Uptown Orchids & Onions
By Ron James
There’s a lot of architectural high-fiving going on in our Uptown communities this month — and at least a little gnashing of teeth as well. It goes with the territory when the San Diego Orchids & Onions awards are announced. This year the 2009 awards ceremony was held November 12, at On Broadway Event Center downtown. And this year Uptown and neighboring communities got their share of each with five Orchids and two Onions, highlighted by an Onion for what one critic called an “800-pound stucco gorilla” in Hillcrest and a Grand Orchid for a “flawless” neighborhood bar and grill in South Park.
Orchids & Onions has been a program dedicated to pointing out the best and worst in architecture for many years. It was revived and reinvented in 2006 by the San Diego Architectural Foundation, whose mission is to inspire excellence in our “built environment.” The public was encouraged to nominate, comment and vote on the nominations at the foundation’s website (www.orchidsandonions.org). This year there were 24 Orchids and Onions awarded countywide.
The 2009 Orchid winners, for the most part, seem to reflect the austerity brought on by hard economic times for the building industry. The focus was on smaller projects with modest budgets that captured the spirit of the community’s essential needs. The Onions represented the excesses of the last boom with architecturally trendy fluff.
“(There’s) a new sense of responsibility and modesty,” wrote architect and three-time O&O co-chair Maxine Ward in the San Diego Architectural Foundation newsletter. “Recent Orchids & Onions juries have shied away from awarding Orchids to iconic buildings with unlimited budgets … The rationale being that if you have that amount of funds available, it is much easier to create a stunning piece of architecture. (Juries are) drawn more to the smaller low-budget projects that try to do more with less; they are in touch with the current thinking.”
Station Tavern & Burgers: Grand Orchid Award
South Park’s Station Tavern & Burgers, located at Fern and Ivy streets, designed by architect Lloyd Russell, epitomizes that thinking and won the top Grand Orchid Award. The jury felt that the neighborhood eatery scored aces in every judging category including architecture, interior design, urban design, sustainability, historic preservation, landscape architecture and public art. The design creatively incorporates the history of the San Diego electric street cars that rattled down Fern Street in the early 1900s. The tavern has an outdoor patio area similar to a train platform, with an outdoor children’s play area featuring a large wooden trolley.
According the Russell, the project was a serendipitous collaboration with South Park businessman and pub owner Sam Chammas. “I can’t give enough credit to Sam,” said Russell in an interview with San Diego Uptown News. “He had the faith in me to explore all the options as we moved forward in the design process. We wanted a contemporary, sophisticated, but not expensive look that fit in with an older, established community. One that would appeal to the increasingly sophisticated younger population in the neighborhood.”
Russell said their research showed that the triangular parcel had been a turning point for the trolley. “We wanted to embrace the history of the location. When we pulled off the stucco on the side of the old building we discovered redwood siding that had blackened with age. So we have this great redwood siding on the building. We also found a giant, amazing old wooden sign hidden behind some utility boxes — we carefully stored it for a year and now it is a key decorative element in our design. We were responding to what we discovered as we planned. We were looking for the happy accidents.
“Flawless,” said the O&O judges. “The Station is a local gem that can serve to revitalize the neighborhood without contributing to gentrification.”
The ART Produce Gallery: Orchid Award for Public Art
The ART Produce Gallery at 3139 University Ave. is a crown jewel in North Park’s arts movement. The gallery is designed with a street-level transparent exhibition space to showcase works of local visual artists. The small complex was originally built as a market and remodeled and designed by Lynn Susholtz in collaboration with Zagrodnik Thomas Architects. It now houses Cafe Calabria, a taco shop and Lynn Susholtz’s Stone Paper Scissors studio. The complex also includes a community room available to the public for meetings, classes and workshops.
Susholtz, who owns and helped design ART Produce Gallery, has been active in the North Park community for more than 20 years. This is her fourth Orchid award. “I’m very happy the jury recognized the gallery,” she told Uptown News. “It was designed to bring a sense of vitality to the neighborhood, and to generate public discourse … something that public art is supposed to do. I love that people who may not have ever been to a gallery or museum can see art in their own neighborhood on their way to a store or the bus stop.”
The O&O jury stated that “owner/artist Lynn Susholtz and ART Produce made crucial contributions to the visual and social quality of life in the North Park neighborhood. It does much more than a sculpture sitting in the middle of a plaza … It’s a provocation: to think about art in the community.”
Elizabeth Studebaker, Executive Director of North Park Main Street, concurs. “The gallery is widely considered one of North Park’s most respected gallery spaces. Lynn has raised the bar in this community by aggressively showcasing local artists. She has developed a space that encourages public access to art, where discourse and debate happen 24 hours a day. Lynn and ART Produce are two of North Park’s most valuable treasures.
Uptown Onions of a different kind
While Parks both South and North garnered Orchids, Hillcrest got smacked with two Onion awards. One for the planning process for the Uptown Interim Height Ordinance (IHO), and the other for an architectural opportunity missed with the 18-unit multi-family housing project set, appropriately, on Albatross Avenue.
Uptown Interim Height Ordinance (IHO): Onion Award for Planning Policies
According to the jury notes, even the judges had mixed emotions and opinions about the temporary ordinance to cap buildings in Hillcrest at 50 feet. And certainly most community activists and leaders involved in the community planning process took issue with the award, thinking it was more orchid than onion.
The folks who think the IHO is an example of the worst sort of planning are sore that it damages the 20-year old Uptown Community Plan, which embraced smart growth and the City of Villages Framework Plan. They suggest that the IHO will plant five-story monotonous stucco boxes where elegant towers should grow.
The judges had a tough time with this one. They had a heated debate on the core issue, but came down to agreeing that the lack of transparency in getting the ordinance passed was the stinker. “It was less what than how,” they said. “The jury felt the swift implementation of this ‘back door’-brokered ordinance was done without planning protocol, proper public hearings or any real research into either the short-term or long-term consequences of the action.”
“If it is an onion, it’s a sweet one,” countered Benjamin Nicholls, Executive Director of the Hillcrest Business Association. “The ordinance is designed to give us a little breathing room while we have time to reflect and debate, so that we can create a community development plan that is an example for the rest of the city. I think that it got an onion because people didn’t understand its purpose. It’s a shield that gives us time to develop a wonderful plan. And if we don’t have our community plan ready by the time it expires, we’ll ask the city to extend it until we’ve got it right.”
San Diego Planning Director Bill Anderson was one of only two Onion Award winners to show up at the ceremony. He stressed that the interim ordinance was just that, and that a comprehensive community plan for Hillcrest is in the works.
Mission Florence: Onion Award for Architecture
This 18-unit multi-family housing project at 3972 Albatross Ave. was soundly castigated by the jury and commenters on the O&O Web site. A juror called the development “a stucco box with a pornographic use of architectural foam.” A commenter suggested: “This is a big enough Onion to keep In & Out Burger supplied through 2020.”
“Describing this building as ugly would do an injustice to an articulate explanation of what happens when schlock meets Hillcrest,” the jurors explained. “The bulk and scale of the structure fits on Washington Avenue like an 800-pound gorilla in a hobbit house. From arches that appear to have no function and seem to be forced, window openings that do not make any sense on the facade, difficult-looking connections between materials, (to) two-foot long metal railings that makes one ask, ‘Why did you even bother?'”
And then the comments really got nasty, including this gem: “The 70s called and said they don’t want their design style back.”
On a more positive note
Our neighboring communities of Golden Hill, Middletown and City Heights each earned a well-deserved Orchid award.
Euclid Tower: Orchid Award for Historic Preservation
For more than 75 years the 110-foot Euclid Tower has been a cultural and architectural landmark in the East San Diego neighborhood of City Heights. The two-story structure was built in 1932, during the Great Depression, to house one of San Diego’s first drive-in soda fountains. The original Egyptian design was replaced with a colorful geometric design reflecting the ethnic diversity of the community in 1995.
The tower was torn down in 1999 when it began to lean, and was thought to be a public safety hazard. In 2007 the city approved the $100,000-plus funding to rebuild the tower, and it was completed this year based on a design by Richard Bundy of Architects Richard Bundy & David Thompson. There is an ongoing effort to renovate the adjacent Silverado Ballroom and Egyptian Garage.
One commenter on the O&O website summed up the sentiments of the community. “The Tower is a unifying endeavor of many residents’ hard work and love for the community they live in. History notwithstanding, the tower now represents the good and vital part of a community long forgotten. It is a visual display of not where San Diego trolley lines used to end, but … the proud beginning of a community re-named City Heights.”
MXD830 – creative spaces: Orchid Award for Architecture
This eco-friendly mixed-use building at 830 25th St. in Golden Hill leads the way for sophisticated and eclectic development in this evolving community. Mike Burnett and his partner Craig Abenilla of FoundationForForm Architecture, showed courage and vision with this oasis for artists and creative entrepreneurs.
“Mike Burnett’s MXD830 carries forward the San Diego-centric architect/developer paradigm with economy, sensitivity and pizazz,” the O&O jury stated. “The subdued white exterior successfully respects the Irving Gill-designed home on its north side, while providing ample bulwark against a gas station and freeway on the other side.”
“The use of space and contribution to the neighborhood fabric thrills locals and visitors alike,” the jurors noted. “It shows a sophisticated use of materials and of reference to historic architectural moments. This is modern urbanism at its best.”
Not bad, considering the project was part of Burnett’s graduate degree thesis.
Starlite: Orchid for Interior Design
This sophisticated Middletown watering hole and eatery is where the urban San Diego hipsters meet and eat. The Starlite, at 3175 India St., was designed by North Park custom interior designer/builders Bells & Whistles. Like their MXD830 brethren, these folks had a vision and courage to create such an elegant structure next to a freeway, on a road littered with throwaway stucco commercial boxes. And it is evident that the designers and owners Matt Hoyt and Tim Mays put as much thought into the exterior facade as the sleek contemporary interior.
“Passing through a hexagonal slatted tunnel, patrons are presented with a concert of contrasting materials in play with each other,” said the jurors. “Natural elements such as stacked stone, walnut paneling, and cork tiles complement the gold pendants and black leather booths that are always in comfortable relationship with the bar. Topping off a successful formula, a spatially well-developed patio in the back provides a respite from the swanky interior.”