Delle Willett | Art on the Land
Vicki Estrada spent lots of time growing up in and around Downtown San Diego.
Hand-in-hand with her grandfather, she walked through city streets, from Sherman Heights down to the Harbor to see the tuna boats, and up to Balboa Stadium to watch the Chargers play, always enjoying the smell of baking bread wafting from the Wonder Bread factory.
Her favorite pastime was spending hours in the library reading history books, looking at maps and newspaper clippings.
When deciding where to open Estrada Land Planning (ELP), she had no choice: it had to be in Downtown San Diego, where she feels there has always been a special energy. For 30 years she has practiced landscape architecture Downtown, first in the Gaslamp District, then Horton Plaza, and now in the NBC building on Broadway.
“Besides, this is our urban core and if I want to do urban design I can’t justify being anywhere else but Downtown San Diego,” Estrada said.
In college, Estrada switched her path from a degree in architecture to landscape architecture.
“What makes a city great is not an Eiffel Tower here or an Empire State Building there, it’s what happens in between,” she said.
People expect parks from landscape architects but they don’t always expect large-scale projects like the kind Estrada’s firm designs, such as the Balboa Park Master Plan (1,500 acres), the Otay Ranch New Town Plan (22,000 acres), and the Rancho San Diego Specific Plan (2,500 acres).
ELP is known for its urban-planning expertise — a service not well known or very understood by the public. It’s a technical and political process concerned with the use of land and design of the urban environment, including how the movements of people, goods, air, storm-water and infrastructure interact with the physical and social environment.
“I’ve always liked the urban-design aspect of our profession the most,” Estrada said. “It’s much more satisfying. I’ve been fortunate to have been able to create many special places. I get to dream.”
For ELP’s first-ever public project, Estrada led the design team responsible for the planning and execution of the revitalization of the medians along Broadway, San Diego’s 10-block ceremonial corridor, from Pacific Highway to Horton Plaza. Like most of their projects, ELP managed the project design team, which included civil engineers and electrical engineers.
It’s a clean and simple design that includes trees, banner poles and rich diagonal paving patterns that play off the Downtown urban grid. Dramatic clusters of Senegal Date Palms — abstractions of the skyline — provide formality and focus. The end result is a linear plaza without pedestrians.
In 2002, ELP prepared a Streetscape Manual for Downtown San Diego that included recommended urban-design standards and guidelines for street trees, lighting, paving and street furniture. The manual was used for 10 years by private developers and pubic designers to help guide the visual and functional character of Downtown streets and their adjacent sidewalks.
At the request of then City Councilman Byron Ware, ELP prepared a series of conceptual studies analyzing various alternate locations, orientations, and surrounding circulation patterns for the ballpark. ELP’s work was an important catalyst in the building of the ballpark.
After the location was finalized, ELP prepared the Visual Quality and Aesthetics element for the environmental-impact report. It included a visual analysis and computer-generated images that addressed the visual and neighborhood character impacts that the ballpark would have on Downtown.
ELP also prepared an improvement study for the 17 blocks of the Historic Gaslamp Quarter District. The evaluation and analysis focused on the safety, functionality, aesthetics and conformance with the Streetscape Manual, maintenance, ADA deficiencies, health of plant material, light and lamp type, tree grates, size of planting areas and irrigation issues.
The end results were block-by-block recommendations for improvements to the existing conditions of the district, delineated by the concentration of high-priority improvements within each block.
ELP also provided a conceptual design for the urban plaza at Gaslamp Square at the foot of Fifth and L streets. The project improvements included uses that would help activate the space, such as an information center, trees, benches and retail kiosks.
After 70 years of attempting to establish a pedestrian connection from Balboa Park to San Diego Bay, ELP was also part of a design team that created the Park-to-Bay link along Park Boulevard to the Bay through the East Village. ELP prepared numerous concepts, sketches and simulations to help illustrate the design possibilities and then prepared the construction documents.
Beginning at C Street in front of San Diego High School, the corridor reaches to the new Central Library and bends toward the ballpark. The intent is for pedestrians to be able to have a pleasant, park-like walk from Balboa Park to the park in front of the Convention Center and the Hilton Hotel.
Currently, cars can drive as far as the ballpark, but can’t cross over to Harbor Dr. until the California Public Utilities Commission gives its approval.
This unique urban corridor ranges in width between 33-feet to 27-feet on the east side and 14-feet on the west side, with a wide sidewalk and a double row of trees forming the basis of the link. A new trolley station was constructed at Market Street as part of the corridor improvements.
Along the walk ELP specified one of Downtown’s first bioswales, which, in addition to solving some drainage problems, created a green ribbon.
Note: Bioswales are landscape elements designed to remove silt and pollution from surface runoff water. They consist of a low-area (swaled) drainage course with gently sloped sides and are filled with vegetation, compost or riprap.
Estrada often adds subtle touches to her designs that only the sharpest eyes can see. For example, embedded in the sidewalk along the corridor are blue and green tiles that form a triangle. The blue tiles point to the Bay, while the green point to the park.
Another highly visible ELP project is the San Diego Convention Center. ELP was responsible for the preparation of landscape construction documents for its expansion a few years ago. Work included the design and plan for the exterior decks and plazas, planting on the structure, perimeter landscaping, and a redesign of the Harbor Drive medians. The project involved extensive coordination and interface with numerous design sub-consultants.
“When I look out my office window around Downtown I see a lot of things we’ve done over 30 years and I’m pretty proud,” Estrada said.
You can’t really talk about Estrada’s work Downtown without talking about Balboa Park, for which ELP has provided landscape architecture and planning services for over 25 years.
The current Master Plan for Balboa Park, which was prepared by ELP and approved in 1989, is still the acting Master Plan, as is the Precise Plan for the Central Mesa, prepared in 1992. This plan includes extensive design concepts for all of the major public spaces within the Central Mesa including the Plaza de Panama and the Palisades.
In 2004, ELP provided the concepts and Precise Plan amendments for the Balboa Park Promenade, which included the design for a new pedestrian promenade and plaza linking the Prado to a new San Diego Zoo entrance and exit plaza that would be built on top of a 4,500-space, below-grade parking structure.
In addition, several significant build projects within the park were designed by ELP including the Plaza de Panama Fountain, the restoration of the Alcazar Garden, the Palisades and Inspiration Point transit centers, and the electronic information kiosks located throughout the park.
Most recently, ELP played a significant role in the design of the Plaza de Panama project proposed by Irwin Jacobs in preparation for the 2015 Centennial celebration.
ELP’s predominant role was the preparation of the planting and irrigation plans. In addition, ELP played a key role in preparing the design of the rooftop garden on top of the Organ Pavilion parking garage. They also worked with the Balboa Park Waterwise Committee to utilize low-water irrigation methods.
ELP has done many other projects Downtown, in Balboa Park and around the rest of the county. For more information on ELP, visit estradalandplan.com.
—Delle Willett has a 30-year history of designing, writing, and marketing. She is currently PR advisor to the American Society of Landscape Architects, San Diego chapter. She would love to hear from you and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.