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Towers Changing Face of Downtown Skyline, But Not Its Soul

If you want to know how much downtown San Diego has changed in the past 20 years, just ask Sandy Shapery, who lives in the 4,500-square-foot penthouse atop the 27-story Emerald Plaza he designed and developed.

“My panoramic water view is disappearing incrementally quite quickly,” Shapery said of the coastal scenery. “I used to be able to see from Mexico to the airport.”

But One America Plaza offices, the Manchester Grand Hyatt, the Grande at Santa Fe Place, and Park Place condominiums and other high-rise developments downtown have changed that.

“That’s progress,” Shapery said. “What are you going to do?”

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Emerald Plaza was built in 1991, and includes the 27-story hotel capped by his penthouse and a 30-story office building located on Broadway between State and Columbia streets.

The penthouse has been used in more than 20 movies, and the towers’ octagonal design boasts both practical and aesthetic applications.

Shapery has developed a number of other properties, including the W Hotel, located on West B Street. He also owns the Sempra Energy corporate headquarters building on Ash Street, which he leases, according to his Shapery Enterprises Web site.

Although Shapery is an attorney and licensed real estate broker, he said he is focusing his time on planning a 40-story downtown tower to be named Shapery Park Center, as well as laying the groundwork for a magnetic levitation train that would travel at speeds of more than 300 mph between San Diego and Los Angeles.

“We have support from most of the planning communities,” he said.


Fun-Loving Nature Revived

Emerald Plaza, in which Shapery has sold his majority interest, stands among a host of other developments that improved the tone of the city’s center from fearful to fun-loving.

After the malls opened in the 1960s, many department stores moved to the suburbs, but they’re coming back, said Nikki Clay, immediate past chairwoman of the San Diego Regional Chamber of Commerce board of directors.

“We’ve come full circle,” Clay said. “The port (district), too. It’s wonderful to get on a bike and be able to feel like a tourist in your own town.”

Kraig Kristofferson, senior vice president in the local office of CB Richard Ellis, said once the growth rate of office space downtown catches up with other markets like Del Mar Heights, Mission Valley and University Towne Center, there will be more commuters downtown.

“People fighting traffic going towards Sorrento Mesa and Torrey Pines will get sick of it,” said Kristofferson, who lives in La Jolla and drives 15 minutes each morning to his downtown office. “A growing number of people drive right past downtown on their way to suburban markets. They’re bumper to bumper, and I’m just whistling by.”

Bill Shrader, senior vice president and principal at Burnham Real Estate’s Urban Retail Group, expects “more of the same” , an increase in hotel rooms, residential and office spaces and retail.

“Slowly, but surely things gradually changed,” Shrader said.

Shapery said someone who lived in San Diego five years ago might now get lost if navigating the roadways by way of old monuments.

He said railroad tracks downtown should be somehow dropped underground or “put in a trench” to eliminate the halts in traffic and the car horn-blowing that he said awakens him at 2 a.m.

After Interstate 8 made its debut in the 1950s, Shapery recalls his father being disappointed that he did not buy land in Mission Valley at the then going price of $20 per acre.

“He felt he had really missed the real estate boom in San Diego,” said Shapery, who added that he and his wife walk “just about everywhere” from his towering center city gem. “I didn’t miss the boom.”

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