San Diego – This week, Howard Blackson, principal, and director of planning at PlaceMakers [www.placemakers.com] sits down to re-imagine Paradise.
Howard Blackson is mad: mad that San Diego imports its architecture, mad that elected officials give away the best land in sweetheart deals to developers, mad that San Diegans cannot carry on a civil dialogue about their shared values. Howard Blackson is mad, yet he remains steadfastly optimistic about re-shaping this City of Villages.
When asked about the new re-design for the Horton Plaza Park, Blackson sighs, “Another missed opportunity; it’s Pioneer Courthouse Square in Portland.” Rather than create an authentic San Diego plaza, an Oregon one was transplanted. According to Blackson, San Diego settles for what it can get because it lacks the confidence to say what it wants. What it got in Horton Plaza is a space that lacks cohesion and character; a blank wall acts as a focal point.
In contrast, Blackson proposed a scheme – for the plaza design competition – that acknowledges the site’s former incarnation as a transport hub. He envisioned the site as part of a citywide homeless master plan designed to meet the challenges of destitution head on. His plan called for public restrooms as a featured resource of the park. As a civic space, the plaza must accommodate all citizens, including those who call the streets home.
Blackson believes ignoring problems, like vagrancy, is a perfect way of creating new ones. When asked about some other problems, he laments, “The harbor is visually walled off from downtown. The ‘Park at the Park’ replaced one park with the other.”
Apparently, San Diego’s elected leaders promote a private agenda, and then pray for a trickle down public benefit. The Manchester Grand Hyatt development was initially approved with a guarantee for public access to the harbor between the two towers. However, once the project began, that assurance took a backseat to the developer’s demand for a unified site. Sadly, the Hyatt is not the only example. The 1974 planning document, Temporary Paradise, recommended stepping new buildings down to the waterfront, giving everyone a view. Now, buildings step the other way, giving hotel guests a view. In their quest for tax revenue, elected officials have auctioned off the public’s connection to the bay.
Petco Park offers a strangely similar story. “Originally,” Blackson explains, “the ballpark was supposed to be the gated space set within a much larger, public park. That’s what we all voted on, but that’s not what we got.” He describes how the rules of the agreement were specifically written so they could be changed later. Now, a small, gated outfield park is attached to the much larger stadium. Another project, another role reversal. These examples underscore a lack of transparent public discourse that jeopardizes public interests.
Howard Blackson wants to change this.
He wants San Diegans to start talking. Visionary discussions, aimed at articulating shared public values for the next 100 years, are absent. “We’re afraid to talk to one another. It’s ridiculous!” he decries. In an effort to spur dialogue, he joined forces with fellow design professionals advocating a 2015 San Diego vision, to mark Balboa Park’s centennial. The goal is to include as many voices as possible and codify a set of values into planning parameters. “Then, when a question about future development arises, the document can advise an appropriate solution,” he concludes.
Not one to critique the city he loves without offering practical solutions, Howard Blackson is putting his time and energy where his mouth is. Presently, he is conducting new form-based code studies for San Diego County. He is drawing upon the compelling City of Villages plan. In order to add community character, “village” centers ought to be redeveloped to create striking focal points where the community can congregate. After Sacramento scrapped traditional redevelopment funds, uncovering new funding sources is imperative. Blackson is exploring how to redesign major intersections by reducing the existing street width, from eighty feet to sixty. This reclaimed land falls under the jurisdiction of the city’s General Fund. Utilizing this money for road improvements – like roundabouts – prominent nodes transform into eddy-like, energy collectors within the homogenous grid.
Ultimately, Howard Blackson believes San Diego has lost its purpose. He sees a city whose prime motivation for development appears to be economic gain. He hopes, in time, the city will revive its conviction to build for cultural value – recalling Balboa Park – rather than exclusively for economic value. Like the famous counsel from the movie, Field of Dreams, “If you build it, they will come.” Blackson would add, “…they will come and spend money.”
Image courtesy: Howard Blackson and PlaceMakers.