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You’re at Liberty at San Diego’s former naval base

Liberty Station, original site of a longtime naval training center, is gaining steam as a collection shops, museums, restaurants and parks. There also are condos and a golf course.
Liberty Station, original site of a longtime naval training center, is gaining steam as a collection shops, museums, restaurants and parks. There also are condos and a golf course. Special to The Bee

Ah, “Friday Night Liberty” at the Point Loma Naval Training Center, and all the fleeting freedom and impending bacchanalia that implies …

Barracks lights give off a pinkish glow, and the walls almost pulse in the gathering dusk. Palm trees sway, gulls caw, music wafts down the long colonnades. Cars rush in and out of the front gate under an all-caps sign, “THE FUTURE DEPENDS ON WHAT YOU DO TODAY,” which, on this night, seems more promise than admonition. People have an extra spring in their step, an anticipatory zeal on their faces. You can feel it in the very ions of the briny ocean air. A good time will be had or, at least, mightily sought after.

Once, three decades and several wars ago, these would be sailors cutting loose on an unseasonably balmy February night, getting as far from base as possible. Wild oats sowing before shipping out, reveling before reveille, and all that.

In this new era, though, following the shuttering of Point Loma NTC in 1997, the Friday night action on the promenade, along the waterfront and pretty much everywhere at this sprawling 558-acre stretch of prime real estate, is dominated by civilians coming on-base to slough off the workweek yoke and cut loose.

Two-decades-long civic redevelopment has transformed the erstwhile NTC into Liberty Station, an arts district, retail center and restaurant and bar hub, those handsome Spanish Colonial stucco officers quarters and barracks’ exterior features preserved but the insides re-imagined for non-military use. And on the first Friday of each month, San Diegans and tourists alike revel at special events at their new-old playground that once had a far more serious mission.

 

Though sputtering like a rusted-out propeller upon opening in 2008, Liberty Station has gained its sea legs quite nicely, thank you very much. Even on non-First Friday “Liberty” nights, the joint is jumping.

No fewer than 47 arts and cultural organizations call the base home, from the San Diego ballet to the Women’s Museum of California; cloistered, one-room art studios to large operations such as major comic book publisher and gallery, IDW. Bistros and bars, coffee joints and ice cream parlors, dot the site. The biggest draw is the sprawling Stone Brewing World Bistro & Gardens, drawing craft beer fans in a city obsessed with the libation. There are three hotels, conference and events centers, the old officer’s golf course, a spacious park and esplanade, one of the nation’s most mega of mega-churches (The Rock Church) even its own high school (High Tech High).

But in a metropolis already blessed with leisure-time attractions (Balboa Park, Old Town, Coronado, La Jolla, Gaslamp District, the beleaguered Sea World and world-famous zoo, too many beaches to mention, etc.), does the sun-drenched citizenry really need another diversion?

Apparently so.

A wave of art and alcohol

February’s “Friday Night Liberty” unfurling went a long way toward making the case. Up and down the north and south promenades, centered by gorgeous expanses of manicured lawn and palm and eucalyptus trees battling for arboristic supremacy, activity teemed.

At Building 202, just to the starboard of the erstwhile NTC Command Center, the San Diego Watercolor Society was packing them in, ostensibly to imbibe in the opening of its latest juried show, “Passionate Paint,” but also because the chardonnay was flowing.

At the San Diego Comic Art Gallery, people milled about squinting at the precision of “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles” co-creator Kevin Eastman’s latest drawings and quaffing with impunity from an ice bucket brimming with Belching Beaver Brewery’s “Rabid Beaver Rye IPA.”

In the upper corridor in Barracks 15, Celtic harpist Kathleen Hartshorne was singing a plucky Neil Young tune while listeners sat rapt on folding chairs – at least until the cheese squares and Ritz crackers were broken out.

Barracks 17’s studio space featured an interactive performance in which audience members were invited to make their own collages via provided materials while listening to the acoustic song stylings of Christopher Dale, whose heartfelt ode to love and ice cream (chorus: “Melt away with me …”) went well with the vino being sipped. They tended to gulp more than sip over at Pinot’s Palette at Building 201, its gimmick being that you drank while you painted and that Cezanne-inspired still life will turn into a Pollockian abstract.

High brows wandered over to the North Chapel, one of the few venues untouched during reconstruction, for a San Diego Opera-sponsored, bi-hourly performance of arias from Mozart to Verdi, with a touch Sondheim thrown in for modernists – no beverages, not even communion wine, allowed.

It might be a stretch to say that the arts built Liberty Station – many insist the joint really didn’t start jumping until 2013, when Stone Brewing opened – but it is clear Liberty Station helped promote, and save, the arts. As in many big cities, rents for small studios or even medium-sized museums can be prohibitive. Balboa Park’s space has long-since been claimed, ditto Old Town.

Phyllis Newton, a board member of the Visions Art Museum of Contemporary Quilts, said the affordability of the space in Building 202 finally enabled Visions to have a permanent home. (NTC Foundation director Alan Ziter told the San Diego Union-Tribune in July 2015 that rents for tenants are “more affordable than at street or mall locations” and that nonprofits receive subsidies. A recent report released by San Diego broker Marcus & Millichap stated the average retail rent in the city is $22.79 per square foot.)

From 1986, the quilt museum bounced around from venue to venue, alighting for a while as part of the San Diego History Museum in Balboa Park, then at the Oceanside Museum of Art. But in 2007, it became one of the first tenants at Liberty Station, not yet even officially open.

“We discovered this was a nice place to be and the price was sure right,” Newton said. “For a while it was just us and the Watercolor (gallery). On a Sunday … if I was covering the museum desk, there was nobody here except the Watercolor (worker). We’d sort of wave to each other so we’d know we were here. Gradually, it picked up. Now, it’s doing great. The location is perfect. And the different arts groups all support each other.”

An armada of offerings

So much so, in fact, that artists who merely rent rehearsal space can, with gumption mixed with a small injection of capital, hang their own shingles. It happened to Maria del Mar Hinojosa, who parlayed her flamenco dance lessons at a Liberty Station performance center into an alcove-sized retail space, Pure Flamenco, where she sells her handmade skirts and imported dance shoes with positively lethal heels.

“This is perfect,” she said. “I can teach my classes, then come back to the store. They (the NTC Foundation, which runs the facility) were looking for artists. They still are. And I needed to be where the arts people are.”

Such sentiments are often echoed at Liberty Station. Eastman, of “Ninja Turtles” fame, said he helped persuade comic-book publisher IDW’s owners to relocate to Liberty Station after 20 years at another San Diego headquarters and open a ground-floor gallery to draw comic fans.

“We’ve all watched Liberty Station grow as a community, and it’s been impressive,” Eastman said. “There’s an artistic mentality that’s awesome. They could’ve easily leveled this whole area and put up condos, but instead they chose an interesting dynamic.”

For the record, the Corky McMillin Companies, chosen by the city’s redevelopment agency as the developer, did build 349 homes (some million-dollar plus) and pricy condos on 96 acres on the far western end of the base and reserved 380,000 square feet for office space. Somehow, though, the artistic and the residential don’t clash and, in fact, seem to almost seamlessly weave into a unified front. Maybe that’s because even the condos are built in the stuccoed, red-tile-roofed Spanish Colonial architecture on NTC proper.

This bridged gap between arts and commerce is best exemplified by the 3-year-old Point Loma Tea, whose Barracks 14 digs is surrounded by studios.

“They’ve planned it well and, of course, it’s still a work in progress,” owner Cheryl Graf said. “It’s a community that works together. I, personally, like the historic nature of the buildings. You know, my dad trained here. I didn’t even realize that until I rented the space. It’s much more special than being located in a mall or someplace.”

The rich military history of the site is everywhere, yet not oppressive. At times, it almost feels as if the Navy’s role is being gently nudged aside, used only decoratively. Only a few men in uniform can be seen haunting the happy hours at Stone Brewery, Soda & Swine or Slaters 50/50. One is Tony Shepherd, a master sergeant at the Marine Corps Recruit Depot, located a mile south near the airport.

“Believe it or not, this is my first time here,” he said, then laughed. “Well, I am a busy man. But I have to say it’s really nice what they’ve done, especially how they maintained the buildings and just did something different on the inside. … It’s a big military town, so you want to save these historical landmarks.”

Naval history endures

Those seeking some naval gazing here can find it at the Dick Laub NTC Command Center, the stuccoed centerpiece bordered by Ingram Plaza to the aft and Fieldstone Legacy Plaza to the fore. There’s an exhibit detailing the “Life of an NTC Recruit,” complete with examples of the various uniforms worn and the only hairstyle favored – buzz cuts.

One fascinating vintage photo shows a base barber shaving a recruit’s head to the nub while another recruit pushes vast pelts of shorn locks off the floor and out the door. Another exhibit is a tribute to the late Vice Adm. James Stockdale, a POW probably best known as Ross Perot’s running mate in the 1992 presidential election. Give the Navy credit, it didn’t gloss over Stockdale’s embarrassing performance in the televised vice presidential debate, during which Stockdale looked confused and said, “Who am I? Why am I here?”

Early on in Liberty Station’s second act, many residents and tourists might have been muttering the same refrain, “Why am I here?” But now, the NTC Foundation keeps adding to Liberty’s lures. A six-screen movie theater is being built in yet another historic building and, early this spring, the Liberty Public Market will open in a cavernous space between the Stone Brewing site and the galleries of Barracks 14. It’s probably no coincidence that the neon sign already erected is in the same font and three-tiered stack as the Pikes Place Market sign in Seattle.

It’s all about generating more customers. Because, at a place where once such a phrase as “foot traffic” referred solely to marching in order to win hearts and minds of the enemies, now it’s about reaching people through their eyes and stomachs.

Sam McManis: 916-321-1145, @SamMcManis

Liberty Station

For a complete listing of the arts organizations, museums, businesses and restaurants at Liberty Station in San Diego, go to ntclibertystation.com.

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