Weaving into the East Village fabric

Posted: June 1st, 2018 | Art on the Land, Featured | No Comments

By Delle Willett | Art on the Land

Shift, the 21-story mixed-use residential tower harmonizes East Village’s style

When asked to describe Downtown San Diego’s East Village, John Avila of Urban Arena put it this way.

“The East Village is a mash-up of the arts and a wide range of light to heavy commercial business. Much of the neighborhood has developed organically over the years, making each block unique,” said Avila.

In 2015, Urban Arena, along with Carrier Johnson + Culture, Architecture, was tasked by Lennar Multifamily Communities to develop a city block, bounded by 4th, 15th, J St., and Island Ave., creating a 21-story, mixed-use residential tower which felt as if it were always part of the East Village fabric. Opened in April and named “Shift,” the development features 368 units consisting of studios, one and two bedrooms, and penthouses.

The 21st floor pool deck at the Shift building (Photo courtesy of Urban Arena)

With the help of Civic San Diego, a truly unique concept was developed and built. With its eclectic mix of finishes and materials, the building has a modulated, distinct aesthetic on each façade, avoiding a monolithic form.

The overall landscape design was influenced by the architecture and includes the perimeter streetscape, second-floor courtyard, sixthfloor dog park, seventh-floor terrace, and 21stfloor pool deck.

“It was critical that the landscape felt like an extension of the architecture. The forms used in the landscape concept were influenced by the tower’s irregular building shell design. We used similar vocabulary and varied our finishes to give the landscapes a fine grain,” explained Avila, project Landscape Architect.

The public right-of-way paving patterns along 15th, 16th and J St., distinct in color and finish, draw their form from the intersection of the bold architectural forms and the sidewalk. The street trees were designed in line with the building columns to further accentuate rhythm and form. “Our hopes are that by extending the architectural form lines the building would feel as if it grew organically out of the site and surrounding area,” Avila said.

John Avila of Urban Arena (Photo courtesy of Urban Arena)

At the corner of 15th and J streets, a semi-public plaza was designed to help integrate Shift into the local community. “This courtyard strives to help create a sense of place by providing the community a space to gather and grow,” Avila said. All site furnishings around the 15-foot water wall and café are intended to be moveable, allowing the user to set up their own comfortable spaces.

The second-floor courtyard, narrow and long, features several amenity areas. The landscape uses various industrial finishes and material found throughout the East Village. As a majority of the units look down on the courtyard, Urban Arena insisted the design must be visually interesting from above while simultaneously feeling comfortable at eye level. Visual interest was achieved by creating large angular paving areas which, when seen from above, further build on the project’s rhythm.

The 21st-floor pool deck has a backyard ambiance, with two large artificial turf areas, a torqued steel shade structure over a large cooking area, polished concrete fireplace, custom cantilevered wood and corten benches. The pool deck was designed to encourage social interaction — easy to do with a raised fishbowl spa which brings the users eye level with people standing on the pool deck. Locating the pool deck on the 21st floor ensures all Shift residents will be able to enjoy views of the San Diego Bay and Coronado Bridge.

As lead landscape architect of Shift, Avila was responsible for all phases of the project from concept to construction. With a bachelor’s degree in Landscape Architecture from Cal Poly Pomona, Avila started with Urban Arena in February 2014 as a project designer and was promoted to Job Captain in June 2015, actively managing multiple projects under the supervision of the senior project managers, and then Project Manager in June 2017.

Angular paving and amenity areas on the second floor courtyard, further build on the project’s rhythm. (Photo courtesy of Urban Arena)

Graduating during the recession when most design firms had stopped hiring and even letting staff go, Avila took a job in landscape construction as a construction administration intern at Landscape Development and within two years worked his way up to Project Manager.

“While working Landscape Development, I received invaluable construction and management experience — experience I rely on to this day,” he said.

From a large, dedicated family himself, Avila said, “Urban Arena feels like a large family more than a design team at times, many of the staff members are actively involved in each other’s lives. It makes a world of difference to know your coworkers and principals are invested in your personal wellbeing and genuinely care for you.”

At Urban Arena, all staff has active roles in every aspect of the project. Founded in 1996 by Keith Mittemeyer and Michael Schrock, the company offers landscape architecture, architecture, and planning services.

“No idea is a bad idea” is our company motto. Although it’s an old adage, it rings true for our firm. We believe great design ideas can be discovered once you shed negativity and the fear of judgment. Without this motto many of our design concepts would have never been developed,” said Principal Keith Mittemeyer, Originally from Pomona Valley, Avila, 30, lives in Mission Hills.

He uses his spare time being active: running, snowboarding, and being involved with the local American Society of Landscape Architecture chapter. He also cherishes his quiet time, attempting to read one book a month, trying new recipes, and visiting with his large family.

— Delle Willett has been a marketing and public relations professional for over 30 years, with an emphasis on conservation of the environment. She can be reached at

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