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5 Cities That Went BIG on the Waterfront

Our bayfront, particularly the portion between the Navy Pier and Grape Street, holds the promise of becoming one of the region’s treasured destinations — a place for San Diegans to gather, relax and celebrate the beauty of our city. But will we fully realize the potential to become one of the great waterfronts of the world — an extraordinary public asset, both socially and economically — or will we fall short?


There is currently a vigorous debate about the future of San Diego’s downtown waterfront. Will the Port Pavilion — the new cruise terminal — remain on the Broadway Pier, making it unusable to the public when cruise ships are in port? And when not in use for cruises, how will the pier and pavilion be activated? Will the momentum behind the approvals for the North Embarcadero Visionary Plan, Phase 1, be upended by the Coastal Commission? Or even more ominously, will the funding for future phases disappear due to the governor’s push to wipe out redevelopment agencies statewide? Will the “oval park” be replaced with something comparable? These important questions evidence our deep desire to “get it right.”

My travels to other waterfront cities have strongly influenced my sense of what’s possible in San Diego. These trips have left me with indelible impressions, sometimes inspiring but always instructive, of how others have tackled their respective opportunities. Each of these examples underscores the fact that a big vision is essential to success.

The Maryland Science
Center anchors a bustling harbor in Baltimore The Maryland Science Center anchors a bustling harbor in Baltimore.

1. Baltimore

The highly successful transformation of Baltimore’s Inner Harbor, which served as inspiration for Pasqual Maragall in Barcelona, has been nearly 50 years in the making. It began with the modest hope that programming public events and art installations at the water’s edge would bring the local populace back to the largely abandoned waterfront. It has now become a place of endless fun and diversity — the economic
driver and cultural center of the entire region. Charm City has done many things right, starting with creating a single-purpose entity called Waterfront Partnership of Baltimore that’s responsible for developing, programming and managing all aspects of the waterfront (the model for what our Centre City Development Corporation should become). The partnership believed that if they created lots of activity on the water, the development on the land would follow.

Today, every square inch of water edge in the Inner Harbor is highly prized, and the resulting activity is a huge draw for people who love boats and want to get on the water. Sailing excursions and water taxis bustle with business from locals and visiting tourists. The best sites on the 7.4-mile Inner Harbor have been dedicated to public uses, parks, promenades (with landscaping, safety and event programming all managed by the partnership) and cultural attractions like the National Aquarium, ensuring that the waterfront remains a public resource. The partnership is also constantly seeking new attractions to bring people back to the waterfront; this year, the harbor will host the Baltimore Grand Prix Izod Indy Car Series race on the streets of the Inner Harbor.

Frank Gehry’s Peix d’Or sculpture defines Barcelona’s waterfront

2. Barcelona

Does it seem that everyone is talking about Barcelona these days? This beautiful seaside city, which shares more similarities with San Diego than just a Mediterranean climate, has emerged in the past 20 years to become the third most popular cultural destination in Europe, behind London and Berlin. This is no accident. Under the visionary leadership of former mayor Pasqual Maragall, Barcelona has transformed itself from a struggling post-industrial city to a leader in the European knowledge-economy.

“What turned the corner for us was when everyone began to understand and promote that Barcelona is culture,” says Luis Bunet, a professor at Barcelona University who specializes in cultural tourism.

The waterfront, extending from the new W hotel to the captivating Frank Gehry sculpture Peix d’Or (either a giant bronze fish or a conquistador’s helmet, depending on your perspective) in front of the Ritz-Carlton, blends the old and new in a way that is quintessentially Barcelona. This stretch is broken down into a series of smaller-scale experiences, with food, art, performance and views to the beach on the one side; the working harbor and marinas on the other.

Maragall also understood the importance of new-business incubation to Barcelona’s future and initiated an “innovation district” called 22@Barcelona, utilizing 500 acres of abandoned downtown industrial area. By bringing together government, industry, education and the arts in a focused effort, Maragall and his successors created an economic and social engine that has generated 1,500 new businesses and 43,000 new jobs over the past 10 years. They have developed an “ecology of innovation,” according to 22@Barcelona CEO Josep Pique, which recognizes that the most important quality for any city aspiring to be a 21st-century leader is the ability to develop, attract and retain the most creative minds. Does this focus on building strong partnerships, demanding great design and inspiring art to bolster our own creative economy have resonance in San Diego? It should.

Chicago’s Millennium Park draws crowds for an evening show.

3. Chicago

In my opinion, Chicago has done more than any other American city to foster beauty in its public realm over the past 20 years. The shining example is Millennium Park, the 24-acre jewel in the northwest corner of Grant Park on the site of a former parking lot. This “art park” — which features world-class commissions created by Anish Kapoor and Jaume Plensa, stunning architecture including a pavilion and bridge by Frank Gehry and an addition to the Art Institute by Renzo Piano, plus brilliant landscape design — has become an economic blockbuster for the North Michigan Avenue neighborhood since opening in 2004. The numbers tell a compelling story:

  • The increase in value of adjacent real estate, directly attributable to Millennium Park, is pro­jected to be $1.4 billion over the next 10 years.
  • Hotels will benefit over the next decade to the tune of $482 million to $586 million; retailers, $529 million to $711 million; and restaurants, $672 million to $867 million.
  • In its first six months, the park attracted more than 2 million visitors. Now it’s 3 million annually, including international tourists who spend $300 per day on average, according to city studies.

Millennium Park and The Bean (the affectionate name for the Kapoor sculpture) have become the new postcard images for the city, as well as a source of enormous civic pride. It’s important to note that this public space was achieved over the objections of many who claimed the expenditure was frivolous or wasteful. What Mayor Richard Daley understands is that investment in creating a beautiful public realm, whether through art, landscape or programming, has created extraordinary value by attracting even greater private investment.

Paved walkways invite public access to Auckland’s waterfront marinas; the historic Ferry Building contrasts with more modern architecture on the pier.

4. Auckland

I jumped at the opportunity to visit New Zealand on business last year because I had heard so much about its natural beauty. What I wasn’t expecting was the transformation that has occurred over the past 10 years along Auckland’s formerly industrial waterfront, from the Viaduct Basin to the historic Ferry Building. The public environment along this several-mile stretch is beautifully detailed with rich paving materials, handrails and street furniture. Flowers are present in abundance. The landside uses include retail/restaurants, office and residential — most showcasing contemporary architecture — while the water is alive with marinas, ferries and kayaks. Though clearly built for locals, who jog and bike in droves, the waterfront is among the most popular tourist destinations in the capital city.

Debates about the future expansion of the waterfront have a familiar ring, as New Zealanders have recently grappled with the appropriateness of a waterfront stadium and how to strike the balance between sustaining a working waterfront, public access and maintaining a pleasant environment for residents. City officials in 2005 completed a long-term plan, Auckland Waterfront Vision 2040, in which Mayor Dick Hubbard begins, “We live in one of the most beautiful cities in the world, and our waterfront is one of our greatest assets. But its potential is yet to be fully realized.” The document is broad in scope and discusses history, themes and ideas for the waterfront that will be incorporated in a master plan with a 30-year implementation schedule. Big ideas.

We need a call to action similar to Auckland’s 2040 vision to imagine the myriad ways our waterfront can showcase our city’s creativity.

Seattle’s zigzagging pathway in the waterfront Olympic Sculpture Park, designed by Weiss/Manfredi, was inspired by Italian hill towns.

5. Seattle

The Olympic Sculpture Park is perhaps the most inspiring and creative waterfront park I’ve ever seen. It has transformed a 9-acre polluted industrial site into open, vibrant green space for people and art. This new park gives Seattle residents and visitors the opportunity to experience a variety of sculptures in an outdoor setting, while enjoying the incredible views and beauty of the Olympic Mountains and Puget Sound. The 2,200-foot zigzagging pathway (inspired by Italian hill towns) leads from a steel-and-glass pavilion on the bluff through four distinctive ecological environments, past stunning art ­pieces and down to Elliott Bay. Through innovation and persistence, design team Weiss/Manfredi was able to work with a dedicated group of public and private champions to achieve what many Seattleites thought was impossible: creation of a seamless and beautiful connection between the city and the Sound.

Back to San Diego’s Future

As we consider how to design and program the new open space at the waterfront, partic­ularly the “linear park” on the Lane Field site, it would be beneficial to learn from Seattle’s and Chicago’s example. They formed a public/private entity to guide the design and programming, engaged exceptionally talented designers and artists, and reached out to the corporate and philanthropic communities for additional support. They set a very clear standard — excellence — and rather than compromise when the budgets increased, they used every possible resource to find more money. In each case, the results are magnificent.

What are the principles that connect these successful, seemingly disparate places?

  • There is uncompromising focus on quality of design, materials and execution.
  • Programming and management were incorporated early in the design process.
  • Art and cultural uses are thoughtfully integrated into the experience.
  • Activation and engagement with the water are of paramount importance.
  • Each is unique, reflecting the values and character of the community.

In every case, strong, sustained leadership has been crucial to success. The leaders have been empowered by the knowledge that they are acting on a broadly shared public vision. Further, they understand that implementing the vision is not solely about making beautiful public environments; it is equally about producing great economic returns for the city. As the Port of San Diego’s newly installed board chairman, Scott Peters, remarked, “And when visitors from around the world mention San Diego’s waterfront in the same breath as Vancouver’s Granville Island, Sydney or even San Francisco or Seattle, it translates directly into money in the Port’s pockets.”

What does this all suggest about the future of our waterfront? It says to me that even though we have a plan and a proc­ess — the North Embarcadero Visionary Plan, guided by a Joint Powers Authority including the Port, Centre City Development Corporation and the city — the hard work has just begun. We are on the verge, it appears, of implementing the first phase of the NEVP, which we applaud, so dedication to the principles above should be our common aim. We have a responsibility to future generations to execute a waterfront plan that inspires, delights and emotionally and physically connects the city to the bay.

Do we have the compelling vision, leadership and shared passion required to create a downtown bayfront that distinctively captures and communicates what we all love about this city? The answer is up to us. 

The Story Behind the Story

When the Port of San Diego put out a request for proposals on the programming contract for the waterfront, including the new $28 million Port Pavilion on the Broadway Pier (which would determine who manages the massive structure when cruise ships are not in port), plenty of the usual suspects responded. Companies that produce street festivals, city parades and even a party rental business (weddings on the pier!) submitted proposals.

One group, headed by developer David Malmuth, was already ahead of the game. He had been at work on a story for this magazine since last summer, profiling other waterfront cities that had accomplished great things and should inspire San Diego to do the same. So he and a team of community planning experts and developers who’ve worked on visionary waterfront developments and programs from Hoboken, New Jersey, to Port Disney in Long Beach to Times Square in NYC submitted a proposal to the Port. His submission did not comply with the Port’s requirements. It did not contain a business model or a proposed calendar of events for the Broadway Pier or Port Pavilion. Instead, his team proposed an exploratory period during which big ideas — crazy, complex concepts, like “Culture Shed,” “Waterfront Improvement District” and “Innovation Capital” — would be considered. He asked for $200,000 and four months to come up with something grand.

 And at a March 8 board meeting, the Port chose the other guy. They selected a New York – based management company that has planned the kinds of events we’ve seen in every city, waterfront or not, for decades: Halloween parades, fireworks shows and blues festivals.

 It begs a simple question: Are we thinking BIG enough about the waterfront? Maybe not. Yet. Here, we asked Malmuth to show us (“Don’t tell us”) examples of other waterfront cities that threw out the step-by-step and leapt toward something grand.        

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