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2nd Rate to 1st Class: City Strives to Move Up

Times Staff Writer

When a 54-year-old San Francisco businessman named Alonzo Erastus Horton arrived in San Diego in 1867, a few hours spent strolling around a mostly brush-covered area that now comprises the heart of downtown convinced him that the picturesque bayfront site would one day crown the Pacific Coast.

Years later, Horton, considered the father of modern San Diego, recalled that as he gazed at the land that gently sloped from the hills of Hillcrest to the long curving bay, he thought to himself, “San Diego must be heaven on earth . . . It seemed to be the best spot for building a city I ever saw.”

Although San Diego has since grown from a town of less than 1,000 to the nation’s eighth-largest city with a population approaching 1 million, the consensus of local political and civic leaders is that, 118 years later, Horton’s lofty vision of San Diego’s potential remains to be realized.

Indeed, San Diego, where civic leaders take the slogan “America’s Finest City” seriously and Mayor Roger Hedgecock often boasts of his “world-class city,” still has a downtown that belies both descriptions.

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“San Diego at the moment is not a real city,” said lawyer and San Diego Unified Port District Commissioner Louis M. Wolfsheimer, whose agency is financing construction of the downtown convention center. “Basically, downtown is just a place where some people work . . . that dies on weekends and nights. Right now, it would be more accurate to call (downtown) second-class than world-class.”

Largely neglected from the Depression through the 1960s, as growth sprawled toward the suburbs, downtown San Diego is in enviable physical condition relative to many older Eastern and Midwestern cities. Nevertheless, it confronts myriad problems as it enters perhaps the most ambitious and critical phase of development in its history.

Several major downtown developments are scheduled for completion or ground breaking this year--highlighted by the planned August opening of the $140-million, 6 1/2-block Horton Plaza retail and entertainment complex, a project described as a “mini-Marshall Plan for downtown” by former City Councilman Fred Schnaubelt. Through those projects, local leaders hope, in the words of city redevelopment official Max Schmidt, “to begin to close the gap between the vision and the reality of downtown.”

“The next five years are going to tell us a lot about where downtown’s going,” said Peter Q. Davis, president of the Centre City Development Corp., the city’s redevelopment arm. “It is something of a make-or-break period.”

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“Years from now, I think we’ll be able to look back and say that 1985 was the turning point,” Hedgecock said. “This is the year it all begins to come together downtown.”

In addition to Horton Plaza, a project hailed for years as the linchpin of center city redevelopment, downtown’s boosters have considerably more to be enthusiastic about this year. Ground was broken last month on the planned $125-million bayfront convention center, which is scheduled to open in late 1987, and the Meridian, a 27-story luxury condominium project near Horton Plaza, is to open this summer. The U.S. Grant Hotel is scheduled to reopen in December after an $80-million renovation, and construction of the $57-million, 15-story Omni International Hotel, on a site adjacent to Horton Plaza, is scheduled to begin this summer. By year’s end, two downtown apartment complexes--a commodity now in especially short supply--are expected to be under construction.

While upbeat about the potential catalytic impact of those and a handful of other projects, city leaders realize that, even with Horton Plaza, downtown faces an uncertain future, and they have nagging doubts over just how much the average San Diegan really cares about downtown.

Some, for example, argue that most San Diegans are content suburbanites for whom a trip downtown will always remain an infrequent foray into unfamiliar territory, and whose civic pride has less to do with the condition of the urban core than with the beaches and sunny weather.

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One proponent of that theory, Anthony W. Corso, a former city planner, calls San Diego “an anti-city city” that over the last 40 years “grew larger but not necessarily more urbane.”

“We’re talking about trying to change people’s attitudes and habits (concerning downtown), and that’s going to take time,” said Gerald M. Trimble, CCDC’s executive vice president. “How do you convince someone who comes downtown maybe once or twice a year, or maybe not at all, that he should start coming down more often? Those who think that we’ve got it made once Horton Plaza opens are wrong. We’ve still got a long way to go.”

Art Skolnik, executive director of the Gaslamp Quarter Council, admitted that he and many others “with a stake in downtown are looking over our shoulders wondering whether we can re-educate people about the preciousness of downtown.”

“Personally, I’m optimistic, but this is a very, very big gamble,” Skolnik said.

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A decade after former mayor and now Sen. Pete Wilson (R-Calif.) helped to redefine the city’s agenda by refocusing attention on downtown, the task of revitalizing the center city remains a formidable one.

The lingering evidence of the earlier years of neglect can be seen in boarded-up buildings, porn shops and warehouses on prime sites only a few blocks from sleek new office towers; limited and often prohibitively expensive housing; the absence of major department stores and a dearth of nighttime restaurants and entertainment, problems that Horton Plaza will help correct; a vastly inadequate public transit system and narrow streets that some fear may be clogged beyond capacity by the thousands of commuters that Horton Plaza is projected to bring downtown daily, and sidewalks that are virtually deserted at night, except for transients and off-duty sailors--not so much out of fear, as in some other cities, as because there simply is very little to do downtown after dark.

Moreover, what many find most lacking downtown is the somewhat intangible, indefinable mix of people and activities that generates the sense of vitality and diversity that one experiences in major cities. Street vendors and musicians, blocks of busy shops and boutiques that range from the cheap to the chic, public areas crowded with lunchtime brown-baggers, an abundance of restaurants, theaters and recreational facilities--these urban qualities and others are either absent or barely visible in downtown San Diego.

“What’s missing downtown now are the sights and sounds and smells of a big city, the kind of street-level ambiance you find in a New York or San Francisco,” said Hal Sadler, the president of San Diegans Inc., a 27-year-old organization fiercely committed to downtown revitalization. “When you walk down most streets here, you just don’t feel like you’re in a big city.”

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Others argue that many of the buildings built downtown over the last decade, while welcome additions to the city’s skyline, have done little to stimulate vitality, excitement and human interest. Schnaubelt, for example, derisively characterizes downtown’s predominant architectural styles as “pyramids, monuments, slab walls and sterile plazas.”

“Block after block of downtown is dull, uninteresting, unimaginative, lackluster, boring wall space,” said Schnaubelt, who during his term on the City Council was a vitriolic critic of the city’s redevelopment program--in particular, of public subsidies to developers. “How many people will come downtown to walk around the San Diego Gas & Electric building, the Home Federal Tower, Wells Fargo, Central Savings, the federal courthouse, City Hall? Where are the shops, the hundreds of tiny little cubbyholes filled with myriad things to strike excitement?”

Even Hedgecock concedes that his oft-used “world-class” phraseology is “more of a goal for the future than a reflection of the present.”

“What I’m trying to do is set a challenge by saying ‘world class,’ because when you look around, we’re not world-class now,” Hedgecock said. “But I see that as an obtainable goal.”

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Horton had similar aspirations when, in the late 1860s, he spent $265 to buy 960 acres of land that today form downtown’s major commercial and financial district.

At the time, San Diego’s downtown was situated in Old Town, but Horton realized that the hilly terrain there was not as conducive to large-scale development as the mostly flat bayfront land several miles south. (Contemporary urban planners define downtown--or, as it is often referred to in planners’ jargon, “center city"--as encompassing 1,200 acres bounded by Interstate 5 and the waterfront, stretching from Laurel Street to Commercial Street.)

Horton’s dream for the city’s development, however, was seriously hindered by the end of the century when Los Angeles, not San Diego, became the major southwestern terminus for the transcontinental railroad. By 1900, the city’s population was only 17,700, compared to San Francisco’s 342,782 and Los Angeles’ 102,479.

Although efforts at economic development were largely futile in the pre-World War II years, local leaders remained convinced that San Diego was destined to become a great city and increasingly debated what kind of city it could or should become.

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In 1908, nationally known architect and planner John Nolen presented the Chamber of Commerce with a proposed master plan that envisioned downtown San Diego developing in the manner of graceful seaside cities in Europe and Latin America, with wide tree-lined boulevards, large plazas surrounded by public buildings, and open spaces in the heart of the city.

While Nolen’s plan did not become downtown’s blueprint, variations of it were debated for decades and helped to shape the dialogue over downtown’s development. Traces of Nolen’s concepts also are reflected today in the Community Concourse and current studies on the feasibility of linking Balboa Park to the heart of downtown with a broad, landscaped pedestrian mall.

Throughout the first half of the century, downtown had remained the center of San Diego’s business and social life, but “warning signs were there and it was beginning to slip” by the 1950s, according to Ray Brandes, a history professor at the University of San Diego.

No new major high-rise buildings were built downtown between the Depression and the early 1960s. More importantly, the suburban sprawl that accompanied San Diego’s rapid postwar growth--the population nearly tripled between 1940 and 1960, reaching 573,224--inexorably drew both people and businesses away from downtown.

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The City Council’s decision in 1958 to rezone Mission Valley, then largely an agricultural area, to allow the May Company to build a regional shopping center, was a critical blow to downtown. At a hearing on the proposal, one downtown merchant, Guilford Whitney, warned the council: “If we build another central city only four minutes away from downtown, we may end by having a slum business district in what is now our central area.”

Over the next decade, most major downtown department stores did relocate in Mission Valley or other regional centers, seriously undermining downtown’s economic viability.

“If 25 years ago the political and business leaders had set out a plan to destroy the heart of San Diego, they could not have achieved greater success than has been the case,” former Councilman Schnaubelt said.

However, construction of several office towers and a Community Concourse housing a new City Hall, civic theater and auditorium in the early 1960s was cited as proof of a resurgence in downtown. Charles K. Fletcher, president of Home Federal Savings & Loan Assn., which was headquartered in one of the new high-rises--the first built downtown since 1928--proudly called San Diego “a great sleeping giant just awakening” to its potential.

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Other downtown leaders, though, continued to worry that the giant might not awaken quickly enough.

Throughout the 1960s, many major American cities, aided by heavy infusions of federal urban renewal funds, began downtown redevelopment programs aimed at eradicating blight. San Diego, however, was not among them, primarily because the city’s political, business and civic circles were dominated by conservatives who vigorously opposed federal programs, viewing them as an infringement on local self-determination.

Community leaders also were cool toward the notion of local government being involved in redevelopment--and, in particular, one of redevelopment’s key tools, the city’s power of condemnation, considered essential in expediting the assembly of large chunks of property for major developments.

“The idea of taking one man’s property to give it to someone else was anathema to a lot of people here,” said Roy Potter, executive vice president of San Diegans Inc. “Urban renewal in general also started to get a bad name, because people saw cities taking federal money, and then buying up and clearing out huge spaces downtown before they had developers to build on the property. So, in the name of urban renewal, some cities were left with empty blocks that looked like bombed-out cities from World War II.”

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Another reason that San Diego remained on the sidelines during the nationwide urban renewal surge of the 1950s and 1960s was that the city was not as physically deteriorated as many other cities. While many industrial Eastern and Midwestern cities were filled with dilapidated 19th-Century structures, most of San Diego’s “old” downtown buildings were constructed in the first quarter of this century.

Although there was some physical deterioration downtown--primarily south of Broadway--city leaders “may have been lulled into a false sense of security because there weren’t buildings falling down all around us,” said Lee Grissom, president of the San Diego Chamber of Commerce.

The late 1960s and early 1970s made it increasingly clear, however, that downtown could no longer truly be considered the heart of the city--perhaps, some suggest, for reasons more psychological than physical.

With the expansion and growing popularity of major regional shopping malls, and as neighborhood developments pushed farther and farther northward, downtown gradually came to play a lesser role for most San Diegans.

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“Downtown simply wasn’t a factor in most (San Diegans’) lives,” said Glen Sparrow, an assistant professor of urban studies at San Diego State University. “People began to think of downtown as an area that was run down, unsafe and dull. That became the prevalent image . . . that still exists today. There didn’t seem to be much reason to go downtown.”

Dean Dunphy, a developer and former president of the Centre City Development Corp., added: “You didn’t need a degree in urban planning to figure out what was wrong with downtown. The empty streets at night told you all you needed to know. Downtown was becoming an example . . . of the old joke about towns where the sidewalks roll up at 6 o’clock.”

Downtown’s nighttime doldrums remain a major shortcoming.

“An occasional symphony and a few restaurants just aren’t enough . . . to get many people downtown at night,” Grissom said wistfully.

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One downtown area where there is substantial nighttime activity is Seaport Village. However, most visitors to the tourist-oriented retail center remain within its confines, producing virtually no spillover benefits for the rest of downtown.

The 1970s were marked by an urban renaissance throughout the United States. Former slums were transformed into stylish residential enclaves, as inner-city addresses suddenly became de rigueur for many young professionals. Multi-use centers, featuring shopping arcades, offices, theaters and hotels, extended downtown activity beyond daylight working hours. Some of the more notable inner-city projects included Atlanta’s Peachtree Center, Boston’s Faneuil Hall marketplace, Kansas City’s Crown Center and Baltimore’s restored harborfront.

In San Diego, then-Mayor Wilson and others, watching other cities’ urban accomplishments with more than a little envy, finally recognized that the private sector alone could not revitalize downtown. Not only did the city’s hands-off policy raise questions about its commitment to downtown revitalization--thereby discouraging private investment--but private developers often faced insurmountable problems in trying to gain ownership of large downtown sites. Without benefit of the city’s power of condemnation, for example, a single recalcitrant owner of a small downtown parcel could stall a large multiblock development such as Horton Plaza.

Prodded by San Diegans Inc., Wilson pushed for formation of a public agency that could act as a broker among government bodies, developers and landowners to facilitate downtown redevelopment. Created in 1975 by the City Council, the Centre City Development Corp. was assigned the task of seeking to maximize private development plans--especially for retail stores and housing--by using public investments downtown as leverage.

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Horton Plaza, by far the most ambitious project in the history of CCDC--indeed, of downtown itself--is illustrative of that public-private leveraging process. The city spent $33.2 million to purchase the 6 1/2-block site, in exchange for an eventual $140-million investment by Ernest W. Hahn Inc.

The retail and entertainment complex will feature four major department stores--Robinson’s, The Broadway, Mervyn’s and Nordstrom--165 specialty shops and restaurants, two theaters for stage productions and a seven-screen cinema. Future plans call for 300,000 square feet of office space to be added to the complex, and the adjacent 450-room Omni International Hotel is scheduled to open in February, 1987.

Many city and business leaders see Horton Plaza as the panacea for some of downtown’s major illnesses--notably, inadequate shopping and entertainment offerings, an alliance that is largely responsible for the dearth of activity after the nearly 70,000 downtown office workers return home to the suburbs.

“Horton Plaza is going to be the magnet that attracts people back downtown,” said Pam Hamilton, CCDC’s vice president. “It’s going to be much more than just a place to shop. I think it’s going to become almost a social happening, a place where people go to see and be seen.”

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One of the major unanswered questions about Horton Plaza, however, is whether San Diegans, long accustomed to shopping at suburban malls, will alter their habits in large enough numbers to make the project a financial success and to enhance downtown’s vitality.

“That question is Ernie Hahn’s $140-million gamble,” SDSU’s Sparrow said. “It’s extremely difficult to get people to change the patterns of their life. You also have to remember that we’re dealing with a generation that has grown up in the suburbs. Many of them simply don’t like downtown.”

Others emphasize that many San Diegans are former big-city dwellers from the East or Midwest who moved here hoping to escape the rigors of urban life--residents who, in Dunphy’s words, “can be very happy without ever going south of Interstate 8.”

Hahn, however, describes the project as “a unique, merchandising Disneyland” that will persuade suburbanites to drive past the shopping malls in Mission Valley and elsewhere on their way to downtown. Even Hahn, though, cautiously admits that he does not expect the project to be “a howling overnight success.”

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“We’re probably going to have to go through a pioneering stage for two to three years,” Hahn said. “But there’s only one downtown, and I’m convinced that if you stick with it, you’ll succeed.”

A more important reason for Hahn’s long-range confidence, however, is the planned convention center being built near Seaport Village. When the bayfront center opens in about 2 1/2 years, it is expected to bring thousands of conventioneers to San Diego weekly.

“If you’re a firefighter from Paducah, it’s going to be pretty exciting to be in San Diego and spend some time at something like Horton Plaza,” Hahn said, chuckling. “The convention center is going to bring in a lot of new discretionary income every week.”

Redevelopment officials hope that visitors to Horton Plaza also will take the time to stroll around the rest of downtown; the project’s street-level entrances and shop windows, in fact, were designed to encourage two-way pedestrian traffic on surrounding streets.

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Some officials, however, worry that Horton Plaza could become virtually a mini-downtown unto itself, a place where people drive, park their cars, shop, eat or go to a play, and then drive home--similar to what occurs at Seaport Village.

“That’s exactly what we don’t want to happen,” Trimble said. “To try to make sure it doesn’t happen, we have to continue to clean up the perimeter” of Horton Plaza.

Horton Plaza’s eastern boundary, 4th Avenue, is a serious concern to both Hahn and city officials. Although some planners believe that the street one day could become a major pedestrian link between the center of downtown and the waterfront, featuring clusters of small restaurants and boutiques, it now is primarily the preserve of sleazy bars, pornography shops and card rooms.

“That’s an impenetrable barrier, not the kind of atmosphere that is going to encourage people to walk around,” said Schmidt of CCDC.

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Hahn, however, believes that most of what he termed the “porny shops and other undesirable uses” of buildings near Horton Plaza will gradually disappear as landlords realize that they can receive much higher rents by upgrading the businesses housed in their buildings.

“People are going to recognize that it will be very profitable to become parasites that feed off Horton Plaza’s success,” Hahn predicted.

Another barrier to pedestrian activity, Schmidt and others contend, is that downtown today represents a block-by-block patchwork of uneven quality, where examples of the best of what downtown has to offer often can be found next to some of its worst.

That shortcoming again illustrates the gap between the potential and the reality of downtown. Indeed, while downtown is small enough to be easily walkable from end to end, the inability to walk more than a few blocks in any direction anywhere downtown without passing an area that is, at best, bland or, at worst, badly in need of renovation remains a major disappointment to city planners.

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“We have to find better ways to connect the commercial core to the waterfront or Balboa Park with exciting paths and promenades of activity filled with retail shops, culture and restaurants,” Schmidt said.

Filling those gaps, however, is viewed as one of downtown’s most difficult tasks, primarily because the local commercial and retail market is not large enough to support the additional wide-scale development that would be needed.

“Unless you go in circles, you’re going to have to wait 20 years to walk blocks and blocks” downtown, said Mike Stepner, the city’s assistant planning director.

Hedgecock often speaks of wanting to make downtown “a 24-hour community” rather than merely “a destination for commuters who go home at night.” The major ingredient needed to bring about that transformation, however, is widely viewed as one of the most expensive and most challenging problems on downtown’s horizon: housing.

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“To bring back the vital force of downtown, we have to have people here . . . a lot more than 8-to-5,” said Ray Robbins of San Diegans Inc. “Even with something like Horton Plaza, you still need a certain amount of full-time residents to bring downtown alive.”

Currently, only about 11,000 people live in the downtown area--too small a number to significantly affect the center city’s environment, city planners say.

With downtown land selling at prices that far exceed those in the suburbs, developers cannot hope to offer downtown housing comparable in quality and price to that available in the suburbs without heavy public subsidies.

A more feasible prospect, according to some officials, is to construct additional housing in neighborhoods that ring downtown, such as Golden Hill and Hillcrest--areas from which residents still have easy access to downtown, and where prices are lower.

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Five years from now, how much will the reality of downtown resemble the vision?

Hedgecock insists that he believes that, by 1990, San Diego’s downtown truly may be worthy of the designation “world-class” and “compete with the best you’re likely to see in modern cities around the world.”

Most other business and civic leaders, while enthused and optimistic about downtown’s future, express lower expectations.

“San Diego is not ‘world-class’ now and it’s never going to be,” said Walt Smyk, the Meridian’s developer. “That doesn’t mean San Diego can’t have a wonderful downtown. But we’re not going to be a Manhattan or Chicago because we’re never going to be a major center of commerce.”

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“No one is ever going to mention San Diego in the same breath with New York, Tokyo, London or Paris,” Port Commissioner Wolfsheimer said. “I’ve been to the great cities of the world, and we’re not even close to being in that league. We’re probably 25 years behind even cities like Des Moines, Indianapolis, Portland and Minneapolis in terms of downtown redevelopment. We do have the natural attributes to be a great city, but we sure aren’t there yet.”

Sparrow of SDSU regards the rhetorical hyperbole from the mayor and others about downtown’s future as being indicative of San Diego’s “tremendous inferiority complex,” which can be traced back to Horton’s days.

“For years, San Diegans kept hearing that a great tomorrow was ahead, but they were constantly disappointed,” Sparrow said. “The railroad didn’t come here. The ships didn’t stop here. Now people feel that San Diego isn’t taken seriously as a big city, so we start calling ourselves ‘world class.’ What those people don’t understand is that you don’t christen yourself a world-class city. A city is a historical event, not . . . a public-relations campaign by the mayor or Chamber of Commerce.”

Dunphy framed the issue another way.

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“I don’t think we should waste our time apologizing for all of the things we aren’t or claiming to be things we probably will never be,” Dunphy said. “It’s true that we don’t have as many restaurants or high-rises or cultural opportunities as cities like New York or San Francisco. But we also have attributes those other cities don’t. We’re creating a fine, enjoyable, exciting downtown. Why can’t we just . . . be pleased with that? Let’s let downtown do the talking for itself.”

MONDAY: San Diego has had difficulty attracting urban pioneers into its downtown housing, most of which carries six-digit price tags.


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