After 33 years and a few false starts, Del Mar gets the beautiful, sustainable and useful civic center it deserves

Madonna’s “Like a Virgin” topped the Billboard charts, Super Mario Bros. had just been released on Nintendo, and Ronald Reagan was in the White House. The year was 1985, and Del Mar was having its first go at designing a civic center. The city council tried again in 1991, enlisting the talents of internationally acclaimed New York architect Robert A.M. Stern. But it was not to be. Last month, after 33 years and multiple aborted attempts, our coastal craftsman-style civic center finally arrived.

This time, Seattle-based architect Mike Jobes of the Miller Hull Partnership was the design principal on the project. He was far from alone, however, which may be why the project actually came to fruition this round. Assistant City Manager Kristen Crane diligently managed the entirety of the two years of construction. Mayor Dwight Worden provided vision of the facility as an amenity for the community. And former Council Member Don Mosier — whom Mike describes as “Awesome. Brilliant. He would constantly challenge us to do more, do better.” — consulted on all manner of sustainability. Spurlock Landscape Architects took on the giant task of setting the scene with the terrain. And Mike became a fixture at Les Artistes Inn a couple minutes from the site. He and his team visited the homes of every resident that abutted the site for input.  

Early on, the architecture crew created a space on the side of the old, still-standing building where citizens could mount paper tags. Each one contained a Sharpie-scrawled comment about the civic center plans.

“These yellow tags started to look almost like an art installation,” says Mike. “Once every few weeks the city would send somebody out from its staff to collect the ones that were new. We had a list of every comment that was made…And then the things people commented on started to show up in our design.”

Still, Miller Hull found its first few sketches rejected as too modern. Mike was taken around town and shown buildings that residents did love the look of — a community center here, a church there — and a pattern developed. All of them were residential in scale and manner.

“They didn’t want it to be a big, showpiece building,” says Mike. Delmartians weren’t looking for the Taj Mahal of city government, but they were still looking for a sophisticated building.

“They didn’t want something that looks beholden to a low budget,” Mike says.

The design took into account the buildings’ surroundings. Good use of natural and financial resources was also a priority. Mike placed the buildings in such a way that they could take advantage of existing conditions, dragging coastal breezes into the building and stocking the place with natural light. Windows in Town Hall open automatically based on building temperature. High-efficiency solar panels were added, as was a system for storing the energy for use during the hours when energy costs are highest for the city. Choices for lighting, heating and cooling were all made with efficiency in mind, as were upgrades in insulation and window and door quality — all of which added up to a building that meets or exceeds Title 24’s extensive sustainability standards. But there was more to be done, in the form of thoughtful outdoor planning. Spurlock worked in permeable pavement, made accommodations for recycled water irrigation and incorporated other sustainability additions.

Now that it’s finished, Mike can’t wait to see the spaces that were designed for farmers markets being used. In the upper plaza, there’s an expanse meant to house craft-based booths. Downstairs there’s ample space for produce and food to be sold. In fact, according to Mike, there’s about five times more public space in the finished product than there is office space. You’ll also find far more parking than required by code — 140  spaces — to provide more public parking for downtown.

“You could have no business at City Hall ever and still use this site,” he says. “It adds a public space that was lacking, and that was huge.”

If you’re a sucker for a little something iconic, though, Miller Hull hasn’t left you high and dry. They simply kept it subtle. Take a good look at the cupola atop the new City Hall. You may notice it echoes one across the street, five blocks down Camino Del Mar.

“We really wanted to have the sister to an existing cupola down the street placed upon City Hall,” says Mike. “They talk to each other across town.”