Delle Willett | Art on the Land
On Broadway, bordered by Front and State streets, stands the Edward J. Schwartz U.S. Courthouse. Built in 1994, it is one of the busiest federal courthouses in the nation. Also on the property is the U.S. Federal Courthouse Annex, built in 2013 on the site of historic Hotel San Diego, where it is home to six District Court rooms and 12 judge’s chambers.
San Diego-based landscape architects Spurlock Poirier were challenged to develop a landscape plan for this federal complex that evoked a strong sense of “San Diego-ness.” A plan that strived to create a landscape of significance in stature to the architecture of the courthouse buildings while acknowledging limited maintenance resources.
The concept for the main plaza brought a piece of native San Diego landscape into the dense center of Downtown — creating an “urban canyon.”
Placed in between the two buildings on what was once a block of Union Street, this virtual one-acre canyon features an informal grove of tall, open-canopy, native California Sycamore trees that will someday grow to be 60 to 70 feet tall and 30 to 50 feet wide. The large California Sycamores complement the scale of the space and buildings. Being deciduous, the Sycamore brings important seasonal qualities that include a range of leaf colors and the winter leaf drop that reveals the beauty of the bark and branches. Its open branching structure allows a filtered sunlight to bath the plaza, creating a delightful ambience of dappled shade.
The trees are planted in locally sourced decomposed granite, a timeless material that is at once handsome and inviting in simplicity, yet hard-wearing, permeable and practical. Its warm earth tones echo the palette of the San Diego landscape and complement the natural variations in the facades of the surrounding buildings.
With moveable seating provided by the General Services Administration, it is a respite for workers, jurors and visitors alike, a public space that serves as a gathering place, a link to Downtown’s evolving open-space system, and in the future, a place for interesting public programming.
Along the length of the sidewalk in front of the Edward J. Schwartz building is a raised stream, with water falling over the side and tropical hardwood benches that invite passersby to sit and reflect. Soothing sounds and the sparkle of moving water add to the attractiveness and tranquility of the space.
Visitors to the lobby of the U.S. Courthouse annex have the treat of walking up through Robert Irwin’s chevron-shaped Privet hedge walkway. Designed as an ADA-compliant ramp, it actually serves to slow one down and focus, perhaps in preparation for the goings-on in the building.
Materials and patterns for the annex plaza’s raised paving were coordinated with the color and texture of the courthouse building as well as the surrounding facilities of the federal complex. Hardscape materials throughout the complex are a simple combination of colored concrete, decomposed granite and double-soldier course brick bands along Broadway.
Along the south side of the buildings is a pedestrian promenade (a now-closed-to-cars section of E Street) that connects east to Horton Plaza and the Gaslamp District and west to Pantoja Park and the San Diego Bay. This pedestrian-scaled allee is planted with a double row of Crape Myrtle trees that provide great seasonal color and a full-leaf canopy. Smaller in scale than Sycamores, Crape Myrtles grow to approximately 25 feet high and 15 to 20 feet wide. Wall vines and bands of ground cover are integrated into the plantings.
Using new, post-9/11criteria to create safe fleet zones, safety bollards — also called crash poles — were placed along Broadway and State Street.
Also along Broadway and around to State Street are Chinese Evergreen Elms and the wall and sidewalk are covered with Natal Plum is planted, which provides glossy green foliage, fragrant white flowers and big red fruit that come with big thorns.
If you look over the railing along the State Street side of the building, you’ll see a surprise garden below. This garden is actually the view from the U.S. Marshall’s below-ground offices. It has shade-tolerant plants and a pleasant grove of Redbud trees that filter light through their canopy, all to be enjoyed from a small sitting area.
Just before the pedestrian promenade at the end of the building, is a formal woodland of Crape Myrtle trees — standing straight and tall in a simple play of pattern and form — these young trees offer seasonal white and lavender blooms.
Throughout the complex, these drought-tolerant, easy-to-maintain yet durable accents include:
• Ground covers and perennials: Blue Chalk Fingers, Holly Fern, and Bird’s Nest Fern, Fortnight Lily, and Vinca
• Vines: Boston Ivy and Creeping Fig
• Hedges: Yew Pine, Boxwood, Privet and Natal Plum
Spurlock Poirier Landscape Architects provide an innovative, site-conditioned approach to planning and landscape architectural design, creating transformative, restorative urban and natural landscapes that connect people, communities, and environments.
The firm was established by Andrew Spurlock in 1988 and joined by Martin Poirier, who became a partner, in 1990. Now known for its collaborative, ideas-driven approach to problem solving, Spurlock Poirier has developed particular skill in the design of places for rich, human experience in both urban and natural environments.
The firm has expertise in planning, parks, urban residential, mixed-use, and institutional projects, and art in public places. Both partners have been named Fellows of the American Society of Landscape Architects. For more information, visit sp-land.com/.
—Delle Willett cut her teeth traveling as the daughter of a career Navy man. A graduate of USD with a BFA in hand, her career in marketing and public relations has flourished for over 30 years. An active volunteer for various local organizations, she currently works as a freelance publicist and writer when she’s not traveling the world with her husband, a retired airline pilot. Delle can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.