When Developers Dip Their Toes Into Arts and Culture

Arts/Culture UNVEILING THE UNSEEN

When Developers Dip Their Toes Into Arts and Culture

The “Rethink Downtown” exhibition by Bosa Development is just the latest in the trend of developers using arts and culture to engage the community, peddle their products or maybe a bit of both.

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.”

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.”

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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.

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