University of California San Diego Densifies to Protect Its Landscape – THE DIRT

Pepper Canyon West at UC San Diego / Perkins & Will, courtesy UC San Diego

Like other state universities in California, the University of California at San Diego (UC San Diego) must develop to meet the needs of a rapidly increasing student body. The university currently educates 42,000 students but must accommodate 10,000 more within seven years. Approximately 30 percent of the 1,1150-acre campus is an open space preserve that includes a fragile coastal zone. To protect the campus’ significantly important ecosystems and cultural character, campus plans and landscape architects are weaving in transit-oriented development and critical increasing density in key areas, with up to 23-story residential towers.

During a tour of the campus as part of the American Planning Association’s National Planning Conference, Robert Clossin, director of planning, and Todd Pitman, ASLA, campus landscape architect at UC San Diego, explained that dense new “living and learning neighborhoods” were central to the long-term strategy of balancing growth and nature preservation.

In a campus where parking spaces for cars were largely hidden from view, but hundreds of racks for bicycles were in plain sight, it’s clear the campus planners and landscape architects are trying to move past vehicle dependence and plan for a denser, light-rail- , bike- and scooter-centric future.

After five years of construction and decades of planning, the expansive campus is now connected to greater San Diego through two light rail stops. At the first stop on our tour, the Central Campus Trolley station, Clossin and Pitman, along with Raeanon Hartigan, principal planner for the campus, we walked through a vibrant new “front door” to the campus, which is now under construction.

A new “front door” to UC San Diego at a light rail station / Jared Green

There, landscape architects with the Office of James Burnett (OJB) designed an accessible urban landscape that weaves together an amphitheater that can hold 3,000, and a Design and Innovation Building, designed by architects with EHDD, which will serve as an entrepreneurial hub bringing together students and faculty with community inventors and firms.

A 750-foot-long pathway, a tactile artwork by artist Anne Hamilton, further stitches the new development together. “This is true transit-oriented development,” said Bryan Macias, with capital management projects on campus.

Concordance by Ann Hamilton at UC San Diego / Jared Green

Adjacent to the new trolley station is Pepper Canyon West, which includes two 23-story student housing towers designed by Perkins & Will that will soon house 1,300 students (see image at top). At the base of the towers, which will offer retail, there is a new stormwater management basin also designed by OJB. “The Office of James Burnett is really the glue between projects,” said Pitman.

As we walked further into the interior of the campus, Pitman said the university has recognized the value of landscape architecture over the past decades. Campus leaders realize that the walking and biking experience is central to a successful learning environment. “It’s about focusing on the user experience and connecting the public realm,” Pitman said.

UC San Diego bike racks / Jared Green

Partnering with the Stuart Collection Foundation, UC San Diego has also woven in public art throughout the campus. And this art isn’t just plopped down, but integrated into the landscape and architecture. Through the Stuart Collection program, artists take the lead on finding locations on campus where their art is best suited and then create site-specific works. A triangle park that was once a left-over space between buildings was transformed into a charming community space. Artist Tim Hawkinson partnered with Spurlock Landscape Architects to site his impressive 180-ton Bear sculpture and create a lush park to frame the work.

Bear sculpture and park at UC San Diego / Jared Green

Deeper into the campus, at the Franklin Antonio Hall, a collaborative research and engineering laboratory, the campus planning and design team highlighted their efforts to balance protection of the coastal ecosystems with the need to densify. The building offers views of the enveloping 300-acre preserve.

Franklin Antonio Hall and Open Space Preserve, UC San Diego / Jared Green
Open Space Preserve, UC San Diego / Jared Green

Here, OJB built benches into low walls, but instead of facing the courtyard around the building, they are positioned to provide views over the rugged landscape. It’s one of those subtle, thoughtful touches that highlights the user experience Pitman mentioned.

The landscape immediately surrounding the laboratory, which includes wide fire truck lanes, is designed to be resilient to fire and support the adjacent preserve. In addition to managing all stormwater, the landscape includes 100 percent native plants, which is much higher than the 30-50 percent the campus usually aims for in their projects. “It was really hard to do,” Pitman said. “We pushed the boundaries much farther and made this as sustainable and resilient as possible,” Clossin added.

A winding path in the form of a snake by artist Alexis Smith brings us through coastal shrubs to the Geisel Library, the iconic Brutalist building designed by architect William Pereira in 1970.

Snake Path by Alexis Smith / Jared Green
Geisel Library at UC San Diego / Jared Green

Underground levels added in the 90s increase density. Deep caverns and surface skylights, designed to stream daylight to the subterranean stacks, add depth to the library plaza.

Library plaza surrounding Geisel Library at UC San Diego / Jared Green

And landscape architect Peter Walker’s Library Walk, also designed in the early 90s, terminates at the lower level of the library.

Library walk at UC San Diego / Jared Green

Continuing down Ridge Walk North, a central spine on the campus that offers views of the Sun God Sculpture by artist Niki de Saint Phalle, the bike infrastructure of the campus becomes more apparent. Designed with Spurlock Landscape Architects, Ridge Walk North is actually a collection of landscape projects including parks, plazas, paths, irrigation and lighting systems, and bike lanes that cost $19 million, Pitman said. “It has been the university’s single largest single investment in landscape architecture.” To fix previously unsafe conditions, the project separated bike and scooter traffic from pedestrians.

Ridge Walk North at UC San Diego / Jared Green
Ridge Walk North adjacent bike lane UC San Diego / Jared Green
Ridge Walk North adjacent bike lane at UC San Diego / Jared Green

The walkable, bikeable DNA of the campus enabled planners and landscape architects to densify through additional mixed-use living and learning neighborhoods. That future is being realized in the North Torrey Pines Living and Learning Neighborhood. Designed by HKS, Safdie Rabines Architects, and OJB, the project came out of a tough three-month design-build competition.

North Torrey Pines Living and Learning Neighborhood at UC San Diego / Copyright ©️ the Board of Regents of the University of California

Tiered student residential, educational, and retail spaces frame a central plaza and views of the Pacific Ocean, providing that indoor-outdoor experience so characteristic of Southern California.

North Torrey Pines Living and Learning Neighborhood at UC San Diego / Copyright ©️ the Board of Regents of the University of California

The orientation of the buildings and the open spaces, including layered-in terraces, were purposefully designed to democratize views of the ocean.

North Torrey Pines Living and Learning Neighborhood at UC San Diego / Copyright ©️ the Board of Regents of the University of California

“The sunset is a must-see celebration from these buildings,” said architect Ricardo Rabines. “And students only pay $14,000 in annual tuition and $1,300 a month for rent,” Clossin said. A pretty good deal for La Jolla.

A 10-acre Ridge Walk North Living and Learning Neighborhood is now in development, with beds for 2,000 students, along with a Theater District Living and Learning Neighborhood, also with 2,000 beds for a planned eight college. These neighborhoods are part of the university’s long-range plan to house 65 percent of its students on campus, making it the country’s largest residential campus.

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