Horton Plaza (11)

Say Goodbye to Horton Plaza

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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.

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Comments

  • Anonymous

    So sad to see the “Horton Seuss” design gone. Hope next builder will keep those beautiful designs.

    June 23, 2019
  • Anonymous

    This comment section is a ghost town.

    June 23, 2019
  • Leoangeloart

    Cool cover on Horton Plaza. I had good memories here.

    June 24, 2019
  • Anonymous

    @Anonymous,

    I bet your dad has a huge salami

    June 24, 2019
  • Anonymous

    I hope Jimbo’s and 24 hour fitness will stay.

    June 24, 2019
  • Anonymous

    My Dad took me on a business trip to San Diego in 1985. We stayed in an older highrise hotel right nearby, and while he was in conferences, I went to the beach or whatever. Anyway, Horton Plaza had just opened, and we went there knowing it was supposed to be a big thing. We both enjoyed it insofar as it was very new and modern for the times (or should that be “postmodern?”), but it really was just a mall. And I don’t think the theater was open then, if it had been I’d have probably seen a movie while Dad was at work. It’s weird to know I saw the birth and death of the “next great thing” in urban design.

    June 24, 2019
  • DG

    Not a bad design for 1985, but the closed-off, confusing Alice-in-Wonderland layout was doomed to obsolescence.

    June 24, 2019
  • Anonymous

    Ummm the Padres are not boring the chargers well they tried and what Hurts is that Down town is still too dirty to gross and tooooo small. NOBODY wanted a mall instead of the park…. epic fail and total eye sore. Hope that they paint it grown up colors since the 1980’s called and want their decor back…. gated that mall and the bad idea it was …. Caio

    June 25, 2019
  • Anonymous

    Horton Plaza was the #1 Tourist Spot in San Diego when I moved here from Japan in 1994. I brought two Japanese tours to San Diego in 1992 and 1993. This mall was a more popular tourist spot than the San Diego Zoo!

    July 1, 2019
  • Maria

    So sad ….

    July 1, 2019
  • Anonymous

    I loved Horton and just wandering around looking at the weirdness. Love this photo gallery, it really captures the strange beauty that place was.

    July 1, 2019
  • Anonymous

    Kim

    July 1, 2019
  • Anonymous

    We went there, I really thought it was beautiful! Are they keeping the theater?

    July 2, 2019
  • Anonymous

    ?????AWFUL?????

    July 2, 2019
  • Anonymous

    @Anonymous,

    So sorry I didn’t have the option to edit the above missive. Hopefully that will be considered by any interested reader.

    August 8, 2019
  • Anonymous

    I must be really out of touch. In fact I feel like Rip Van Winkle!

    In late 2013 I had left for Georgia and returned in mid-2015. I seldom went downtown and when I did, I saw a vast cemented area playing loud music.. It didn’t make sense, it was a vast waste of space. I went to Macy’s to buy a birthday present for my daughter. We even went up to one of the fast food places. Things looked normal. Only I noticed the theatre was closed.

    Just last month, July 2019, I take k the trolley up to downtown San Diego with the intent to shop at Crown Books in Horton Plaza. Well, to get to that top floor, adjacent to Nordstrom,Because Macy’s is still open, as is the Levis store and the Post Office I went to Macy’s and rode up the escalators to the third floor. What came over me was an eerie feeling, as if I had walked into a bizarre ghost town. Not one shop was open. Not one! The beautiful bizarre colors and the glass windows shownene in the sun. You see, what fooled me was that Macy’s, Levi’s store, and those businesses seemed to be operating as usual out on the outlying stores, the still-bustling Macy’s. After we had to move down to Otay Mesa West in 2016, I hadn’t visited Horton Plaza at all.

    But no one but a solitary woman of around my age with beautiful long grey hair sat on the tile bench in front of the empty Crown Books. Her name was Linda. We talked for quite awhile. She told me that she thought that he big shots who had built Horton Plaza had allowed the Plaza to fail. Eventually, she said, the plaza will become a tech hub and we both wondered if that, too, will fail. I mused, well, if the techies want to take a coffee break, where will they go? What about the Lyceum Theatre? I sat with Linda among the multicolored, once packed with happy millennial shoppers and returned called the beehive of activity that was Horton Plaza.

    I confessed to Linda that it was 1958 when I first moved to San Diego. Horton fountain, the Plaza Theatre, and rather rundown but historically lovely buildings once stood. The city was crowded with young Navy sailors and a sprinkling of Marines and what is now the Sofia hotel was the Pickwick. Through the years the homeless, luckless people began to sleep on benches. The Gaslamp District as a tourist attraction was really more appropriately named. Back in 1970s a dark, smoky club called The Crossroads featured the best jazz bands, and African-American musicians were also featured. Back in the ’60s until and early 70s most wary whites who didn’t “go there” suddenly learned that classic, smooth, and progressive jazz was IT, so that club became more integrated! Now, the Gaslamp District seems to be the place fro great eats and musical treats, thanks to the Croces–the late great Jim, and wife Ingrid. I have been there, especially during ComiC-Con which is akin to NOLA’s Mardi Gras except more expensive. But, I KNOW—-I digress.

    San Diego was beginning to come into her own but I notice some really UGLY, badly planned super hi-rise buildings had sprouted up while I was on the East Coast. One or two actually look like giant Lego concoctions. I told Linda that hot afternoon last month that what with all of those hundreds of empty stores in the Plaza, how illogical it will be to have nothing but tech companies there, without a restaurant or coffee shop to dash off to? I finally found the older San Diego Reader article about the fall of Horton Plaza. My grandson (now 31 ) once a little boy and I would trip around the FAO Swartz (sp?) and all there is left (perhaps it too will be taken over by tbe same mogul) are Macys and Levi Store. Extinction of anything, animate and inanimate, is a terrible thing to watch. Just think: in that entire plaza, on a sunny afternoon, only two older women sat reminiscing.

    August 8, 2019
  • Anonymous

    I was in my late 20s when Horton Plaza opened and it was a BIG deal. Downtown was basically an ugly wasteland until then, and I watched as the rest of downtown started to change and new businesses opened one by one after that. I loved HP – it was the most interesting mall around and when I lived near Balboa Park I could walk to and from the mall, as well as easily go there after work w/ my ucsd med ctr co-workers and friends. There were always a lot of people at the mall and the eateries. I shop less at malls now, because I don’t want to spend all my $$ on clothes, but every time I went in the 2000s, HP was still busy. The crowds did start to noticeably decline when shops started to close. Plus, I realize other malls are closer to the freeway and Horton visitors had to deal with the downtown traffic. I’m sad because it was a part of my history (I shopped there until the very end, and still have needed to pop into Macy’s in the last year during sales) and I have only good memories. I say good luck to the new developers, but I doubt whatever is there will generate $1.8 billion.

    February 10, 2020

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