The real-estate developers behind “Rethink Downtown: Behind San Diego’s Skyline,” a free public exhibit showing downtown through Sunday, call it a “landmark exhibition” and a “significant opportunity to understand San Diego, its past, its present and future.”

On the flip side, a local architecture professor called the exhibit a “publicity stunt” and “a gimmick.” And a curator said she felt hoodwinked by the show’s ambiguous promotion.

Bosa Development, a Vancouver, Canada-based development firm that’s built several high-rise condo towers in downtown San Diego, has been marketing “Rethink Downtown” by using terms like “artist in residence,” “gallery” and “curator.” And the exhibit’s website promotes hashtags like #rethinkpublicart while touting the fact that a newly commissioned, large-scale public art installation adorns the façade of the building housing the exhibition.

“With two public art installations on-site, our exhibition itself is transforming the downtown streetscape,” reads a tagline on the “Rethink Downtown” website.

For a few months after the exhibition opened in September, advertising for it was all over San Diego. Susan Myrland, a local independent curator and arts consultant, came across a “Rethink Downtown” billboard in Little Italy, plus print ads in San Diego Magazine.

“So I went because I thought it was an art exhibition,” she said. “Because that’s the language they used. They couched it in the language of an art exhibition, so I went expecting that. And yes, I was disappointed.”

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Myrland said she was also expecting more of a community engagement aspect to the exhibit – a chance to dig into important issues regarding downtown development.

“But it’s just a marketing tool,” she said. “It’s not really rethinking downtown or rethinking the future. It’s really just rethinking where you want to buy a house.”

“Rethink Downtown” includes a scale model of downtown San Diego. The handful of buildings Bosa’s built in San Diego – plus a few Bosa buildings still on the drawing board – are highlighted with different colors of paint while the rest of the buildings are gray.

The exhibition also includes video, architectural models, a mural by a San Diego State student, historical photos, wall text and an area where people are asked to write down their ideas for improving downtown on three-by-five notecards and hang them on a wall for public view. There’s also been a public lecture series hosted in the space.

Photo by Kinsee Morlan
Photo by Kinsee Morlan

The main exhibit is broken up into several sections depicting turning points in downtown San Diego’s development. It starts back in 1769, when San Diego was settled by the missionaries and the city was centered in the Old Town area, then moves to Alonzo Horton’s founding of a waterfront downtown in 1867. A few other quick history lessons are thrown in, but about halfway through, focus turns to Bosa Development then eventually Pacific Gate, Bosa’s huge residential tower currently under construction just a few blocks away at the intersection of Broadway and Pacific Highway.

By the end, the exhibit starts to feel like a soft sell of Pacific Gate, described as a super high-end luxury condo project that’s slated to open in 2017. There’s even a model of the homes in the Philippines Bosa plans to pay for with a portion of future Pacific Gate condo sales.

“It was an interesting sort of gimmick to promote Bosa’s generic tower that’s everywhere in every city while trying to paint themselves as a responsible company,” said Rene Peralta, a professor at Woodbury School of Architecture who wrote about the show. “I think it’s just business as usual for developers, with a little sprinkle of trying to feel or trying to make it look like they’re doing something responsible. But in the end, I think it’s just about a tower that doesn’t really bring anything to the city or make any ground in new urban housing ideas.”


I met Rick Davis, director of sales of Pacific Gate, at the “Rethink Downtown” exhibit a few weeks ago to find out why a well-heeled multinational development corporation was interested in taking on the role of community museum. I told him about the people I’d talked to who said it seemed more like a nicely dressed marketing ploy.

“We’re not selling anything here,” Davis said. “We’re just telling the story of downtown.”

Davis said Bosa Development’s founder, Nat Bosa, simply wanted to show how downtown San Diego’s architecture and design has evolved through the years. He said downtown’s in the midst of an upturn and Bosa’s filling a big void left when redevelopment, a state program that funded efforts to revitalize rundown neighborhoods, ended.

“(Centre City Development Corp., the former redevelopment agency), when they were in business, they used to have a model of the city and they used to tell the story of downtown San Diego kind of like this but they’re not here anymore,” Davis said. “It’s obviously in our benefit to tell the story now, but it really is something Nat Bosa chose to do out of the kindness of his heart. He could have just made this a sales center and we could have opened up for Pacific Gate sales but we felt it was much more important for everybody to get excited about downtown.”

Davis said Bosa’s the biggest residential builder in downtown San Diego, which is why the company’s story was a big part of the exhibition.

“Whether Nat Bosa sponsored this or not, you couldn’t tell the story without talking about him,” Davis said.

Stacey Lankford Pennington, one of the urban planners behind Makers Quarter, a future East Village mixed-used project that also uses arts and culture in its development practices, said she views “Rethink Downtown” as more than just a clever marketing campaign.

“I think it’s a thoughtful way of engaging the community about the evolution of our city,” she said. “I have a lot of respect for ‘Rethink Downtown’ and the money they invested in the lectures and the exhibition. I mean, it’s developers doing things developers don’t normally do and I think that’s a good thing.”

Davis said the exhibit has been a sizable investment with little-to-no financial return, save for possibly a few business cards or names to add to a list of potential leads when Pacific Gate condo sales begin.

After Sunday, the exhibition and all the marketing surrounding it will go away. The space will convert into a sales office for Pacific Gate and, by the start of next year, the “gallery ambassadors” will become a traditional sales team and they’ll begin selling condos, which Davis said will start in the $1.4 million range.

    This article relates to: Arts/Culture

    Written by Kinsee Morlan

    Kinsee Morlan is the Engagement Editor at Voice of San Diego and author of the Culture Report. Contact her directly at Follow her on Facebook or Twitter. Subscribe to her podcast.

    Don Wood
    Don Wood subscriber

    "director of sales" pretty much sums up the purpose of this "exhibit".  Bosa is trying to soft peddle the fact that it is busy walling off downtown from its bayfront with more and more highrise structures with sprawling podium structures at the base that effectively

    prevent people from moving to and from the harbor front and blocking the bay views of downtown residents and workers living and working in buildings inland from the wall of high rise condo towers Bosa is constructing along the downtown waterfront. San Diego's political leaders are sitting on their hands while they let developers turn our downtown into a standing joke among urban planners worldwide. Only San Diego is stupid enough to waste its most significant geographical asset like this. No other city on the west coast of the US has allowed its bayfront to be walled off. In San Diego, if you want a view of our downtown bayfront, you have to buy a million dollar condo in one of Bosa's towers or pay one of the waterfront hotels $400 a night to see our own harbor.

    Marti E Kranzberg
    Marti E Kranzberg subscriber

    It looks like a brilliant marketing campaign to me.

    Paint job on the exterior:  Looks like art  - that makes it "public art." 

    Model of the city:  I would guess that qualifies as sculpture. Is it self-serving? Sure, but as others have said, it's nice to see it since the CCDC model is gone. 

    The exhibit: Nice historical videos along with some well-executed hype. 

    Lecture series:  Not your typical developer "outreach." Again, part of a brilliant marketing campaign.

    As someone who has been a member of the public with a passion for urban development and a champion of the arts, amenities and quality of life issues, it seems to me Nat Bosa has worked pretty hard to offer some creative thought to our community and our skyline. Yeah, Bosa is making tons of money here, and it would be nice to respect that, and invite him to continue being generous with his philanthropy to improve our City, instead of biting off a hand that could very easily feed so many civic endeavors. Before he takes his marbles and moves to another town to play, I hope he will leave a legacy that is more than just buildings and one that truly enhances our City. It's time for us to "Rethink" how we can engage him in developing our Community and not just residential towers.

    bgetzel subscriber

    Maybe calling it an art exhibition is a stretch. But providing a model of downtown, since none exists since CCDC demise, and providing thoughtful lectures is a public benefit. Bosa did not have to do this, since condos are selling themselves these days. Bosa has built more than a "handful" of developments downtown. He has built 6 to date, with at least 3 more in some stage of planning. Some of these, like Elektra (which reused the beautiful old SDG&E steam plant) have significant architectural merit. Bosa also funded the development of the Monarch School, a school that serves hundreds of homeless kids, in Bario Logan. Developers aren't necessarily bad guys!

    michael-leonard subscriber

    "Bosa Development could have opened the typical sales office with the same, boring old roll-out."

    While Bosa's director of sales doesn't know the difference between selling and PR, Mr. Abbott obviously knows a sales office when he sees it.

    BTW, I wonder how many huge scale models of downtown actually exist. Perhaps the one Bosa has now IS the old one from CCDC; it was an excellent model.

    Jim Abbott
    Jim Abbott subscribermember

    I rather liked Rethink's approach. (Disclosure: I am a retired downtown real estate broker) Rethink's representation as a temporary exhibition was a perfectly curated and synergized with a revitalized downtown San Diego residential market. As far as the naysayers? Poor Nat Bosa -who by the way is a serious philanthropist- is damned if he does and damned if he doesn't. Bosa Development could have opened the typical sales office with the same, boring old roll-out. Instead, they pulled together a thoughtful retrospective and predictive future of downtown San Diego. They're also filling a huge gap left by the elimination of CCDC with regards to public outreach. The effort was fresh, different and welcome change. I hope they continue to challenge the sales, development and public art process in new and unexpected ways.

    Matty Azure
    Matty Azure subscriber

    Is Bosa imitating life, or, is life imitating Bosa?


    Deep Rethinker