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San Diego Base Designed For The Long Term

Morris Newman on
Sep 1, 2006

I mean no disrespect to the developers of Liberty Station when I suggest that they would have to go out of their way to screw up this elegantly organized project.

No disrespect, because the developers — a joint venture of the San Diego Redevelopment Agency and a local developer called the Corky McMillin Companies — have done of good job of leaving well enough alone. They started out with a site, the former Naval Training Center near downtown San Diego, that was already well designed. After installing a single-family neighborhood, a large retail and arts district, some acreage for hotels and some others for educational uses, the site remains attractive and well-organized, because the developers pretty much stuck to the original lines of a 1920’s site plan.

There is an implied moral here about the value of starting out with good planning, but I’ll spare you the lecture for the time being. Suffice it to say that the former Naval Training Center, now known as Liberty Station, may be the most city-friendly ex-military base — even more so, in some ways, than the Presidio in San Francisco.

The Naval Training Center had a long life for a California military base, having been built originally in 1921 (and expanded incrementally thereafter) until being listed on Base Realignment and Closure roster of 1993 and hearing its last reveille in 1997. Before that time, the NTC had been one of the largest training grounds for the Navy, peaking at 33,000 servicemen during World War II, when one-sixth of the nation’s fleet was based in San Diego.

All that is historic enough, but design, rather than history, is of the most interest here. While I do not know exactly how it happened, a classically trained architect, or somebody who knew how to imitate one, designed the original Naval Training Center. At that time, the best architecture schools in the country were heavily influenced by the design principles and teaching methods alike of the Ecole des Beaux-Arts in Paris. (Among the architects receiving that training was Louis K. Kahn, a student at the University of Pennsylvania during the 1920’s who would design the highly formal Salk Institute, probably the finest 20th Century building in California, near the La Jolla campus of University of California, San Diego.)

Following the basic Beaux-Arts design principles, the entire base is designed as a single, unified campus with a clearly indicated hierarchy differentiating the most important buildings from the less important ones. The composition is strongly axial, meaning all the buildings and open spaces are organized along broad avenues.

As we can see from the aerial photograph of 1924, the big administrative buildings are in front, followed by a set of free-standing barracks buildings, with clearly marked open spaces, known in the military as “grinders,” for calisthenics or dress corps. One of the green spaces by the ship channel is a four-hole golf course (much enlarged now) where Ben Hogan and Billy Casper were known to have taken a swing or two, according to McMillin’s website.

When we jump 85 years forward into present time, we can truly appreciate the original design. I have not been making so much fuss about the original design because I am nostalgic for the Beaux-Arts, which H.L. Mencken, ever on the watch for phoniness, liked to lampoon as the “Bozart.” Instead, it is the versatility and flexibility of the old design that I favor. It has provided a bunch of clues for organizing Liberty Station into what is shaping up to be a very good-looking urban district.

As in many successful base conversions, a long planning process preceded construction. After the Pentagon conveyed the former naval training station in 1998, the city assigned the redevelopment agency the task of base planning. With the intent of controlling the future direction of the base, redevelopment officials specified the land uses, square-footages and massing.

With a very limited budget of public money for the project, the redevelopment agency spent four years in a careful planning process, then invited developers to bid on the entire base. The developers had to be willing to put their own money into infrastructure, and they would be reimbursed down the line by tax-increment revenues. In exchange for the risk, the developer would receive ownership of 60 acres of residentially zoned land. The commercial, educational and recreational areas remain the property of the City of San Diego.

Homebuilder McMillin is completing construction on 349 residential units arranged in three separate neighborhoods and consisting of single-family homes, row-house-style units and a condominium complex. At least 80% of the housing has been built, and more than half of it is already sold.

McMillin Companies contracted with Huntington Hotel Group to develop a resort property with two hotels of 150 and 200 rooms, respectively, and to restyle the U.S.S. Recruit, in dry dock, for meeting and ballrooms spaces. McMillan also brought in retail developer Craig Clark to make a 150,000-square-foot shopping center out of historic buildings.

As at the Presidio, the presence of historic buildings by the dozens is both an advantage and disadvantage to the developers (see CP&DR Places, August 2005). The advantage is that many of the buildings are good-looking and probably could not be replicated. The disadvantage, of course, is that the buildings are technologically obsolete and not easily rehabilitated. “It’s much more expensive to do an adaptive-reuse job on a building than to do new construction,” says developer Clark.

Some of the buildings that cannot be easily adapted to commercial use may work for the arts and non-profit sectors. Liberty Station includes 125 acres to be operated as a cultural resource by the non-profit NTC Foundation.

Liberty Station is a project that integrates well with existing city streets (one arguable advantage over the Presidio) while giving the city a new waterfront park on the ship channel. Two layers of planning –the original Beaux-Art design and the redevelopment agency’s land-use plan—are two main sources of its success. Duck! Here comes the moral: Good planning actually works, making it possible to reuse the same site two or three generations after original development. As they used to say, “Who’d a thunk?”

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