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  • Caitlin Kelley

Reflections on Sun Harbor Marina, San Diego: A Unique Design to Honor the Sea


Twenty years ago (2002), when LEED (Leadership in Energy Efficient Design) was in its infancy, two women joined forces to revitalize Sun Harbor Marina situated in Point Loma on San Diego Bay. The goal was to create a space sensitive to the bay's natural environment and provide an inviting setting for the public to enjoy. It was an unprecedented endeavor, and the combination of a female owner and a female architect made the design of Sun Harbor Marina even more distinctive.


It all started with a chance meeting at a party where Mary Lou LoPreste, the owner of Sun Harbor Marina, and I were introduced. As we got into conversation, Mary Lou shared with me her dream of demolishing the old buildings of her marina business and creating a beautiful, colorful Italian fishing village. She then asked, "How would you like to design a marina?" After hearing her enthusiasm, how could I refuse? And thus, the journey began to bring Sun Harbor Marina back to life.


The goal was to help promote the local businesses that operated out of the marina and design a place for the community to come and spend time with friends and family. Mary Lou's ultimate dream was to design an environmentally sensitive and special place where the land meets the sea.


Now, twenty years later, in 2022, Sun Harbor Marina is successful and thriving. As Mary Lou and I sat shelling crabs for our evening meal, we reminisced on the adventure of revitalizing her marina. Here's a behind-the-scenes look at what went into the design and how we made history.


Inspiration from the movement of the sea


The inspiration for the design of the marina, located in San Diego Bay, was the movement of the sea. Round forms, spirals, and nautical themes were used to mimic the flow and rhythm of the ocean. Seashells and aquatic colors subtly dotted throughout the project evoke the essence of marine life. Everywhere you look, there is a nod to the beautiful gifts we receive from the ocean's life-giving force.


Using Feng Shui principles to induce balance and harmony throughout the project was essential to Mary Lou. This added another layer of consideration and encouraged different architectural possibilities to enhance the design. Everything, from the placement of structures to the use of color, became specific.


There were moments of surprise as well. The experience of seeing the magical movement of the water reflected on the ceilings of the interior spaces created by the light shelves incorporated into the building design amazed us all. Yet, how could anything better express "the movement of the sea?" The smell of the ocean air and the feelings evoked by the colorful buildings invite relaxation and repose.

Today, the marina is a vibrant hub of activity, from flourishing marine-related businesses, to a popular, busy restaurant and docks with fully occupied boat slips. People come to gather, sip wine and watch the sunset.


The central point of the marina is its 50-foot mosaic fountain, designed as a tribute to the sports fishing industry, with colorful mosaics depicting albacore tuna swimming up and around two cresting waves. The concept evolved from underwater photographs showing the fish in their natural environment, and the fountain captures their beautiful colors and movements in the water—reminding us of the beauty of the natural world by design.


As the project architect, creating a successful design means considering all details. Specific to the success of the project's aesthetic was the landscaping. Mary Lou desired to have plants blossoming at all times of the year. Fortunately, the Southern California climate ensures colorful blooms year-round, and with a smile, Mary Lou said it continues to look gorgeous.


Concern for the business owners


The process of designing and building Sun Harbor Marina took about three years, including receiving permission from the San Diego Port Authority. During this time, it was important that the businesses of the marina continue to function.


By dividing the project into phases, all the businesses could be accommodated, including the sailmaker, mini-storage locker company, yacht sales businesses, and a restaurant. There was a challenge with the cannery and their need for a big refrigeration unit, but they, too, were incorporated into the phasing plan.


Ensuring construction would have a minimal impact on the current businesses was a primary focus during the revitalization project.


Cater to the public


Not only were the requirements for the businesses considered, but the public needs were also addressed. The marina's waterside business consists of boat slip rentals.Sun Harbor's popularity is known, and to this day, there continues to be a waiting list for its slips.


In addition to the land development, the docks and sea walls were refurbished. This included new, environmentally sensitive docks using non-toxic concrete materials, pump-out stations for the slip renters' use, and a public dock and pump-out station for guests sailing the bay to stop by for a visit to the marina or to dine at the popular Pizza Nova restaurant.


Mary Lou and I laughed as we recalled our trip to Sacramento to visit Bellingham Marine's manufacturing facility for the docks. Sketchbook, pebbles, seashells, and aqua-colored glass in hand, we proceeded to show the staff how the docks, too, should mimic the movement of the sea. Scoring a wavy line into wet concrete and scattering pebbles, shells, and glass along one side resulted in one-of-a-kind marina docks.


The marina also includes a conference/recreation room available for functions, meetings, or a place to relax. Showers, lockers, and laundry facilities are provided to slip renters.


The success of Sun Harbor Marina is evidenced by its popularity among boat owners, families, and friends coming to the slips to dock, as well as people enjoying an evening stroll along the promenade.

Care and sensitivity of marine life


From the beginning, Mary Lou consistently emphasized her commitment to designing and building the marina as green as possible. As the project architect, I was eager to meet the challenge. While the design considers the functions of the space, being aware of all the environmental impacts this project would have, was paramount, especially regarding marine life.


Early in the process, it was decided to go for a LEED rating. This meant implementing green building standards and energy-efficient strategies. Out of this endeavor, in collaboration with Bellingham Marine (our dock builders), the team created Blue Standards to establish an environmentally sensitive precedence for the marina industry moving forward.


Seagrass was planted for the little fish to swim and even hide from the bigger fish. Rocks were installed to produce a natural look and allow the tide to break without damaging the walkways and retail establishments. The concrete docks were made out of non-toxic materials, and close attention was paid to the design and implementation of the pump-out stations so as not to pollute the bay.


As a result, Sun Harbor Marina set the precedent used today in marina projects worldwide.


Focus on environmental preservation and energy efficiency


In addition to caring for nature, using sustainable and energy-efficient systems and materials helped preserve the ecological future of the harbor. Deciding to design and build the project to meet LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) Criteria was challenging, and budget constraints influenced many design decisions, construction methods, and material selections. But, with a lot of perseverance, research, and plain old-fashioned grit and vigor, Mary Lou and I were determined to achieve a LEED rating.

As we reminisced about what we could have done differently, we lamented that we were constrained by the technology available at that time. Yet even with these limitations, Sun Harbor Marina exceeded California State T-24 requirements by 38%. The project was the first LEED Certified Green Marina globally and as a result of our efforts, the San Diego Port Authority required all future developments along San Diego Bay to meet LEED Standards.




Sun Harbor Marina was recognized for its environmental commitment with the San Diego Gas & Electric "Earth Award" in 2005.


Reflections on the Sun Harbor Marina design

With all the crab shelled, Mary Lou and I looked at each other and sighed, "We were pioneers!" Working under new green building standards and striving for LEED certification was quite the education. Many building materials were not readily available, and we had to find ways to achieve points despite these constraints.


At times it was frustrating, but our mission was critical and re-building with the environment in mind, and taking all steps necessary to make a vibrant, clean connection between the land and the sea meant an enduring future for the marina. We smiled at each other, recognizing the magnitude of our accomplishment, and feeling proud said, "Shall we do another?"


If you are interested in revitalizing a marina or would like to embark upon an environmentally sensitive project that honors the beauty of nature, contact me at caitlin@caitlinkelleyarchitect.com


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