Fighting City Hall

I’ve had several interesting responses to my commentary in last week’s edition of CityBeat in which I argued  against building a huge, expensive new downtown city hall and, instead, redistributing Council offices out to their districts.  You can read the piece  here.

One letter to me, from an urban planner, took me to task for my viewpoint:

Carl,

You have put forth a decentralized City Hall idea.

If you remember, San Diego has moved its City Hall before. The first one use to be in Old Town, but someone burned it and built a spiffy new one in New Town San Diego… effectively raising property values throughout the recently platted New Town. Here we go again?

Moving City Hall to his district would be an interesting way for Carl DeMaio to take care of his constituents.  Probably not though, as most would rightfully complain about traffic. It seems to me to be very odd rational, geographical-center, to move our largest civic institution from downtown to our most suburban area.

While I know City Beat bangs the hedonistic – anything I say is ok – drum loudly, moving a downtown function to 2nd tier Suburb is the dumbest idea I’ve read in quite some time. I say ‘dumb’ because the hedonistic freedom of the internet hasn’t given Kearny Mesa the waterfront port, airport, Highway’s 5, 163, 94 and Pacific, plus the Trolley, Amtrak and Coaster Rail Service (connectivity to the entire population of San Diego). Despite it’s renown beauty, Kearny Mesa wasn’t built to become another Downtown area as it is built with suburban infrastructure and characteristics (wide 65-mph streets, small format retail, single-family detached homes and one Sunroad tower).  City Hall is also just ONE centralized function of a downtown.  We have courthouses, libraries, colleges, and county facilities. Please don’t suggest putting each of these in their geographic center as well!? That simple criteria is arbitrary planning, at best.

We have been building cities for thousands of years.  Before the advent of the internet, space shuttle, television, telephone, automobile, and printing press, all of which were believed would dramatically change our built environment. But, we are still confined by our height, speed and range, therefore neighborhoods and cities that are connected, compact and complete are still important.  Cities are built by a declination of place: from the most urban (downtown) to the most rural (Julian) to natural (Cuyamaca Mountains). There are many scales of urbanism between.  From Downtown – North Park – Rancho Santa Fe- Ramona – Julian. Each of these have an associated infrastructure to support them (or lack of, thereby causing problems).

Connection by automobile-only would cause traffic problems in Kearny Mesa because there is no trolley system now, you and Carl are only giving people the option to drive.  In contrast to Kearny Mesa’s scale, the region’s downtown has over the past 100 years built the infrastructure to handle the amount of people, utilities and parking spaces in response to the amount of business City Halls get’s done.

Here is a radical, but thoroughly un-modern / kookie idea: Put our City Hall on the Waterfront! Make it as Grand as our County Administration Building.  Be bold with our City Hall rather than trying to hiding it in Kearny Mesa.

The Navy is leaving the Broadway Complex area and our lease with them was to give it back when they don’t need it for military purposes anymore (rather than making a deal with Manchester).  And remember, the current City Hall is located where it is now because C. Arnholt Smith wanted to raise the property values of his adjacent hotel/office towers and he convinced San Diegans to move it from the waterfront in the middle 60’s.

Same as it ever was?
Sincerely,  John Doe, III, FIUD, CNU
Principal, Urban Designer

My Response:

Dear Mr. Doe:

Thank you for taking the time to write you response to my commentary.  I appreciate your insight and thoughts on the matter though, of course, I fully disagree with your core conclusions.

Moving Council functions to their districts would cause minimal disruption of traffic patterns in those areas—certainly, one must imaging, substantially less than the creation of any single big box store would.  As to the suitability of Kearny Mesa for hosting non-council functions, there is substantial infrastructure in terms of road and bus service to the area. I agree, however, that a transportation study would need be done to determine how many citizens doing business at the current 202 C street locale actually use mass transport to reach it and how their needs could be accommodated should Mayoral and service functions be moved to Kearny Mesa.

You go on to mention that “City Hall is also just ONE centralized function of a downtown.  We have courthouses, libraries, colleges, and county facilities. Please don’t suggest putting each of these in their geographic center as well!? That simple criteria is arbitrary planning, at best. “  Forgive me for my surprise at this statement from a self-identified urban planner but it is categorically incorrect.  There are County Court facilities in both north, east and south county.  People in Fallbrook don’t have to go to downtown San Diego for legal matters. There are community branch libraries across both the city and county that, collectively, have far more patrons than the downtown “central” facility does.  The regions colleges and universities are distributed across the county allowing easy access by students and providing for synergies with local interests—such as the high tech UCSD-Sorento Valley nexus.  My institution, Mesa College is able to serve as an educational and job training hub for the bulk of the city because it is located  in the geographic, not urban, center of the city.  Fire stations, police stations, park services—all are successfully—and necessarily—distributed into the communities they serve.

I will not comment on your somewhat ad hominem labeling of CityBeat and, by association, my commentary  as “hedonistic except to say the following.  I have no financial ox to be gored in this public issue, no professional dog in the fight.  As you are a self-described urban designer I would suggest the same is not true for you and that, the old adage, “if you have a hammer it all looks like nails” applies, Where else would an urban planner want to plan a new City Hall but in the downtown urban core?

You hit the nail squarely on the head when you point out that “C. Arnholt Smith wanted to raise the property values of his adjacent hotel/office towers and he convinced San Diegans to move [City Hall] from the waterfront in the middle 60’s.”  Building municipal facilities downtown has never been about simply serving a public good or satisfying civic pride.  From Alonzo Horton to the present, downtown development has been about making big bucks for big developers,  the public good being an ancillary, not primary, focus.  As you conclude,  “Same as it ever was.”

Sincerely,
Carl Luna

And the debate goes on.

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One Response to “Fighting City Hall”

  1. mlaiuppa Says:

    And city planners have been complicit in helping to line those developers’ pockets.


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