Sept. 8 2010 10:39 AM

Conferences like these need to happen more often

Probably due in large part to having been scheduled on Labor Day weekend, precious few of San Diego’s civic leaders attended last Saturday’s Art in the City conference, and that’s too bad—those not there missed a rare opportunity to take in a big-picture conversation about what makes a city a dynamic place to live and visit.

Let’s take a moment to mention some of the leaders who were there.

We saw San Diego Planning Director Bill Anderson, Port Commissioner Lee Burdick and Centre City Development Corp. Vice President Jeff Graham, but that’s about it.

It would have been nice to see more mucky-mucks with decision-making ability planted in the seats at the Bayfront Hilton. They would have heard from visiting speakers who’ve helped get things done in other cities—Chicago, Miami, Philadelphia, Toronto, Baltimore, New York City—and some local critics who had some choice words for San Diego’s reputation for foot-dragging and spinelessness.

For example, Mary Beebe, longtime director of the Stuart Collection of outdoor art installations at UCSD, who followed a presentation on Chicago’s $132-million Millennium Park, expressed disgust with San Diego’s squeamishness. “It’s so discouraging, I don’t want to participate in these things anymore,” Beebe said, reflecting on the city’s missed chances to score public installations by artists Ellsworth Kelly, Nancy Rubins and Vito Acconci.

In contrast, she noted Chicago Mayor Richard J. Daley’s attitude toward public controversy in the 1960s over the Picasso sculpture in front of Chicago’s civic center: “I don’t care what people think—we are going to do this.” Beebe’s paraphrase of Daley drew a rare spontaneous eruption of applause from the small audience.

And Marco LiMandri, executive director of the Little Italy Association, used a slideshow to ridicule San Diego’s underwhelming waterfront and derided its policy to “cage” groups of people drinking adult beverages in fenced-off areas. “There are things we do in San Diego that are absolutely nuts,” LiMandri scoffed.

LiMandri described himself as someone who’s not terribly fond of “process.” And, indeed, plowing through red tape and opposition was a recurring theme on Saturday. Developer and art collector David Lombardi, whose property investments have helped expand Miami’s thriving Wyn wood Art District, gave a wry smile as he told a story in which a public official said to him, “Don’t worry about zoning. We’ll write something to make it work.”

Certainly, helping a developer by tweaking the rules, or sidestepping a messy process, or ignoring noisy opposition—these aren’t always the right things to do. Often, noisy opponents rely on messy processes and cumbersome rules to beat back bad projects. Interestingly, Saturday’s program prompted us to consider our own opposition to the new Downtown library, a stance based on the reality that the city will have to dig into its empty pockets to finish it if private donors don’t come up with $32.5 million. If they do, perhaps years from now, someone from San Diego will appear at a conference in, say, Cincinnati and talk glowingly about the audacious decision that made a spectacular public building possible. Millennium Park was beset by cost overruns and lawsuits on its way to becoming what developer Robert Wislow said has been a huge economic booster for Chicago.

Literally and figuratively, everything on Saturday led up to San Diego’s waterfront. Developer David Malmuth, who organized the conference as an offshoot of the weekend’s Art San Diego contemporary art fair—which was spearheaded by his girlfriend, Ann Berchtold—wants the Port of San Diego to refocus its embattled campaign to beautify the embarcadero as an arts-oriented development.

The last session of the day was dedicated to the waterfront, and Malmuth’s friend, architect Stan Eckstut, who acknowledged a desire to work in San Diego, was the prime speaker.

Eckstut said it’s not open space that makes a public place great. “We’re discovering that it probably has more to do with arts and culture,” he said. Eckstut no doubt invigorated the crowd with criticism of the Port of San Diego’s decision to build a cruise-ship terminal on Broadway Pier, which, he said, should instead be a focal point of a perpetually active waterfront, alive with cultural programming and designed to capture people’s imaginations.

And that was the point of the conference, really—to explore the benefits of cutting through the day-to-day political crap and seizing opportunities to create special places that recharge our spirit and, well, help us feel good about who we are and where we live. We just wish more of the right people were there to hear it.

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