Say Goodbye to Horton Plaza
Article by: David Johnson
Once a poster child for the concept of modern urban rebirth, Horton Plaza today has about as much life as the 19th century city father for whom it was named after: Alonzo Horton. Horton was born in Connecticut in 1813, and was lured west in mid-century by the California gold rush. He moved back east for a time, but returned to San Francisco in the early 1860s where he heard about the small but beautiful port town of San Diego.
He settled here in 1867, and bought 960 acres of land just south of the city proper for twenty-seven cents an acre. He began to develop his land and found numerous interested parties due to its location adjacent to the port. As his property was built out, it became known as “New Town, and the former town center became “Old Town.”
Horton died in 1909 (he rests in Mt. Hope cemetery), but his dream continued to blossom. Before he died, Horton sold an acre plus of land to the city, and it became known as Horton Park. The town grew from a population of 2,500 in 1880 to more than 200,000 in 1940, and iconic properties such as the U.S. Hotel Grant grew up adjacent to the park.
Over the years the park was the site of significant events. Just days before his election as President in 1960, John F. Kennedy spoke there as he hopscotched the country seeking votes. In 1971 the City of San Diego designated it as an historical landmark, but over the next decade as the core of the city began a rebirth, developers fought preservationists in an attempt to build out the area. The developers’ efforts reached fruition in 1982 as Ernest Hahn’s company began construction of a futuristic shopping mall.
The Horton Plaza Mall was completed in 1985 at a cost of $140 million, and opened as a five-story shopping center with four anchor stores and 131 shops. It had a modern design and kaleidoscope of colors, and it was credited with playing a major role in revitalizing the downtown area. It reportedly hosted 25 million visitors in its first year.
But as early as 1987, its economic viability began to be questioned. On April 7th of that year, Los Angeles Times writer Greg Johnson wrote an article noting that food and entertainment accounted for 30% of the mall’s revenue, about three times as much as the typical shopping mall. During those early months, two restaurants in Horton Plaza failed to open, and a third failed after a few months. One of the aggrieved parties filed legal action accusing Hahn’s company of negligent marketing of the venture.
There were multiple factors pulling at the mall’s viability in the succeeding three decades. The nearby convention center was undersized for a city the size of San Diego. The convention center in Atlanta is more than twice as large, and the Las Vegas convention center is more than five times as large.
Multiple attempts to expand the convention center stalled. The San Diego Padres moved downtown, but the team was boring and unsuccessful, and proved to be not much of a shopping draw. To make matters worse, Petco Park had inadequate parking, and was served by a trolley system that had a major stop at one of the area’s other shopping centers, Fashion Valley.
The Chargers not only failed in their attempts to get a downtown stadium, they left the area entirely. Major attractions such as Sea World and the beaches were miles away, surrounded by hotels of their own and within a few miles of other malls. Walmart and Costco built suburban superstores, reducing the need for large malls. And finally, shopping centers were failing everywhere as the internet and giants like Amazon stole even more customers.
Today Horton Plaza is a ghost town as it waits to be repurposed as a tech hub. It will be developed by Stockdale Capital Partners who optimistically project that it will create 4,000 jobs and generate $1.8 billion in annual revenue. The company claimed just last month that current tenants can stay and would not by evicted. Now if only they can find them.