they’re usually excited about the thrill of a brand new experience, it’s fun for him, too. He does, however, feel awkward at times, when it comes to the marriage proposals that take place in the small cockpit.

“I know what’s going on. He knows what’s going on, but she doesn’t know what’s going on,” he says. “I usually try to turn on the pilot isolate to give them some privacy, so I don’t really hear it. Then, afterward, I usually say something like, ‘Oh my gosh,’ or ‘Cheers.’”

As we approach downtown from over top of the county administration building on Pacific Highway and pass the two 420-foot towers of The Grande, Gutz interrupts himself to point out the toolbox buildings of the San Diego skyline: the Phillips-head (One America Plaza), the socket wrenches (Emerald Plaza), and the flatheads (Manchester Grand Hyatt). We keep going south past the Harbor Club towers, Petco Park, the Convention Center, and the 32nd Street Navy yard.

Gutz turns the bird around over National City, and we approach the city from a new angle. As we pass over the urban core once again, Gutz points out the cranes scattered throughout downtown, the East Village, and the Marina District, promising a new skyline in the near future.

I understand why people become obsessed with models and miniatures and upper deck views. The higher you get, the more beautiful and organized the world appears. Up here, hovering above and looking down on the city, I feel as if I can reach down to move some things around. Or I can just watch.

We’re back on the ground too soon.

Slim pickings

The next logical thing for a person who wants upper-floor city views all the time is to start looking around for a place to live on the highest floor possible. Renters in San Diego have or will soon have an abundance of options from which to choose. According to a July, 2018 downtown status report by Civic San Diego, there are currently 4155 apartments under construction or near completion.

But those interested in buying won’t have as many options. Besides the 410-storey Pacific Gate, which was completed this year and contains 215 two- and three-bed condos, the only other condo building under construction is Savina, which will rise 415 feet above Kettner and Ash and has 285 two- and three-bedroom units. It’s due for completion in 2019.

When I text Pacific Sotheby’s real estate agent Denny Oh randomly on a Friday in mid-October to ask how many active condo listings there are downtown, he estimates 360. And above the 25th floor, the pickings are slim. Even though he knows I’m not looking to purchase a million-dollar-plus condo today, Oh offers me a glimpse at the life I could have if I were.

We meet in the lobby of the Harbor Club and ride the elevator up to the 27th floor. The two-bed, two-bath, 1474-square-foot condo is what’s called the “bubble unit.” If you look at the two Harbor Club towers from the Harbor Drive side, you can see the bubble units occupying the rounded glass “bubbles” near the top of the buildings. We step through the front door and into a entry hall with a view straight ahead to the Marina, the convention center, and the San Diego Bay. To the left a hallway leads past a bathroom and into to a spacious master bedroom boasting floor-to-ceiling views of the Coronado Bridge, the Harbor Club East tower, and over the Gaslamp toward and beyond the Pendry Hotel and the towers of Pinnacle on Park. Stepping deeper into the front of the apartment, the views from the bubble stretch from the east tower, down Harbor Drive past the Marriott and the Hyatt all the way to the airport, and then curve around to view layers of high- and low-rise buildings all the way to One America Plaza and beyond.

Oh explains that even with all the changes taking place in the skyline, this particular mixed panoramic view will remain protected, due to restrictions on and across Harbor Drive. The only major changes in the forecast for this vantage point are the 480-foot observation tower proposed at Seaport Village and the three 29-story towers proposed at Manchester Pacific Gateway, three quarters of a mile to the northwest.

“When you go on the waterfront over there,” he says, pointing north, “they’re building high-rises in every direction. And all of the land that’s around you here is already built out. The only parcel in the Marina District that’s left is this parking lot back here (owned by Bosa). So the view that you see is more or less going to stay.”

Currently on the market for $1,449,000, this unit, which was built in 1992, sold for $698,000 in 1998, then for $1,425,000 in 2006, and then again for $1,410,000 in 2007.

According to Oh, 50 percent of the units in the Harbor Club buildings are second homes, often belonging to people who come to San Diego from Palm Desert, Scottsdale, or Phoenix. Others are empty nesters and downsizers from North County. When I ask about lease restrictions, Oh reminds in a roundabout way that, yes, there are lease minimums but people who buy second homes for $1.5 million don’t usually care to bother with vacation rentals.

We step out onto the balcony to watch a cargo ship pass by. I’m reluctant to leave before I’ve planned my first annual 4th of July party up here. With a gaze around at the view I’m about to give up forever, I catch a glimpse of the rooftop tennis courts down across Harbor Drive on the fourth floor rooftop of the Hyatt where I watched True Romance in a sling chair. I point it out to Oh, and scoff at the idea of calling it a rooftop.

“It’s a rooftop,” he says.

I beg to differ

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