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Potential of Horton Plaza Not Realized

No matter what you think of Horton Plaza, downtown’s rainbow sherbet shopping mall is luring people back to the heart of the city. This summer will mark four years since San Diegans first shopped its S-shaped boulevard. In that time, it has moved into third place among the Hahn Company’s 53 malls in sales per square foot. During a good month, an estimated 1 million people visit the place, according to Horton Plaza General Manager Craig Pettitt.

Now that its success seems secure, people are starting to wonder about its impact on nearby businesses. Horton Plaza won’t reach its catalytic potential until it activates these edges, mainly along 4th Avenue and G Street.

Fourth is a key street because it’s the seam between Horton Plaza and the Gaslamp Quarter. Almost as soon as the mall opened, merchants across the street on 4th began complaining about the bare edge of the parking lot that faced their shops, with its raw, concrete block wall staring coldly at the street scape.

At one time, there was to be no setback here, and the outer edge of the structure was to have been lined with retail shops. During the last phases of design, however, the edge of the parking garage was moved back 50 feet, and no immediate plans were made for the empty space in between.

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Finally, in 1987, the Centre City Development Corp. (CCDC), which oversees redevelopment in downtown San Diego, asked the Hahn Co. to lease this barren, narrow strip to the developer who came up with the best proposal for a mixed-use project.

Developers Oliver McMillan teamed with architects BSHA to win the job, and their project, with its street-level retail shops, second-level offices and loft-like apartments above them, should provide 4th Avenue with some much-needed energy.

Why, people ask, is it taking so long to be built? For that answer, we turned to Project Manager Charles Knox at Oliver McMillan and mall manager Pettitt, who explained that Hahn didn’t want to start the project either in August, a peak month, or during the holiday season, when shopping malls generally do about 20% of the year’s business.

But these two glitches--leaving 4th Avenue shops off Horton Plaza’s final design and delays in Oliver McMillan’s Band-Aid--have caused damage nearby that shows just how important it is for such a large urban development to connect with the streets around it.

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“What’s happening is there’s nothing that invites pedestrians to stroll down 4th outside the mall along the Gaslamp’s retailers,” said Jim Walsh of Walsh & Chacon, who has handled leasing for many buildings along 4th. He guesses that nearly 20 street-level retail businesses have failed in recent years; most were counting on the 4th Avenue shops that never materialized as part of the mall. Walsh estimates the price of retail space across 4th from the mall could double once Oliver McMillan’s project is completed sometime in 1991.

G Street, also destined to become a retail corridor some day, is even more backward than 4th. Max Schmidt, CCDC’s urban planning expert, said a mixed-use development including street-level retail, similar to McMillan’s on 4th, will eventually be built on the narrow open strip in front of the G Street parking garage. This will help appearances, by covering up the exposed side of the parking structure, and help bring new life to the sidewalk.

Dealing With ‘Plume’

But G Street won’t be revitalized until the CCDC figures out how to deal with “the plume,” the mass of petroleum waste spreading underground near the southern edge of Horton Plaza. Two G Street developments have ground to a halt, with construction starts indefinitely postponed.

Tyson Plaza and The Courtyard, residential high-rise buildings that will occupy the southeast and southwest corners of the First and G intersection, are both in limbo. In turn, the sorely needed mixed-use project for the G Street edge of Horton Plaza is on hold until these giant developments, with their own street-level shopping plazas, are built.

Once the plume is dealt with, the 1st and G intersection promises to become a catalytic retail hub. In addition to the two towers with street-level shopping south of G, there is Horton Plaza’s Nordstrom store on the northeast corner and the mall’s street-level pedestrian entrance just up 1st. Walt Smyk, developer of the luxury Meridian condominium tower nearby, plans to build the Paladion, a high-end 120,000-square-foot shopping complex, at the northwest corner of this intersection.

First will also become a key street for shoppers; Tyson Plaza’s street-level courtyard will embrace 1st with its arc of shops, and The Courtyard will have shops facing 1st too. In fact, in a rare display of foresight, developers for the three unbuilt projects have been meeting with the CCDC to coordinate their street-level public spaces.

Better Neighbor in Few Years

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As far as Horton Plaza is concerned, it will become a much better downtown neighbor in a few years, when the 4th Avenue and G Street mixed-use projects cover the parking garage facades and offer shopping along these streets.

Hindsight seems fruitless, but even the CCDC’s Schmidt has a tinge of regret about the Horton Plaza shopping center’s design.

“At one time we had a requirement for street access along 4th and G. As Horton Plaza evolved, with many reiterations of the design going to the CCDC board and the City Council, that did not come about.” Even when the 4th and G projects are completed, there will be no easy way for Horton Plaza shoppers to get out from the mall to those streets. So even the new strip developments along its edges won’t make Horton Plaza all it could have been.

And that’s a mistake downtown will have to live with for many years to come.

DESIGN NOTES: The New School of Architecture in downtown San Diego has been sold to a partnership headed by Dr. Gordon Bishop, an educator, who will become the school’s full-time administrator. They bought the 8-year-old school from Susan Welsh, the widow of founder Dick Welsh, who had managed it since her husband’s death last year. . . . Designer David Baird, founder of ZIGGURAT, a collaborative including artists and designers from various backgrounds, lectures at 7 p.m. Thursday, at the school, 1249 F St., as its spring lecture series continues. . . . Five firms are being considered to do a master plan for Del Mar’s new civic center: Roesling Nakamura Partners, Visions (Dick Friedson), and Spurlock & Associates, all of San Diego; Steinmann Grayson Smiley (Los Angeles) and Kaplan McLaughlin Diaz (San Francisco).


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