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Retail Oasis Or Ghost Town? The Future Of San Diego Malls

Horton Plaza in this undated photo
Neiko Will
Horton Plaza in this undated photo

Deserted corridors, empty stairways and shuttered storefronts. That's mostly what you'll find these days at Westfield's Horton Plaza in downtown San Diego.

Horton Plaza and the surrounding Gaslamp District have had a reversal of fortunes in recent years. When the mall first opened in 1985, the Gaslamp District was considered sketchy.

Roger Showley covered San Diego growth and development for the San Diego Union-Tribune for decades. That perception, he said, factored into the mall’s design.

“The way it was designed in '85 was sort of a fortress. Mainly because the property around it was not all that safe at the time. It was designed that way, it limited access. Now that’s a disadvantage to Horton Plaza,” he said.

Since then, San Diego’s Gaslamp District has been revitalized, blossoming into a tourist destination, instead of a place to be avoided. Meanwhile, Horton Plaza has become a shell of what it once was.

Unibail-Rodamco-Westfield owns and operates Horton Plaza. And if it’s a neglectful parent to its downtown property, it dotes on UTC.

Westfield’s sister venture in La Jolla is on the tail end of a complete makeover. Along with new stores, restaurants and even a speakeasy, upgrades at Westfield UTC include landscaped plazas, gardens and art installations. Reflecting pools and comfy chairs invite visitors to linger.

Retail Oasis or Ghost Town? The Future of San Diego Malls

A recent survey by Pew Research Center finds that 80 percent of Americans shop online. That isn’t great news for malls. But San Diego State University marketing professor Miro Copic said renovations like the ones at Westfield UTC represent a shift to an experiential model, which could keep customers interested in coming back.

"Between having the ArcLight Cinemas there, the 24 Hour Fitness gym and then all these restaurants, I think it makes it a real destination that people will go there not only to shop but really to spend the day, the afternoon at the mall," Copic said.

The evolution of UTC took some imagination and a lot of money.

Westfield said renovations are expected to cost $600 million.

Horton Plaza was supposed to get an expensive makeover too. That’s the allegation in a lawsuit filed last month by Jimbo’s Naturally. Marketing director Kelly Hartford said the company is suing the mall for breach of contract.

“When we opened the doors in October 2013, really downtown and Horton Plaza specifically was hustling and bustling. There were a lot of activities, there were plenty of stores open there were a lot of restaurants so there were definitely attractions to come to what once was an iconic mall in San Diego," Hartford said. "Over time, we’ve starting to see shops closing, leases not being renewed and all the sudden you have these empty storefronts which kind of sends a message of 'there’s nothing here for you.' So, we have seen it affect our business tremendously."

The complaint stated Westfield indicated to Jimbo’s that it was looking to attract other high-end retailers, and would spend up to $400 million to renovate Horton Plaza.

That didn’t happen.

Westfield isn’t talking, but the San Diego Union-Tribune reports a sale of Horton Plaza is pending and the location may be used for office space, and amenities for high-tech tenants. This could mean there would be no more shopping mall serving downtown residents.

“I think the people that live downtown must be a little frustrated they can’t buy the simplest thing in downtown. They have to go to Mission Valley to do it," Showley said.

This sounds like that could be an opportunity for investors willing to take a chance on downtown retail space.

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