Throughout this fall, two developer-architects were to vie to design San Diego’s new four-block downtown Civic Center Complex—including a new City Hall—with a budget of at least $600 million. Developer Hines of Houston was paired with architect Cesar Pelli, and developer Gerding Edlen with architect Zimmer Gunsul Frasca (ZGF), both of Portland.
But on August 15, Hines withdrew from the San Diego competition after an independent financial analysis from Jones Lang LaSalle, commissioned by the city, showed the Hines plan was more costly (an estimated $784 million over 50 years) than Gerding’s ($628 million over the same time period), even though it was less ambitious.
Both developers submitted plans to the city to raze the current 1960s-era buildings and replace them with new city offices while re-opening the street grid interrupted by the current configuration of government buildings. Gerding’s proposal offered an eye-catching, 500-foot-tall City Hall building with a sail-like design topped with wind turbines, as well as more than 2 million square feet of private development on the surrounding blocks, all built over three phases. “This is first and foremost a place making endeavor,” said Tom Cody of Gerding Edlen. “The site now has an oppressive inertia. It’s a void in the livable urban fabric of San Diego." Hines went more conservative (a valid strategy given San Diego’s past budget difficulties), with a simple four-story glass City Hall looking out on a plaza with an accompanying office building.
But while Gerding Edlen and ZGF are now the lone candidates for new construction, they’re not assured of winning the job. Jones Lange LaSalle also identified five additional low-cost options such as continuing to lease and renovate the city’s existing facilities, or building a city hall outside of the downtown area. Yet Jones Lang LaSalle found both the Gerding and Hines proposals saved the city more over the 50-year time frame.
“I’ve always said our biggest competitor was the do-nothing alternative,” says Cody. “The city has been in a rut with that development for decades.”
Last year Gerding Edlen won the U.S. Green Building Council’s inaugural Leadership Award for its sustainable developments in Portland and Los Angeles. The company made its name on the Brewery Blocks re-development project in Portland, which transformed the former Blitz-Weinhard brewery into a multi-block shopping, office, and housing development, all LEED-rated. ZGF, a past winner of the AIA national firm of the year award, has designed large institutional projects in Portland like the Oregon Convention Center, the MAX light rail line, and a major recent expansion of the Portland International Airport.
Although their city hall design seems to resemble a ship’s sail, which would recall San Diego’s extensive maritime history, ZGF’s Doss Mabe insists it was unintentional.
“The shape is driven partly by sustainability concerns: maximizing the ability to bring light deeply into the floor plates but minimize the west sun,” he explained. “Normally in San Diego there’s not enough wind (for turbine generation), but the shape of the building will cause a difference in wind pressure on the west and east side that causes the wind to flow at a higher speed. We didn’t talk about sails while we were working on the design. But any time a building creates its own metaphors, that makes us feel like we’re hitting or connecting with people.”
The San Diego City Council is expected to vote on the final plan by November, after receiving an official recommendation from the City Center Development Corporation, the city’s urban renewal agency.