Posted by: cantmisssd | November 5, 2010

Horton Plaza gets a new chance

New plans are in the works to finally do something about the gaudy Robinson-May building on the north side of Horton Plaza. A proposal is apparently gaining steam to demolish the underused, gross building and open it up as shared public space for several hundred events annually. The plan would also go a long way to addressing the closed-off design of Horton Plaza (incidentally, loved this throwaway line: “Limited access was designed into the building to increase the sense of security for shoppers unfamiliar with urban conditions.”).

The article goes to great pains to highlight the significant decline in patronage and revenues in recent years at Horton Plaza, and the damage that decline is doing to the city budget both short and long term. Put briefly- fewer people are going to Horton Plaza, and so the profit-sharing agreement between Westfield and the city is producing less revenue for San Diego. At the same time, Horton Plaza is descending into an economic black hole for the adjacent Gaslamp businesses when the two should be mutually reinforcing.

Personally, I’ve always hated the design of Horton Plaza, and it was nice to be reminded that I’m not alone. It’s terribly difficult (to the point of insulting) to navigate, the parking garage is an aesthetic/architectural nightmare from the outside, and as noted, it’s walled off from the rest of the neighborhood. Taking out the functionally vacant building makes Horton Plaza more accessible to the walking traffic in the Gaslamp (and opens shoppers to the Gaslamp), provides a chance to meaningfully connect the Gaslamp and Horton Plaza with development to the north and west like the Civic Theatre, MCASD and Anthology, and even makes the trolley from America Plaza to 5th Avenue more useful.

In short, it would remove a black hole from the middle of downtown commerce, boost foot traffic, keep visitors in the area to dine and shop more, and provide a new and consistent draw for people to come downtown. But I was sadly unsurprised to dive into the comments and find kneejerk freakouts about spending money on civic space.

The crux of the comments was that it’s reckless to be spending money on a park when the economy is struggling and the budget is facing serious challenges. Certainly the current state of the economy and city finances demand careful analysis of potential projects and strongly-supported projections of positive impact.

But to abandon development on principle during economic downturn is expressly stupid. Doing nothing isn’t going to solve problems. Cutting city services eventually (if they haven’t already) reaches a tipping point where residents and businesses flee a hostile environment that can’t provide basic support for safety and providing an attractive setting to make and spend money.

Many like to compare the notion of development spending in a weak economy to buying luxury items while unemployed. But that’s false. Abandoning development plans during a weak economy is actually the equivalent of refusing to spend money on the gas to go to job interviews while unemployed. Problems don’t just work themselves out if you wait long enough. They require proactive pursuit of solutions. But it’s been a long time since San Diego has had a political or societal infrastructure strongly advocating for the principles that a strong economy requires. This city (and the nation) tried the dramatic prioritizing of private investment, and look where it got us. Doubling down on the fundamentally failed economic policies of the last decade is lazy and counterproductive, and this potential project provides yet another potential jumping off point for leadership on how to build a robust, resilient local economy.



  1. “Abandoning development plans during a weak economy is actually the equivalent of refusing to spend money on the gas to go to job interviews while unemployed.”

    That is the best sentence I have read in ages. Excuse me while I go read it again. And then make a few other people read it.

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