By VINCE MEEHAN | Downtown News
For years, Downtown Johnny Brown’s was a hotspot for Downtown regulars and anyone attending a show at the San Diego Civic Theatre. The eatery located smack in the middle of the Civic Center Plaza had a unique East Coast vibe to it that stood out in San Diego where a Spanish motif is more common. But a few years back, the owners of Downtown Johnny Brown’s retired and decided not to operate the restaurant any longer. Additionally, the space is owned by the city of San Diego, so it was up to the city to find a new tenant for the building. As everyone knows, the work of the city is notorious for its snail’s pace, so the building has been vacant for longer than anyone would want. But now, a well-known institution has come forward to save the day.
Bastiaan Bouma is the director of Corporate Relations and Continuing Education at the San Diego chapter of the American Institute of Architects (AIA). He and his chapter are taking the lead in redeveloping the former site of Downtown Johnny Brown’s into the San Diego Center for Design | beacon (CfD | beacon). Bouma is excited about the project and its role in shaping the future of San Diego.
“For the past few years, the chapter has been looking at opportunities for creating a storefront presence in the city to speak more effectively to public audiences as opposed to the professional groups who are our main constituents,” Bouma stated. “So, 2 1/2 years ago, we were introduced to the opportunity with the city of San Diego through the Real Estate Assets Department to propose a solution to the vacant space that was the former Downtown Johnny Brown’s.”
The AIA serves as an advocacy group and resource center for the architectural community headquartered in Washington, D.C. (the AIA has over 200 chapters around the world). CfD | beacon will have three distinct functions built into it once it is completed. The first is to serve as a central hub for the San Diego AIA chapter. The second is to serve as a visitor center where people can come to see what’s going on in San Diego’s building scene. And the third is to serve as a unique venue for private or corporate events.
One of the first issues that Bouma would like to address at the center is the tiny home or modular home concept. These homes are known as accessory dwelling units or ADUs and are now a hot commodity. New laws have recently been enacted in California making it much easier for property owners to build ADUs, which are also known as granny flats or casitas. They are typically detached units built on properties that serve as housing for a single person or a couple. Pulling permits for these projects used to be quite difficult and tiresome, not to mention expensive. But ADU restrictions have been lifted as a way to address California’s housing shortage and now it is much easier and faster to get it done. The problem is that many property owners are not aware of the new laws. To make things worse, many local municipalities are unaware as well and deny permits that should be approved. Bouma plans to use the CfD | beacon to educate the public to their new rights. He also believes that the center will serve as a magnet for other government agencies from around the nation to come see how California has handled this unique feature. This could serve as a model for the rest of the country.
World-renowned architect Jennifer Luce volunteered to design the center, which will also feature a café on the ground floor, and a new element on the roof. Bouma says that the plaza itself can also be utilized for events at the center.
“The model we developed – and proposed to the city – was to create a high-end venue for programs and activities on this strategic location in the Civic Center Plaza, which is in need of activation. The venue can accommodate meetings as small as two, to an assembly as much as 300 on site. And then with special event permitting, we’d be able to actually activate the Civic Center Plaza proper.”
ADUs will be something that many San Diegans will be able to take advantage of to raise their property value or provide housing for an elderly parent. ADUs can be built from scratch, but Bouma foresees a need for pre-designed modular units to accommodate the new demand. He’d like to feature some full-size models as part of the center.
“As we’ve planned it, our launch quarter – the first quarter of operations – will focus on housing affordability,” Bouma said. “And we’d love to see something like a half-dozen tiny home models installed in the Civic Center Plaza as part of our launch activity along with public workshops. So, you can go in there and ‘kick some tires.’ These would be units that are usable on city lots, so we’re not looking at anything on wheels. So, we’ll do workshops for homeowners and property owners that are interested in learning more. Maybe tours of existing, established ADUs. There will be a contact point for those who have questions. We want our members to deliver these solutions, not the chapter. We provide a resource and then we’re going to direct you to our members.”
Bouma plans on having the center open by this fall, and that would coincide with the height of the Broadway San Diego show schedule. Once built, the center would be available for both Broadway San Diego and the San Diego Opera to hold VIP donor events, and that is something that Bouma is looking forward to.
“So there are three legs to this stool: our internal events connected to urban design and development; a visitor center, a place of orientation and activity for residents and tourists; and third is a venue for commercial programs and activities. This will truly be an attraction in the city of San Diego; people will come to look at this center — that’s the goal.”
— Vince Meehan can be reached at email@example.com.