Civitas-designed North Embarcadero Waterfront Esplanade Unveiled on Busy San Diego Harbor

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A ribbon-cutting ceremony marked the opening of San Diego’s new North Embarcadero Waterfront Esplanade designed by urban design studio Civitas in collaboration with Spurlock Poirier and Project Design Consultants of San Diego. Twenty years in the making, the new public waterfront space features carefully crafted details sourced from San Diego area fabricators, as well as ecologically sound design elements.

Urban design studio Civitas has designed a dynamic, interactive space along San Diego’s water’s edge that accommodates and engages both large and small-scale groups (photo courtesy of Civitas).

“At certain times of the year, you’ll have three cruise ships … equivalent to three small cities spilling out onto the waterfront landscape.”

Under a cloudy November sky, Scott Jordan, principal of Denver-based urban design studio and strategic consultancy Civitas looked over finishing touches on San Diego’s new $31 million North Embarcadero Waterfront Esplanade as San Diego City and Port officials welcomed the public into the series of sparkling outdoor spaces set to become the city’s new living room. Civitas was lead designer in collaboration with Spurlock Poirier and Project Design Consultants of San Diego for the new North Embarcadero revealed at a November ribbon-cutting event.

“The port is owned by the people of California and we’re dedicated to making sure they can enjoy the property they own and enjoy the water,” said Port of San Diego Commission Chairman Bob Nelson during the recent ribbon-cutting festivities. Added Mayor Kevin Faulconer about the area he called the city’s “new front porch on the bay,” “Today San Diego gets the waterfront it deserves.”

Unveiled in a spirited public ceremony featuring music, street performers and food trucks, San Diego’s new North Embarcadero Waterfront Esplanade forms part of a revitalized gateway to the city’s downtown center and establishes an energized destination within a rapidly developing area of the city. The 1,000-foot-long linear public space adjacent to San Diego Bay is the first phase of a $200 million, 10-phase project which had remained in a conceptual stage for more than 20 years. Part of a team of consultants on the project, Civitas helped evolve an existing master plan to develop a dynamic and accessible urban promenade and series of parks alongside a working waterfront that is home to cruise ships, fishing operations and museums.

“At certain times of the year, you’ll have three cruise ships disembarking on the same day at this location. That’s equivalent to three small cities spilling out onto the waterfront landscape en route to the city,” says Jordan, Civitas project designer for the revitalized harbor area, of some of the complex challenges. “We had to get the proportions right so the space feels great with 100 people in it or 1,000.” Core design objectives included finding ways to gracefully incorporate public amenities within a landscape that must dramatically expand and contract while demonstrating ecologically sound storm water treatment.

Like many urban waterfronts, the North Embarcadero area was cut off from the city by busy roadways. The Civitas design reclaims space previously occupied by streets and parking lots by re-ordering the hierarchy of functions so the first 108 feet of land adjacent to the bay is dedicated to pedestrian activity, including a 30-foot-wide promenade, soft-surface running trail and series of formal garden rooms with native jacaranda groves to buffer against the relocated Harbor Drive. An 8-foot-wide water quality band also interlaces with the landscape and provides visible conveyance and treatment of storm water to the harbor’s edge. “Previously, a high percentage of water went into the bay untreated,” explains Jordan. “The water quality band celebrates the treatment and flow of water and also establishes a rhythm to the space.”

Amid the lush landscape of trees, paths and plazas visitors will find architecturally bold ticket kiosks, shade pavilions, restrooms and a café, designed by acclaimed artist Pae White. Custom lighting, graphics, and furnishings that recall the “craft and heft of the maritime industries” denote the site’s past and the city’s plans for an enduring future. All elements of the project, including plant materials, ground surfaces and furnishing designs, were based on appropriate scale and durability in the coastal environment, and Civitas sourced local companies like Richardson Steel, which fabricated the custom benches and stainless steel rail at the water’s edge, and Acker-Stone, which provided custom pavers set in an intentional pattern that mimics the look of a sandy beach.

“Anyone could spec a gorgeous job like this,” says Mark Johnson, Civitas principal in charge on the project, referring to the new North Embarcadero’s exquisite detailing. “The story is getting it done – convincing the many players to commit to this level of quality. Part of getting that commitment was our focus on the sustainable, authentic and local for the design so that the new waterfront esplanade really feels like San Diego to people at a deep level.”

About Civitas:
With a core purpose of “creating healthier cities,” Civitas is an idea-based practice of urban designers, architects and landscape architects engaged in strategic planning for urban change and project design for built works. Celebrating its 30th anniversary in 2014, the consultancy and design studio advises on a wide range of strategies for re-imagining urban life and places. For more information, visit

iLana Fowler, Civitas, Inc., marketing(at)civitasinc(dot)com, 303.571.0053; Darla Worden, WordenGroup Public Relations, darla(at)wordenpr(dot)com, 307.777.7667

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Darla Worden
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