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Tuesday, Sep 25, 2012

Graham Downes sees Bankers Hill’s future

Architect plans to replace venerable Mandarin House restaurant with a modern apartment building

By Amy T. Granite
a&c Downes in his 102-year-old, historic home in Bankers Hill
- Photo by Amy T. Granite

In 1910, when Bankers Hill and Middletown were interchangeable names for the neighborhood north of Downtown and west of Balboa Park, a massive craftsman home was built for Frederick Bleeker Jackson and his wife, Mary—Jackson was the director of the Panama-California Exposition, which served as the grand opening of Balboa Park. Now, 102 years later, the home’s most recent owner, architect Graham Downes, is forging a project of his own to improve the neighborhood, and it’s slated for completion by the centennial celebration of the park in 2015.

Downes bought the 6,000-square-foot, historic Klauber home—named after the folks who bought and remodeled it in 1927—back in 2004 and sees the seven-bedroom, three-story wonder not as a work in progress, but a project for life. The frame of the house is a stark contrast to his style of contemporary, minimalist architecture; he muses that people are often surprised to learn that he doesn’t live in a glass box high in the sky.

“I will never sell the house,” Downes told CityBeat on a recent tour of the property. “I’m upside down on it—because I’ve put so much money in—but some things you have to hold on to. This is one of them.”

Downes has found ways to make it aesthetically livable, restoring the woodwork and adding modern touches like the grand, polished-stainless-steel feasting table in the dining room that seats 14. Juxtaposed with mahogany paneling, the space openly flows into the living area that’s outfitted with a mix of furniture he’s collected from New York City showrooms, garage sales and consignment stores.

“The interiors retain the soul of the house without pandering or paying homage to any period,” he explains.

Filling the house is Downes’ enviable collection of local art, a mix of midcentury-modern paintings he bought from Objects U.S.A. and contemporary pieces from Alexander Salazar’s galleries. A painting by Mike Maxwell sits on one of many mantelpieces; a large work by Exist1981 hangs in the upstairs hallway; risqué wire-art by Spenser Little adorns one wall of the dining room. He loves his Victoria Hutchins pieces, noting that her work also decorates his former project, Nine-Ten restaurant in La Jolla.

Despite all he’s done to bring the home from “granny”—as he puts it—to sexy and sleek while maintaining its integrity, he grumbles about the uncertainty of its interior paint job, and walking room to room, he almost ignores its current elements in favor of describing what each will look like one day.

Downes’ home is a reflection of how he imagines a future Bankers Hill. In August, the East Village-redevelopment pioneer purchased three properties on the corner of Fifth Avenue and Maple Street, including Mandarin House Chinese restaurant, an apartment complex that he’s already repaired and flipped and the historic Britt Scripps Inn, a Victorian, eight-room bed and breakfast that he’ll leave as-is but fix up with modern décor, much like he did his home. His goal is to start a redevelopment movement that promotes a densely populated, urban area surrounding the park, and his vision is for a Bankers Hill with more utilitarian businesses for its residents so that they won’t have to drive elsewhere; he cites South Park as a good example.

The project differs from Downes’ East Village and Barrio Logan properties, because Bankers Hill doesn’t have the problem of blight, he says. “It’s growing quite well, but slowly…. What it needs is an incremental basis of improvements—less open parking lots, less derelict buildings and more interesting projects to create diversity.”

Downes believes that diversity is the key to any healthy neighborhood. He points to Golden Hill as the antithesis—where high rollers rent out their Victorian mansions to law firms but live in Mission Hills or Point Loma, where their neighbors are more like them.

“I know for a fact that, here, there are a few quite wealthy people [in Bankers Hill], and there are also people who are starters that may be struggling, living from hand to mouth in small apartments, and maybe roommate-sharing. That adds great diversity to all the commercial aspects and the labor force. It’s healthy for neighborhoods to have diversity at all levels.”  

Downes’ newly acquired property includes one of those huge parking lots, attached to a business, Mandarin House, that he says residents don’t frequent as much as they would a neighborhood market and café. 

“It’s been serving the same food for 35 years. People are foodies now,” Downes says. “At this particular location, it’s run its course. You want a place that responds well to the customer and to the community.”

So, why isn’t Mandarin House an example of the diversity that Downes says is so essential to a neighborhood?

“When a structure has more economic life, I keep it there,” he explains. “New buildings cannot easily achieve that soul of an old building; there’s a sentimental gravitas about them. That’s all good, but I’m not in the business of restoring buildings to memorialize them, like a museum.”

Downes has a reputation for being outspoken on hot-button issues, like homelessness in Barrio Logan—the reason he’ll be moving his offices next year from 16th Street and Imperial Avenue to Little Italy. In 2009, he told CityBeat’s Kelly Davis that building a football stadium Downtown would be “absolutely idiotic” and would be the death of East Village.

Downes’ no-nonsense opinions can be jolting for laid-back San Diegans, but he adores Bankers Hill and is leading the way for other developers to help him make better use of the neighborhood and its central feature—Balboa Park.

By 2015, he expects to have built a 25- to 35-unit, ultra-modern apartment building named Mandarin Haus and a restaurant-slash-market that will encroach into the Britt Scripps Inn grounds with an attached outdoor space that market customers and residents of the new building can use. While Downes once considered building a boutique hotel—his passion—in the area, he says the timing isn’t right. Likewise, folks aren’t looking to buy expensive condos.

“People are less enamored with owning something,” he says. That’s why he’s planning rentable spaces that speak to an urban lifestyle: Small kitchens will push people to local eateries, and minimal yard space will get people to the park.

Like any neighborhood, Bankers Hill has vacant buildings. Mi Arbolito, a skinny high-rise on the corner of Sixth Avenue and Upas Street, is an example of a developer’s ambitions gone awry. The key, Downes says, is understanding consumers and the demands of an area.

While Downes’ project is tame by comparison, the architect is all too familiar with the hurdles developers have to overcome with planning boards. The Uptown Planners, a city-recognized citizens advisory panel, is tough, he says, but he’s optimistic that his plans for Fifth and Maple will go over well.

“I’ve always been of the mentality that with more freedom in development, you’re going to get a greater proportion of good buildings as opposed to bad buildings,” he says. “And when you start limiting what everyone does—by some kind of group of people who have nothing better to do—then you start to posterize a whole area. It’ll never go stale, but it will never be interesting. Like Wonder Bread.”

Amy blogs at saysgranite.com and you can follow her on Twitter @saysgranite.




 
 
 
 
 
 
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