Horton Plaza: Wilson's Grand Plan Gets An Update
MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Coming up the past present and glimpse of the future of downtown's horton plaza. It is 1221 and you are and this is KPBS Midday Edition. This is KPBS Midday Edition I am Maureen Cavanaugh. Late last week was begin with; the transformation of Horton Plaza in downtown San Diego. The plan is to tear down the old Robinsons May Planet Hollywood building and use the space to create a new public purse adjacent to the remaining Westfield Horton Plaza shopping center. This $14 million renovation is the latest in the changing face of the property that has helped define downtown San Diego. I'd like to welcome my guest Roger Showley is growth and development writer with you to San Diego. Roger, welcome back to the show. ROGER SHOWLEY: Hi, Maureen. MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Roger what do you think the area we call Horton Plaza actually means to downtown San Diego? ROGER SHOWLEY: Well to me Horton Plaza is a little park that was set up in 1870 by Alonzo Horton the founder of downtown and has been the center of San Diego ever since. It is where presidents spoke where parades passed by, where we celebrated the end of World War II and other civic events have happened in and around the park. The people in San Diego today or composite means a shopping center which was opened in 1985. When that happened, the little park was restored to its 1910 design. And today the center of downtown is probably not Horton Plaza. The gaslamp Quarter right next door. And so for people who walk around downtown in the little park it does not have much to attract them except for the pretty little fountain and in this plan that the Westfield people in civic San Diego put together fieldwork will be expanded to almost 1.3 acres. South to the Balboa theater. So it's going to be quite a different place when it opens in 2014. MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Now let's talk about the history of this piece of real estate. Within the memory of longtime San Diego's, let's start with post-World War II, remind us what this area was like in those days? ROGER SHOWLEY: Well, say 1950, let's think about that date. At the time San Diego was 700,000 people living in San Diego city or county and downtown was a place to go for shopping, for entertainment, there were lots of movie theaters and stage theaters. All the big companies are based in San Diego, the banks, the lawyers, everybody who counted lived or worked in downtown San Diego. And also was the center of it all. Broadway was the main street and Marston's and Walker Scott and all the famous names of San Diego retailing were right around there. MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Marston's was a department store, right? ROGER SHOWLEY: Right. MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Located where? ROGER SHOWLEY: Between 50 and C, north of the gaslamp. MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: So this was the center of activity and retail. It was a typical downtown American city in the postwar period. MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: But then it went into a period of decline, why was that? ROGER SHOWLEY: I think with the day we should look at is that 1958 when the city rezoned Mission Valley to create time for the Mission Valley shopping center and there was a great outcry downtown against that because they knew very well that without bakeshop people would gravitate to outside downtown and the property values would go down and that's exactly what happened. It opened in 1961, downtown rapidly lost its attraction, Marston's closed, all the other major retailers left or they open up stores and other shopping centers and by 1969 in San Diego's 200th anniversary, downtown was a mess, the Horton Plaza was a crime scene, south of Broadway you would not dare go down to if you are not a sailor or someone tough. Talk went around what do we do about downtown? It was a net loser in the city budget. You can imagine a crime issues going on there were flop houses, X-rated bookstores, there were a few people dominating the western half of downtown on the west side of Broadway. So, a lot of debate ensued into what to do about downtown. MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: And Pete Wilson who became mayor I think in the early 70s, 71 or so. ROGER SHOWLEY: 71, right. MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: He took this on is one of his major issues with the revitalization of downtown. ROGER SHOWLEY: Right, he came in 71 and an extra day created the Horton Plaza redevelopment project and I was going to be a nine or 16 block area right around the Horton Plaza Park and everybody's got the solution to downtown was going to be bringing retail back to downtown and so it took 13 years but finally in 1985 the developer finished the Horton Plaza shopping center. Apart from the San Diego impact it had a major impact on shopping thoughts over the US and the world, John Tierney was the architect who went on to do the planning for the Olympics in 1984, LA. The postmodern lock was important also was known for, the shopping center. That kicked off the old modern history of San Diego, of revitalization of the gaslamp Quarter, the Marina, housing, The Convention Ctr., Petco Park MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: We talked with Pete Wilson, KPBS did way back in the early 1970s and he gave us a quote. He was looking down from the top of the L Cortez Hotel at the downtown wasteland as it was back in those days and he said we have a quote he said this is potentially some of the most valuable real estate in North America but right around now it is pathetic. So this is the aim, this was one of his goals. Why did it take such a very long time to achieve? I mean we've got what you say 15 years? ROGER SHOWLEY: 13 years from agreement opening day. There were a lot of issues that stop Horton Plaza for one thing there was a lot of debate the beginning as to what it should be, what it should look like so there were design changes and the next big problem with the 1978 proposition 13 ballot measure the reason that's important is because it changed the way property taxes work and the money that was going to pay for Garden Plaza parking garages in particular was lost. There was no way to pay for it, so they have this elaborate organization of the plans for Horton plaza that Hardy on top of and responsibility for the parking and created a profit-sharing agreement which figures into why this is going on today and the new look of Horton plaza. And finally opened. MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: You mentioned the name there Ernie Hahn I know that a lot of long time San Diego's we recognize it tell us a little bit about Ernie Hahn. ROGER SHOWLEY: Ernie Hahn is one of the most promising shopping center developers in the US. He focused on the Western states. He built several in San Diego and in the 1970s behind the sites are composed the other big thing he was working on was the University town Center project and at the time P Wilson basically said we will let you build the UTC if you build Horton Plaza it was sort of this quid pro quo because there was really no demand for shopping center in downtown San Diego the retailers and department stores didn't want to go there and it was kind of an experiment, can you do this, can you make this happen? Lots of cities try to downtown retailing but not in the way that Ernie Hahn did. MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: He talked about the way that when Horton Plaza shopping center first opened in 1985, the architecture devised by John Tierney was really knew, it was called experience architecture. It had all these mismatched levels and cul-de-sacs and long platforms. Tell us about how people responded to that when it was brand-new. ROGER SHOWLEY: I was very confused. I remember in the newspaper we were trying to map the shopping center and show people how to get around and I still get confused sometimes when I go in the parking garage because it is a to, two sets of garages run into each other so it is the fruit levels and the vegetable levels and there was a question about, is an avocado a fruit or vegetable. Funny little things. So it is confusing to get into it and journey's idea was to make it like an Italian hill town. That was his concept so he purposely made access completely different from a typical shopping center. He did go from one into the other in a straight line like to do in fashion Valley which Ernie Hahn actually was the builder on it, developer, investor on it, but in art classes case the idea was to get you confused and lost so you would have kind of and experience like you were in Venice or some European town. And that is still the case I think. It is a fun place to go, too. A lot of people do not go there for regular shopping. They go there for fun so it's become are the tourist attraction, a fun place to go and you are constantly trying to think of, how do we make it attractive to shoppers and visitors. MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: One of the reasons that this remodel is happening is because there is this sort of fortress-like element in the construction of the Horton Plaza shopping center. Really doesn't interact with the outside very much. Why was that? Was there a reason for that? ROGER SHOWLEY: I was covering it all alongside been following this ever since the beginning, practically and the problem for the developers and the architect was that while Horton Plaza would be a brand-new development, the rest of downtown was a dump. It was in bad shape. It MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: So it was a fortress ROGER SHOWLEY: So they built it is a fortress they very much denied it but it was a fortress-like design and you can only get into the parking grudges and two or three entrances from the streets, so in the new design they discovered we could open this 30 years ago you dummies you should make this more open to the city they said maybe we want to make it open to the downtown area adding that that's exactly how it will be when it is redone. MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: When the dignitaries were attending the start of the demolition of the buildings at Horton Plaza last Friday the fact was pointed to the incredible amount of people who now live downtown as opposed to when the Horton Plaza shopping center back and opened in 1985. I mean there has just been a tremendous difference in the way people use downtown San Diego. It's home for a lot of people now. ROGER SHOWLEY: I will, but San Diego, as the mayor today and he said during his campaign talked about the Downtown interest, and they've dominated San Diego for 100 years and it's time for the neighborhoods to get their attention, well, as downtown residents would say, they are a neighborhood as much as anybody else and they have their own needs apart from the business community is. The irony of filters that which of course is that the at of businesses do not work downtown, they work around UTC or UCSD or Sorrento Valley, QUALCOMM and so on in San Diego is no longer centered on downtown exactly. It is more if you look at the traffic patterns these days people who live downtown work in North County somewhere. There is a reverse commute which is completely opposite of what used to be. MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: So you have this multipurpose downtown to attract tourist, to accommodate the people who work there and also to accommodate people who live downtown. He mentioned Roger the idea that hard also triggered a whole burst of downtown development. One of those was the development of the gaslamp Quarter and about which has been terribly successful, but I'm wondering how has it weathered this latest economic downturn. Has it taken a hit? ROGER SHOWLEY: I don't think so the gaslamp Quarter has thrived as San Diego's entertainment center and I think in the 70s when it was dreamed up they had a gaslamp Quarter Association of property owners who banded together and they fought actually redevelopment, the one redevelopment for them they wanted to be in control they wanted a mixed-use community of shops and restaurants and hotels and residences and the most important thing for them was to retain or keep the old buildings from the 1880s. And under typical redevelopment it would have blasted the whole place over and started from scratch which is what Horton Plaza really was, it was scraping the whole property except for a couple of spots in building a. And at the time that was being proposed there was a counter view to say no, we should there are four or five theaters and there they should build Horton Plaza around, among them and keep the old and the new together. Well as it turns out that's the way that downtown is now. It is a mix of old and new, high and low. It is interesting to see a city like that than Atlanta for example. MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: There are some rumblings that maybe the gaslamp Quarter could use a little shine up or something that is beginning to look a little rundown what do you think? ROGER SHOWLEY: Well, the public improvements have taken a bit of a beating because there's a lot of people that go through the gas order on a typical night especially on the weekend as there is now they put these thin little bricks on the pavement in the 1970s and the public improvement and but injuries but you can see spots here and there where they are missing and the trees are gone and it is sort of a mess in that sense. If you look at things very closely when it is not busy. I think the problem is the quarter has gotten too far over on the Restaurant Side so there's not too much going on during the day-time. So they try to add retail from time to time deciding that is probably the challenge for gaslamp is to be more retail oriented. MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Now that the renovation will create a public park at Horton plaza bordered by Broadway to the north, shopping center to the South, Broadway Circle to the West and fourth Avenue to the east. So it's going to be a nice sizable area and the idea I understand is to have neighborhood events and to show movies during the summertime. A whole bunch of public community activities in this area. Some people though have expressed concern I will be a large place for San Diego's homeless population to hang out. You think we should be concerned about that? ROGER SHOWLEY: We should because in 1985 when the shopping center reopened, or opened and the Horton Plaza Park opened again it was back to what it was in 1910, grass and benches and trash cans and found worked and it was a very pretty place but within five years the Denton people were complaining about the homeless camping out there and talking the chairs. And the solution was to get rid of the grass and the benches so it would not be so easy to use. Well taking it out for the homeless you take it out for the public, everybody else. And today there is some concern about where are the homeless going to go when this is all open? The solution of sociologists and planners say is if you have more people in a place it dries out the homeless, or at least they do not feel as worried about the homeless. They may be there but they are outnumbered by everybody else. MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: It's not just a place where homeless people hang out, but a police were lots of different people hang out. ROGER SHOWLEY: I think the genius of the development this time is that they are giving maintenance and operation of Horton plaza and Park over to Westfield shopping center developer. The shift up in 1985. The park department said it is our park, it is our most historic Park in downtown, we want to be in charge. Will they cut the grass and so on but had no money to manage it is a place. So was filled under the 25 year agreement is required to hold more than 200 events a year, the things you mentioned concerts, farmers market speakers, maybe movies at night, all kinds of things so if they do a good job of managing and making it a good place to go there may be homeless and will be noticed by everybody else the vision is this is going to be a great urban gathering space in San Diego not just for downtown people but anybody who wants to have a fun evening you can imagine how crowded the gaslamp Quarter is some people will get tired of just cheek by jowl standing there, and will walk over to Horton Plaza the big one and there will be all sorts of things happening in the shopping center out they will drift off to the shopping area and go buy something in the plaza. MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: And this all should happen by spring of 2014. ROGER SHOWLEY: Yes. MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: I've been speaking with Roger Showley, reporter for UT growth and development and San Diego (inaudible).
The beginning of demolition last week of the "old" Robinsons-May building (circa 1985) to make way for the expansion of Horton Plaza Park is a reminder that this is only the most recent redevelopment of downtown San Diego.
The first full-scale resurrection of downtown was begun in 1971 with the election of Pete Wilson as mayor of San Diego. At the time, there were city government offices and other businesses downtown during the day, but empty streets at night, except for the sailors and drunks.
"You could have fired a cannon down Broadway at five minutes past five," Wilson told KPBS, "and the joke was you wouldn't hit anybody who wasn't staggering. It was a ghost town after five o'clock."
Persuading Ernie Hahn, the developer of suburban shopping malls, that before he got permission to build University Town Center near La Jolla, he ought to strongly consider erecting a major shopping center in derelict downtown took some brass.
Next, Wilson worked on housing developers like George Pardee to convince them that, they, too wanted to build downtown, this time apartments and condos. The restaurants and nightlife followed, and the Gaslamp Quarter was born.
Fast forward to 2012, and renewal has begun again. The fortress-like Westfield Horton Plaza Center will eventually be re-configured, beginning with the new entrance it gains from the city's expansion of Horton Plaza Park.