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Downtown San Diego's Unique Urban History and Potential Future Showcase of New Exhibit

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San Diego routinely ranks as one of the most livable cities in the United States, and in addition to the weather and coastal location, many articles praise the city's parks, universities and walkable neighborhoods. But the recently revitalized downtown wasn't always like this. A new exhibit, Rethink Downtown, financed by the Bosa Development Corporation (which is very involved in developing projects in downtown San Diego) and curated by architecture critic Trevor Boddy, looks at the Southern California city's unique history and potential future, and how a once ignored and maligned city center has recently bounced back.

Boddy remembers first visiting San Diego in 1983 and discovering a city on the verge of a turning point. At that point, San Diego was a city of roughly 875,000 people without a real downtown. Centuries after being founded by the Spanish and functioning as a port and trading post, the modern city and its economy, dominated by the city and the Navy, meant the region relied on docks and bases and hadn't developed a strong central core. The downtown as it was lacked high-rises and corporate centers, and a strip of Broadway, historically known as the Stingaree, was home to bars and brothels, according to Boddy.

"Downtown San Diego never built that belt of medium density apartment buildings that you find in other cities, such as Seattle," says Boddy. "It has the docks, and a little commercial area, and then endless suburbs."

In fact, due to the burgeoning military presence and massive population jump during WWII (the city grew from 200,000 to 300,000 people between 1941 and 1943), it was one of the earliest cities to see a suburban building boom. It was also one of the first to find its streetcar systems bought up by automakers and demolished, reinforcing the build-up of surrounding areas. When Boddy showed up in the early '80s, there hadn't been much downtown development for decades, while the aerospace industry and others had grown up in nearby suburban centers.

That began to chance in the '80s with Mayor Pete Wilson and plans to revitalize and develop downtown. During Wilson's term and the next few decades, developers began to reinvest in the city's core, including Horton Plaza, a postmodern urban shopping center designed by Jon Jerde as not only being instrumental to helping redevelop San Diego (it's adjacent to the Gaslamp District, another area that saw rapid development in the '80s and '90s) but also served as a model for future downtown shopping centers.

As the exhibit showcases with a full-scale model of the city and multimedia displays, the city has been in the midst of a development boom since the Great Recession (and seems to have recovered from the previous few year's condo glut). A score of high-rises, including the 41-story Pacific Gate, are reshaping the city's downtown, and the work of local architects such as Rob Quigley, as well as new projects with a focus on public amenities, have helped redefine the rekindle development in the city's center.

"Unlike your traditional dumbbell plan, this was really the first postmodern plaza," says Boddy. "It was a real breakthrough, one of the most successful postmodern spaces in the United States."

As developers began to focus more on downtown, the city began consulting with Canadian developers and city planners, especially those from Vancouver, and using the Pacific Northwest city as a model. The concept of Vancouverism—letting developers build a few stories towers in exchange for adding public amenities to a new buildings, which encourages density and adds public space at no cost to the city—appealed to a municipality with limited funds and a lack of amenities in its downtown business district.

Boddy says he "can't think of anyone doing more to shape a major American city" than Bosa. The exhibit, of course, offers a very promotional view of Bosa and the his company's future plans for San Diego, including a score of downtown development and even more high-rises.

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