Shell, Yeah: This World-Class Outdoor Music Venue is Almost Always Open

Gorgeous and accessible, The Rady Shell at Jacobs Park has been a dynamic addition to downtown San Diego

The ability to stroll or bike along San Diego Bay is a major quality-of-life factor in downtown.

The people watching is prime. The bayside infrastructure may not be perfect, but it’s inspirational.

There’s the high-masted Star of India. The historic Maritime Museum. The USS Midway aircraft carrier museum. The shops and eateries of the evolving Seaport Village. The sail-topped San Diego Convention Center.

And last year, downtown reaped a major jewel: The Rady Shell at Jacobs Park.

One of the best aspects: You can access the grounds almost any day of the week. You’ll find people sunning. Eating lunch. Chillaxing. It’s a sight to behold.

Uncommon Beauty

Opening night at The Shell. (ALL PHOTOS: Getty Images)

The symmetry of the pristine, open-air Rady Shell lends to its uncommon beauty. This geometrically perfect structure isn’t otherworldly—but the new music venue makes bayside at Embarcadero Marina Park South a divine place to be.

The performance stage gently slopes to a taller-than-you-think height of 57 feet. It’s 92 feet wide across the front. Hundreds of lights, amps, mics and high-tech digital gadgets are installed on The Shell’s specially designed, white canopy.

Of all the interconnected techy bells and whistles, there’s one component that connected me to the big picture during late 2021 performance by the Rafael Payere-led San Diego Symphony Orchestra.

A video camera mounted in the back, stage right.

The camera’s lens provides a stunning and unique picture of this world-class venue.

During the performance, one camera shot pops up again and again on the two video screens that flank the main stage. The angle shows Payere from the perspective of a timpani drummer standing in the back row of the symphony.

Payere’s dark, curly hair is bobbing as he waves the baton. Off in the night sky, beyond the conductor’s gesticulations, you see the ethereal image of the white-sailed roof of the convention center.

Wait. A marina is situated between the bubbly conductor and the southwestern edge of the city. Are we really outside? The acoustics can’t be this incredibly sharp and undistorted.

They are.

Look away from the video screen and glance fully to your right. Yup, there’s the convention center, the Marriott Marquis, the Grand Hyatt.

Pan your vision to the left of The Shell. Those are lights from a ferry, chopping through waves and navigating the bay from downtown San Diego to Coronado.

Some seaside harbor in heaven? Nope. The Port of San Diego.

It’s fantasy made real.

How’d it happen? Let’s look behind the scenes at how this project came to be, how it got funded and the mechanics of why it’s becoming a major attraction.

Show Me the Money

The San Diego Symphony’s new outdoor home.

The search for a permanent outdoor home for the San Diego Symphony spanned nearly two decades.

Numerous sites around the city were considered. Embarcadero Park on San Diego Bay was the temporary site for the Summer Pops Series. Yet, it wasn’t until 2016 that funding for this permanent site began.

The Shell came with an $85-million price tag. Funding it was part of a $125-million “The Future is Hear” campaign, says Sheri Broedlow, vice president of institutional advancement for the symphony.

She says $98.7 million of that came from private philanthropists during the campaign’s quiet phase. Four contributors accounted for $51 million of that total.

Ernest and Evelyn Rady donated $15 million toward construction and Joan and Irwin Jacobs gifted $11. Hence the official name: Rady Shell at Jacobs Park.

The Conrad Prebys Foundation contributed $15 million and the Una Davis Family added $10 million to the cause.

The public portion of the Future is Hear campaign began on May 7, 2021.

How To Build a World-Class Venue

The view from the high-tech stage.

Greg Mueller has been along for the whole 18-and-a-half-year ride to build an outdoor venue for the symphony.

He’s the CEO and design principal at downtown-based Tucker Sadler Architects. The company has had a hand too-many-to-mention city-based projects, including the new Portside Pier dining concept on the bay and Carté Hotel in Little Italy.

Mueller himself has worked on musical venues in Tucson and Albuquerque, as well as the recently completed Southwestern College Performing Arts Center.

“We’ve learned something every time with these venues,” Mueller says.

I ask him to compare the iconic Hollywood Bowl to the new Rady Shell.

He pauses. “I love the Hollywood Bowl,” he says. “The sound at The Shell is unmatched. We’ve got indoor-quality sound in an outdoor venue for 10,000 people.”

The Shell combines two acoustical systems.

Onstage, the Meyer Constellation Acoustic System employs proprietary digital technology to allow performers to hear and respond to each other as if in a top-tier, indoor concert hall.

The L-Acoustics system is installed out in the audience bowl of The Shell. It projects sound through six towers that are angled and strategically placed to eliminate distortion or delay.

On The Shell itself, the white material that covers the stage should look familiar. It’s the same Teflon-fiber outer fabric used on the convention center and at San Diego International Airport.

Made by a company called Fabritecture, the material is built to withstand harsh salt air that comes off the bay and should last for decades before it needs to be replaced.

That same material can also be illuminated. The Shell is covered by 3,368 Traxon LED lights.

Walk On By

Open to the public.

Year-round, the Rady Shell is being put to use for all kinds of corporate events and charitable causes.

The regular season of events starts back up in May. For the 2022 season of scheduled concerts, check out this link.

In keeping with the mission for Embarcadero Park to be for year-round public use, though, Jacobs Park is open any time there’s no scheduled performance.

You can walk–or even bike–onto the sloping grounds and enjoy access and nearly every day of the week. And if you get lucky, you might happen by when an act is doing a sound check for a show that night.

Last year, I was in the right place at the right time to hear Brian Wilson from the Beach Boys warming up.

Good vibrations, indeed. SDSun


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