Waterfront park opening with a splash

by | May 6, 2016 | The San Diego Union-Tribune

Nolen dreamed it, Marston campaigned for it, President Franklin D. Roosevelt praised it.

And now San Diego County has it:

A 12-acre bayfront park, complete with interactive fountains, children’s playground, low-water-using gardens and expanses of lawn and lookout spots for fireworks. It’s billed as the largest San Diego urban park since 1915’s Panama-California Exposition grounds in 1915.

The $49.4 million park will open officially at 10 a.m. Saturday at the County Administration Center, 1600 Pacific Highway, just as landscape crews complete plantings north and south of the historic government headquarters.

“This used to be acres of cars and no trees,” said Jeff Justus, one of the landscape architects at Schmidt Design.

Now there’s not a car in sight – they’ve been banished to an underground garage and a $27 million offsite above-grade parking garage starting construction one block east off Cedar Street. Both projects are being funded from county general funds, some supplied from continuing downtown redevelopment property tax-sharing agreements.

George Marston, the early-20th century philanthropist and top city merchant, had campaigned for more than 30 years to beautify San Diego’s bayfront — the proverbial “front door” to the city. His guide was the 1908 city plan by John Nolen that called for a casino (a meeting hall, not a gambling parlor) and bay-park link to Balboa Park.

In 1938 FDR dedicated what was originally a city-county civic center, in line with Nolen’s revised 1926 waterfront plan. But the park-like setting was decades in the future, as county officials toyed with expanding government functions, the city relocated to its own complex in 1965 and options ranged from turning the building into a museum or library or building revenue-producing office or hotel towers.

In the 1990s, the county joined the bandwagon with the city and the San Diego Unified Port District to improve the entire Embarcadero and decided to banish the cars and put in the park.

Highlights include 850 feet of interactive fountains, consisting of one-inch shallow pools fed by 31 jets. On low windy days, they will shoot streams of water in 14-foot arcs over the 40-wide pools, using 80,000 gallons of recycled water, which is drained into an underground vault nightly. Visitors will be able to rinse off at outdoor showers in a nearby restroom/cafe building. The park, open from 6 a.m. to 10 p.m. daily, will be patrolled by sheriff’s deputies and security personnel.

The south side of the building includes a family and children’s garden with an artificial hill (mostly made of foam material) featuring slides, a steel tube sphere, saucer swing and other play equipment. For adults, there’s a bocce court. McCarthy was the general contractor.

The north side of the building includes three gardens of grasses, Mediterranean sages, rosemary and lavender, and a “diversity” garden with 20 different plants flowering at different times of the year.

Along Harbor Drive are 4 acres of bermuda grass suitable for picnics, informal games and thousands of spectators on Fourth of July and other holidays.

Glenn Schmidt, whose Schmidt Design Group was responsible for the project along with Hargreaves Associates of San Francisco, said despite the current drought, grass and fountains remained in the plan.

“Having turf in a public park facility makes sense because it is a community resource,” Schmidt said, in contrast to commercial use around office buildings which serve no purpose other than appearance.

The fountain similarly is for the public’s enjoyment and its water use is well within state conservation standards, he said.

To a few clumps of palm trees previously around the building have been added 218 trees. Long rows of Tipu trees will eventually grow to 40 feet in height and 30 feet in diameter, providing shade along the north-south axis of the county site.

Supervisor Ron Roberts, who championed the park use for decades, said he won support from his skeptical colleagues by arguing that the publicly owned site should be enjoyed by the public, not commercial interests.

“All along I felt we should create some special place along the waterfront,” said Roberts, a one-time architect, city planning commissioner and City Council member. “Once I got to the county and saw the weddings held on the property and really the amount of park-like space, that’s when it really sank in.”

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