By Delle Willett | Art on the Land
Around 1850, William Heath Davis, a founder of “New Town,” laid out the city and built a large warehouse and wharf to accommodate ships, hoping to draw people to his new San Diego settlement, which was situated on 160 acres of land and located just three miles south of Old Town.
By 1887, the Embarcadero was really the industrial waterfront for the city complete with wharfs and small businesses to serve the residents. With time, the businesses changed to shipyards, chandlers, lumberyards and canneries.
Chinese fishermen unloaded their catch along the Embarcadero, and railroads even went out onto the wharfs.
For decades since, civic leaders have entertained the idea of giving the wharf back to the people, and in 1993 the city put out an international request for proposals (RFP) to create a vision plan for the Embarcadero. They chose Massachusetts-based Sasaki Associates, whose design included a long walking promenade and areas where people could sit and enjoy views right on the water.
In 2000, San Diego landscape architects Spurlock Poirier, in partnership with Ehrenkrantz Eckstut & Kuhn Architects of New York, were selected to develop a schematic design called the “North Embarcadero Alliance Visionary Plan,” for the North Embarcadero Alliance, which comprised the city of San Diego, county of San Diego, San Diego Unified Port District, Civic San Diego and the U.S. Navy.
This very specific plan included 10 unique gardens, each with its own theme. The gardens were to be connected by a broad, bayside esplanade, 117-feet wide, and a 30-foot wide, 1.5-mile promenade stretching from the USS Midway Museum to where North Harbor Drive intersects with Laurel Street.
The project would improve all of the adjoining streetscapes and link the surrounding neighborhood to San Diego Bay.
“The intent was that we could make it a place that was about the citizens and the visitors of San Diego using it as their window to the waterfront,” said Marty Poirier, principal of Spurlock Poirier.
In 2007, the team, consisting of Project Design Consultants (San Diego), Spurlock Poirier (San Diego) and Civitas (Denver), was selected to implement Phase One.
“It was a real collaborative effort of designers, city officials and the greater San Diego community, truly about creating a world-class waterfront,” said Mark Johnson, president of Civitas.
This phase focused on the foot of Broadway, west of the railroad tracks to the wharf, making Broadway a grand hallway to the bay.
Elements included realigning Harbor Drive by 60 feet to create the widened esplanade, pavilions, gardens, streetscapes, storm-water management facilities, lighting, signage and seating.
Additionally, extensive improvements to the local subterranean utilities were made, including the construction of new water, sewer and storm-drain infrastructure.
They wanted it to be reminiscent of a maritime environment, using local materials with longevity, strength and stability — heavy-duty concrete, galvanized steel, stainless steel and wood — and using local artisans and fabricators as much as possible.
“It was an interesting collaboration,” Poirier said. “Mark Johnson brought his expertise in urban design to the project and we brought the design that we had created in the schematic phase to the effort. We worked together on all of the design work. At the end we split up the construction documents, with Civitas taking on the hardscape and Spurlock Poirier taking on the soft-scape.”
Designed by Los Angeles artist Pae White and produced by San Diego architect Joseph Wong, three buildings are an important part of the design: a restroom and two aluminum- and stainless-steel-clad pavilions that house glass-enclosed buildings, which will accommodate shops and all of the bay tour operators’ ticketing windows.
“Pae White’s buildings are objects of interest,” said Scott Jordan, Civitas principal.
Her design combines functionality with whimsy. Large cutout letters and words adorn the new restroom façade and the pavilion ceilings. The words are from the 1970s novel “Jonathan Livingston Seagull” as they may be seen by a seagull in flight over the Embarcadero.
“People stop and try to read what they say,” Jordan said.
Four gardens create quiet spaces, each under the shade of 42 jacarandas — San Diego’s official tree — purchased from Southern California’s Norman’s Nursery.
“They are a fun seasonal tree with lavender flowers that look beautiful against the blue water and sky,” Poirier said. “The trees have their own little quirks; they won’t be growing like columns in the Coliseum. They’ll undergo a lot of change throughout the year.”
In the gardens, plant enthusiasts will see a wide range of drought-tolerant plants used in different combinations, creating interesting patterns, colors and textures. Some ten different varieties of succulents will be rotated out seasonally.
Thirty Medjool date palms now stand along Harbor Drive with 18, 25-foot date palms on Broadway, creating an overhead canopy with an architectural feel and drawing one’s eye to the water.
The team worked with consulting arborists: Mark Wisniewski of Wisniewski & Associates (Encinitas); Mark Robinson of MTR Horticulture (Carlsbad); and Kurt Brickley, (Port of San Diego). Early on, they were able to shop for trees of the same size and age, overseeing their care through the planting phase. The palms are from Oasis Date Gardens in Thermal, California.
“The Broadway median is our take on a bold new way of looking at public landscape, using tequila agave to bring authenticity to the project and having a little fun at the same time,” Poirier said, adding that they are hoping for at least something related to the harvesting of the agave — if not the actual production of tequila — as it would be a nice tie-in with all the craft distilling that is going on in San Diego.
A water-quality band system is designed to capture every drop of water that falls on the Embarcadero or washes down from Broadway and Harbor Drive. All of the surface runoff flows from the east side to the west, collecting along the west curb of Harbor Drive and channeled into the conveyance bands where it is treated and cleaned before being released into the bay.
On the esplanade, water flows over porous pavers, iron grates, wooden planks and planting beds and goes into the conveyance band, where it is filtered through a series of rock and sand filters before being released. At the wharf edge, a smaller 6-inch-wide grate captures water off the promenade and also sends it through the cleansing process.
There are three styles of seating in the quiet areas: simple benches, benches with backs and arms, and café tables. The benches and their specific styles were selected because they look like something a shipbuilder could have crafted.
Spain’s Escofet designed the benches with backs and arms, while Civitas designed the standard benches. Fabricated by Richardson Steel, a local family-owned business, all the benches were made with laminated Alaskan yellow cedar and wrapped in steel straps, inspired by old ship masts. The strapping serves two purposes: to keep skateboarders from using them and to add visual appeal. The stainless steel café tables are from Landscape Forms in Michigan.
When designing the guardrail, Civitas wanted something heavy-duty and robust that visitors could lean on and look out over the bay. Also created at Richardson Steel, the rail design includes 1-inch-thick stainless steel blades topped with Ipe, an extremely dense and durable Brazilian hardwood.
The primary surface of the Embarcadero is pavers, made by Acker-Stone in Corona. The colors are specific to our region and come from characteristic rocks that were handpicked by Wes Danskin, research hydrologist with the U.S. Geological Survey.
“The selection of colors, in particular earth colors, is critically important,” Danskin said. “The rocks or simulated rocks need to look and feel like the local area. That way they look like they belong, and people will subconsciously feel more calm and comfortable in the area, without knowing why.”
The use of pavers begins on Broadway and is carried to the end of the pier, giving the presence of one long hallway to the waterfront. If you can get high enough above the pavers, you’ll see a pattern that represents waves and the movement of water.
Other surfaces include Brazilian hardwood planks in the garden areas, reminiscent of historic boardwalks, and decomposed granite in the gardens and on a runner’s path.
New York’s Leni Schwendiger Light Projects Ltd. designed all of the lighting. Her curlicue, extruded aluminum light poles along the Broadway median are objects of delight, playing against the linear palm trees. The Embarcadero glows at night with light from the galvanized steel light posts, other lights buried in the plant beds and a continuous strand of LED lights on the underside of the guardrail.
Pentagram of New York conceptualized the signage package for the entire site, which includes little blue beacon lights at the top of the signs, in keeping with the maritime theme.
Watch for future columns on additional landscape architecture on the Embarcadero.
—Delle Willett is a PR consultant and a freelance journalist. She does pro-bono work for organizations that empower women and work to end world hunger. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.