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Urban Space Message for San Diego

When it comes to urban spaces, William Whyte is our leading lab technician. His findings aren’t mere theories. For nearly 20 years, he’s been dissecting New York City and other dense urban areas to find out what makes them tick. In his new book “City: Rediscovering the Center,” the summation of Whyte’s knowledge to date is compiled in a single volume for the first time.

One of his favorite tools is the hidden camera. The book is full of candid photos showing how people behave in cities, what they like, and what they don’t like. Street vendors, comfortable seating, warmth and wind shielding, and various forms of entertainment are all essentials.

Although some of these things seem like obvious ways of attracting and pleasing people, they are still often ignored. Right here in San Diego, Whyte would be appalled at the backwards ways of some of our downtown plazas. A noon walk through the heart of San Diego indicates all is not well.

In the early ‘80s, in anticipation of the opening of the Horton Plaza shopping center in 1984, much hype touted the coming of the new downtown. The Hahn Co., the project’s developer, began spending promotional dollars, and the results made the heart of downtown appear lively for a time. On barriers around the construction site were murals of prominent downtown figures, a pioneering (for San Diego) form of urban art. Hahn also brought live noon concerts to Horton Plaza Park, and mimes and other street entertainers to various locations.

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A Desolate Place

Horton Plaza Park today is a desolate place. Plants have died in the planters outside the Broadway store facing the park; one suspects they are used as urinals during what you might call the wee wee hours. At the heart of the original Horton Plaza, around the fountain designed by architect Irving Gill, street people sit on benches or recline on the grass. Not a single white-collar type dares walk through this park, even with three police officers on duty.

What’s happened is that the Hahn Co.'s promotional dollars are now spent inside the mall, where you’ll find the pushcart vendors and entertainers. Now, the Horton Plaza Activities Committee, including city officials and

downtown business types, is doing what it should have done long ago: bringing back some action.

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“The best way to handle the problem of undesirables is to make a place attractive to everyone else,” Whyte writes in his book. “Good places are largely self-policing. . . . In the 16 years that I have been studying New York plazas and small parks, there has been real trouble in only three, all three of them badly designed and managed.”

A new Arts Tix kiosk near the park will help generate a stream of office workers who will make their peers more comfortable in Horton Plaza Park. And, by mid-July, there should be live entertainment and food carts, according to Ted Medina of the city’s Parks and Recreation Department. Asked why it took so long, he said the park was never intended as a place for entertainment. Apparently, someone is seeing the wisdom of Whyte’s ways

The plaza at the Wells Fargo Bank building at 101 W. Broadway works better than most; yet a significant portion of the public space at the federal building across the street remains a wasteland.

People Out in Droves

According to the hot dog vendor at Wells Fargo’s plaza (there’s also an espresso stand), people come out in droves as the weather warms up. Whyte is a proponent of public sculpture, and there is a piece here--Charles Ross’s “Light, Rock and Water,” significant for its presence even if it isn’t our greatest piece of art. As Whyte would wish, low walls around planters provide plenty of good seating.

Bill the hot dog vendor is thinking of hiring a mime or some other entertainment for his customers this spring.

Couldn’t the building’s management provide this under a promotional budget? Steve Hess of La Salle Partners manages both the Wells Fargo building and the Coast Savings building next to Horton Plaza, including their plazas. Coast’s plaza has hosted events such as rallies for presidential candidate Michael Dukakis. Hess is considering weekly art exhibits, an excellent idea that they should put into action ASAP. But as for the plaza at Wells Fargo, no regular entertainment is planned.

Near the federal building’s main entrance, a variety of people congregate during the noon hour. Seating is good, and the entry provides a steady supply of people. But only yards away, Beverly Pepper’s sculpture “Excalibur,” angular black steel masses which seem to take off toward the sky, sits alone. It’s not hard to see why: there’s a railing around it to keep you from getting too close, and it’s at the end of a wind tunnel-like opening in the building which funnels stiff gusts through the plaza.

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Several blocks away, at the corner of 5th Avenue and B Street outside the First Interstate Bank building, the nude figures in the “Fountain of Two Oceans” sculpture by Sergio Benvenuti are the only people who seem to enjoy the outdoor plaza. At one time, there were vending carts here, and, even though there’s nowhere to sit, a few people would congregate.

“We now have a deli and sundry shop on the third floor, and they wanted protection from competition,” explained Steve Hess, the building’s manager. He said the building’s tenants prefer a pristine plaza without a lot of hangers-on. What a contrast to walk a block east up B to the plaza at the base of Great American First Savings’ downtown office tower. For years, the place has had a huge lunchtime crowd. Whyte would find much to praise here: a coffee pushcart, a flower shop, low walls that can be used as seats, good landscaping and sun exposure that keeps the place warm at the noon hour year-round.

Moving Slowly

New City Architect Mike Stepner said he accepts a major portion of the responsibility for the life (and death) of downtown’s streets, and is well aware of Whyte’s ideas.

But so far, good intentions are progressing slowly. Street musicians who play for tips are, for the moment, illegal. On a recent weekday, only one musician was spotted playing a street corner during the noon hour downtown. As for pushing pushcarts, sidewalk cafes and better landscaping of public spaces, Stepner, again, is all for these things, but says there’s a shortage of funds and/or cooperation from other city departments.

Small efforts would make big differences downtown. The city and such downtown business groups as the Central City Assn. should become more aggressive in bringing activity to downtown’s streets. Local jazz radio stations might be invited to help bring live music downtown. College music departments would probably also be interested in having an active hand in the life of their city’s downtown.

Theater groups, both professional and collegiate, might be enticed to give spontaneous performances downtown. And the city needs to advertise for some more pushcart vendors--reduce the cost of permits for stands in public spaces (they now require a $500 deposit to cover processing costs), and they would surely attract more than the existing three pushcart-permit holders.

Maybe then, we won’t be completely embarrassed if Whyte comes for a visit.

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