The idea to build a giant sculpture on the waterfront seemed to drop from the sky, stirring up a flood of comment and emotion.

Now, it’s officially time for the public to weigh in. On Tuesday evening, local residents will get their first in-person chance to weigh in on the plan.

The sculpture’s designers planned it to be an iconic landmark to represent San Diego to the world for decades. But once the renderings became public, reaction was mixed. Detractors call the piece a view-blocking eyesore, drawing comparisons to bunny ears, a hood ornament or worse.


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Does the mammoth “Wings of Freedom” sculpture deserve a place on the city’s waterfront? And what about the rest of the proposal to remake the Navy Pier, estimated to cost between $65 million and $75 million?

Here’s a reader’s guide to what you need to know to help you decide.

What’s planned for Navy Pier?

The $35 million “Wings of Freedom” piece of the project is proposed to be built on the end of the Navy Pier next to the existing USS Midway Museum.

The proposed remodeling of the rest of the pier has gotten less attention than the sculptures. It will feature a lower-deck parking lot for about 500 cars — about 100 more spaces than exist now — and a landscaped upper deck that would become a park of about five acres for arts events.

The existing four-story Navy building would be torn down.

The Union-Tribune has background about the pier’s history (it was built in 1928) and other ideas for its future, including “hanging gardens.”

What are the sculptures and where are they going to go?

In the proposal, one of the sculptures is 500 feet tall; the other is 400 feet. Both will be made of steel and titanium, and they’re to be installed on opposite sides of an amphitheater on the top deck of Navy Pier. The sculptures are supposed to look like wings or sails.

As a reference point, the three tallest buildings downtown are all close to 500 feet: One America Plaza, Symphony Towers and the Manchester Grand Hyatt.

The sculptures are “indisputably a bold concept to memorialize the veterans, explorers and entrepreneurs who helped create San Diego,” writes Bob Nelson, a commissioner on the board that runs the Unified Port of San Diego.

Midway officials see it as “a perfect example of wings of freedom, sails of freedom. … And that’s the beauty of art and architecture. It’s open to interpretation and people can see what they want in the structure” said Greg Mueller, CEO of Tucker Sadler Architects, which helped design the project, in an interview with KPBS.

The project’s website includes more details about the proposal and a visual presentation.

The project sparks several questions.

Will the height of the sculptures cause problems for airplanes, and will they have blinking nighttime lights at their tops like skyscrapers? Could they suffer from the glare problem that turned L.A.’s Disney Concert Hall into a nuisance for drivers and neighbors (whose condos heated up)?

And how will they be attached? The U-T’s initial story has details:

They would be constructed out of sheets of titanium attached to a steel structure, reinforced with extra pilings and foundations 80 feet below the pier — and engineered to withstand 70 mph winds.

Who’s going to pay for all this?

The port counts on a public/private partnership to pay for the estimated cost of the project, $65 million to $75 million. Philanthropist T. Denny Sanford has agreed to pay for the sculptures, to the tune of $35 million, says the project’s website.

Sanford, a South Dakota businessman and chairman of a banking company, is no stranger to making giant donations. The Chronicle of Philanthropy named him the nation’s third most generous philanthropist in 2010, when he gave away more than $162 million.

I want to die broke,” Sanford told Forbes magazine in 2007. He’s not kidding. The story says his will stipulates that his money will be disbursed upon his death and not end up in a foundation.

Sanford, who’s 75, has given hundreds of millions of dollars to medical causes. Among many other causes, he’s also supported universities, teacher training and an evangelical Christian missionary group.

Locally, he’s donated or pledged tens of millions to the Sanford-Burnham Medical Research Institute, which has a branch in La Jolla, and the San Diego Consortium for Regenerative Medicine.

If he ends up paying for “Wings of Freedom,” it won’t be the first time he’s supported a controversial memorial: he’s pledged or donated $9 million to the Crazy Horse Memorial in South Dakota, which some Native Americans oppose.

Who’s the artist behind this?

KPBS says “partial credit” for the wings sculpture goes to artist Malcolm Leland. But there’s a problem: The sculpture doesn’t look much like Leland’s original concept, which “was an outdoor amphitheater with two large sails that could fold down over a seating area to shield the audience from rain or harsh sun.”

Leland, who turns 90 years old this year, told KPBS that he’s “frustrated that they’re not using my idea because it’s so simple.” He says he understands technical and financial challenges could be in the way. The estimated cost of his original project was $130 million.

“I’m kind of in the dark. It’s so far beyond my having any effect on it I don’t spend a lot of time worrying about it,” he said of his original idea. “It was an honor to have done the original and maybe someday somebody will build it.”

What’s been the reaction to “Wings of Freedom?”

Deeply divided over its aesthetics, its purpose and its effect on the waterfront view.

Mary Beebe, director of University of California, San Diego’s Stuart Collection of public artwork, called the wings “silly beyond words” and called for a piece that would be “far more elegant and beautiful and noteworthy.”

A reader commenting on the U-T story, Kathy Cunningham, said “the sculpture is beautiful and enhances the bay view. … Nothing ever gets done in SD because so many people have negative opinions on just about everything..it’s a shame.”

Some others are in the middle, calling for calm consideration instead of “sneering derision.”

Cory Briggs, an attorney for an environmental group called the Navy Broadway Complex Coalition, said his group supports the park “but the icon should not be another permanent structure that blocks views of the bay.”

To capture a sense of the debate, check our compilations of comments here and here.

Have there been other public art projects proposed for the waterfront?

Absolutely. Though the bay is stunning on its own, San Diego has insisted on a variety of art projects along the water.

For example, the port district’s “Urban Tree” sculptures — each based in a planter box — peppered the North Embarcadero for seven seasons. The final exhibit ended last month.

The port features several permanent sculptures. Most notably, a 25-foot-high sculpture at Tuna Harbor Park invokes the famous photo of a sailor kissing a nurse in Times Square. It’s part of the “Greatest Generation” collection of works about the military.

At least two previous proposed art projects on the waterfront stirred up vigorous debate.

In the late 1990s, artist Nancy Rubins proposed to create a 102-foot arch of fiberglass boats over a street near the convention center. The public rose up against the “shipwreck,” however, and San Diego Metropolitan Magazine complained it brought “hurricanes, perhaps mutiny, certainly claims against insurance policies” to mind.

The Convention Center killed the proposal and dumped Rubins. “I’m sorry you’re so petty,” she told a board member; she later created a similar sculpture for the Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego.

And in 2003, critics went bananas about a proposal to build a $50 million civic fountain featuring five bronze killer whales tethered to a five-story-tall sculpture of Neptune.

It was a “kitschy retread of Soviet-style socialist realism,” complained a coalition of local art types. “If this is the future for art in public places here, then let’s have public places without art,” wrote then-art critic Robert Pincus. The proposal vanished without a trace.

What’s Next?

Three public meetings have been scheduled to collect input about the development project for the pier, including the wings.

They’ll be held at the Port of San Diego, 3165 Pacific Highway at the following times:

• Tuesday from 5:30-7:30 p.m.

• Tues., Dec. 6 from 5:30-7:30 p.m.

• Sat., Dec. 10 from 9-11 a.m.

The board that runs the port district will meet Dec. 13 to discuss what to do about the project.

Meanwhile, leave us a comment below: What do you think of the project? What questions do you think still need to be asked?

Please contact Randy Dotinga directly at randydotinga@gmail.com and follow him on Twitter: twitter.com/rdotinga.

    This article relates to: Arts/Culture, Government, News, Reader's Guides

    Written by Randy Dotinga

    Randy Dotinga is a freelance contributor to Voice of San Diego. Please contact him directly at randydotinga@gmail.com and follow him on Twitter: twitter.com/rdotinga

    32 comments
    joe vargo
    joe vargo subscriber

    I've resisted commenting on this for various reasons. But to make light of it like everyone else. How about microphones in those giant rabbit ears, so city hall can better interpret the public's discontent.

    joev
    joev

    I've resisted commenting on this for various reasons. But to make light of it like everyone else. How about microphones in those giant rabbit ears, so city hall can better interpret the public's discontent.

    Susan Baldwin
    Susan Baldwin subscriber

    I find it interesting and rather sad that the proponents of this boondoggle are pushing for it at this time of dire economic stress. Furthermore, why do they think a pair of huge rabbit ears would be a better view than the beauty of San Diego? I think their egos are getting in the way here. I would really like to know how many people support this. Is the donor getting a huge tax write off? Not a good time for that either. Sorry, but times are tough, spend the money on a state of the art library and help educate our citizens instead. San Diego is quite beautiful as it is, and so is the waterfront. Let's get real here folks!

    Susan Baldwin
    Susan Baldwin

    I find it interesting and rather sad that the proponents of this boondoggle are pushing for it at this time of dire economic stress. Furthermore, why do they think a pair of huge rabbit ears would be a better view than the beauty of San Diego? I think their egos are getting in the way here. I would really like to know how many people support this. Is the donor getting a huge tax write off? Not a good time for that either. Sorry, but times are tough, spend the money on a state of the art library and help educate our citizens instead. San Diego is quite beautiful as it is, and so is the waterfront. Let's get real here folks!

    David Cohen
    David Cohen subscriber

    If the Midway Museum is required by its Coastal Commission permit to allow unpaid public access to part of its deck area (VOSD--please fact check that) then the CC should seek court action to shut them down until they comply.

    fryefan
    fryefan

    If the Midway Museum is required by its Coastal Commission permit to allow unpaid public access to part of its deck area (VOSD--please fact check that) then the CC should seek court action to shut them down until they comply.

    Don Wood
    Don Wood subscriber

    g less would be a violiation of the California Coastal Act and the Midway's CDP.

    Don Wood
    Don Wood

    g less would be a violiation of the California Coastal Act and the Midway's CDP.

    Steven George
    Steven George subscriber

    What is the point of this sculpture, blocks the view of our waterfront, doesnt generate any revenu. Why not install a sculpture with a large middle finger sticking up?

    kitbasher79
    kitbasher79

    What is the point of this sculpture, blocks the view of our waterfront, doesnt generate any revenu. Why not install a sculpture with a large middle finger sticking up?

    Don Wood
    Don Wood subscriber

    As the UT and KPBS have reported, Leland is very disappointed at what Sadler, Burnham and the Midway have done to his original concept. It was never intended to be a 500' tall monstrosity.

    Don Wood
    Don Wood

    As the UT and KPBS have reported, Leland is very disappointed at what Sadler, Burnham and the Midway have done to his original concept. It was never intended to be a 500' tall monstrosity.

    Don Wood
    Don Wood subscriber

    Several commentors at this evenings public workshop on this project called the giant "wings" monument a "monstrosity". They noted that the Midway Carrier is already a major icon our our bayfront, a "monumental battle proven machine" and said there is no need to build another competing "monument" right next to it. Others said that raising the deck level of the pier would take away from the views of the carrier, making its deck appear to be an extension of a parking lot. The real question is will the coastal commission allow the Midway to renege on its promises and the conditions of its coastal development permit which requires that all parking be removed from the pier and a new public park be built on the existing pier deck, instead of covering the entire pier with a two story tall parking garage.

    Don Wood
    Don Wood

    Several commentors at this evenings public workshop on this project called the giant "wings" monument a "monstrosity". They noted that the Midway Carrier is already a major icon our our bayfront, a "monumental battle proven machine" and said there is no need to build another competing "monument" right next to it. Others said that raising the deck level of the pier would take away from the views of the carrier, making its deck appear to be an extension of a parking lot. The real question is will the coastal commission allow the Midway to renege on its promises and the conditions of its coastal development permit which requires that all parking be removed from the pier and a new public park be built on the existing pier deck, instead of covering the entire pier with a two story tall parking garage.

    Kelly Bennett
    Kelly Bennett memberauthor

    The result is a vision calling for a pair of dramatic sails at the head of Navy Pier, representing the unique community fabric of San Diego. A signature architectural element that could be seen from many points in San Diego Bay and become the defining image of San Diego’s downtown skyline. The sails would become internationally recognizable as the defining image of San Diego."

    kellybennett
    kellybennett

    The result is a vision calling for a pair of dramatic sails at the head of Navy Pier, representing the unique community fabric of San Diego. A signature architectural element that could be seen from many points in San Diego Bay and become the defining image of San Diego’s downtown skyline. The sails would become internationally recognizable as the defining image of San Diego."

    Jim Jones
    Jim Jones subscriber

    What would be cool would be instead of wings we put a giant "dipping bird" constantly dipping his big red beak into the bay, then standing upright, over and over again, to signal no matter how many stupid ideas from our public officials we knock down, they always come back with a new one!

    Jim Jones
    Jim Jones

    What would be cool would be instead of wings we put a giant "dipping bird" constantly dipping his big red beak into the bay, then standing upright, over and over again, to signal no matter how many stupid ideas from our public officials we knock down, they always come back with a new one!

    Nick Gomogda
    Nick Gomogda subscriber

    I agree that the design should be more elegant and fine tuned, but overall i think it'd be a very cool addition to our downtown area and our city as a whole.

    SDRHYTHM
    SDRHYTHM

    I agree that the design should be more elegant and fine tuned, but overall i think it'd be a very cool addition to our downtown area and our city as a whole.

    Eva Vargas
    Eva Vargas subscriber

    So it's being donated . . . how about DONATING the money to our CIP Fund.

    evavrgs
    evavrgs

    So it's being donated . . . how about DONATING the money to our CIP Fund.

    Eva Vargas
    Eva Vargas subscriber

    To make it more functional and since we are a tourist town, how about putting rocks on it and using it as a climbing exercise? Not a good idea I guess, but spending the money on this thing when our neighborhoods are deteriorating--shameful. Some people are just clueless.

    evavrgs
    evavrgs

    To make it more functional and since we are a tourist town, how about putting rocks on it and using it as a climbing exercise? Not a good idea I guess, but spending the money on this thing when our neighborhoods are deteriorating--shameful. Some people are just clueless.

    Dana Springs
    Dana Springs subscriber

    I would like to see some clean up done in headlines, article texts and any image captions that attribute "Wings of Freedom" solely to Malcom Leland. KPBS has well established that the proposal is not entirely his work and, therefore, it should not be attributed to him alone. In my opinion, KPBS' articulation that Leland deserves "partial credit," may even be a little stretched. I think "Proposal by Tucker Sadler Architects inspired by Malcolm Leland" may be a bit more on the mark. The integrity of an artist's body of work is very important; let's respect Leland's creative legacy by providing accurate attribution. SDUT: Same comment.

    DSprings
    DSprings

    I would like to see some clean up done in headlines, article texts and any image captions that attribute "Wings of Freedom" solely to Malcom Leland. KPBS has well established that the proposal is not entirely his work and, therefore, it should not be attributed to him alone. In my opinion, KPBS' articulation that Leland deserves "partial credit," may even be a little stretched. I think "Proposal by Tucker Sadler Architects inspired by Malcolm Leland" may be a bit more on the mark. The integrity of an artist's body of work is very important; let's respect Leland's creative legacy by providing accurate attribution. SDUT: Same comment.

    Charles Rickman
    Charles Rickman subscribermember

    Some people would say no to anything, including someone else paying for this memorial. I find these Bold, exciting and its about time San Diego had an icon on the waterfront. The 35 million is being donated people. Get a grip!

    tellmewhy
    tellmewhy

    Some people would say no to anything, including someone else paying for this memorial. I find these Bold, exciting and its about time San Diego had an icon on the waterfront. The 35 million is being donated people. Get a grip!

    Dennis Copson
    Dennis Copson subscriber

    Please tell me they are kidding with this monstrosity. I say let the voters decide on this mind-boggling idea. Put it on the next ballot and let everyone in San Diego County vote it up or down. I can't see the average person approving of this boondoggle.

    87marine
    87marine

    Please tell me they are kidding with this monstrosity. I say let the voters decide on this mind-boggling idea. Put it on the next ballot and let everyone in San Diego County vote it up or down. I can't see the average person approving of this boondoggle.

    bruce beyor
    bruce beyor subscriber

    WINGS on the waterfront at $35,000,000 is just short of crazy. Pot holes, badly designed convention center, downtown needing an infusion and so on. Yet, we are actually considering a multi million dollar piece of art that will not generatecitty income. DUH!!!!!!!

    Grumpy
    Grumpy

    WINGS on the waterfront at $35,000,000 is just short of crazy. Pot holes, badly designed convention center, downtown needing an infusion and so on. Yet, we are actually considering a multi million dollar piece of art that will not generatecitty income. DUH!!!!!!!