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Horton Plaza at 20: Precursor to Downtown’s Rebirth

BY JENNIFER BELL

Few would have thought of Horton Plaza as a place for leisurely shopping in the early 1980s & #8722; well, at least not the kind of shopping most folks think of.

Back then, the area was a seedy section of bars, card rooms, bathhouses, adult bookstores and prostitution.

Now, Horton Plaza is marking 20 years since a dramatic makeover that turned six and a half blocks of Downtown into one of the city’s most vibrant areas.

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Horton Plaza’s transformation was the precursor to Downtown’s current revival, which includes Petco Park, the Gaslamp Quarter and condominium towers.

Horton Plaza was the brainchild of shopping center icon Ernest Hahn, who died in Rancho Santa Fe in 1992.

Today, Horton Plaza is San Diego County’s fifth-largest shopping center with 1.1 million square feet of shops, restaurants, a movie theater and the 750-seat Lyceum Theatre.

The mall officially is known as Westfield Shoppingtown Horton Plaza, a name given by Australian owner Westfield Group, which also has centers in Mission Valley, La Jolla, El Cajon, Carlsbad and Escondido.


Not Your Mother’s Mall

Horton Plaza, which dates back to 1867 when Alonzo Horton bought the land for $265 and led a move of the city’s commercial hub from old Downtown, isn’t a typical mall.

It has seven levels and stores of all sizes and shapes. There are Nordstrom and Macy’s. Kiosks sell everything from wireless phones to “I Love San Diego” T-shirts.

In all, Horton Plaza has about 130 specialty stores and a food court.

Horton Plaza’s makeover has its roots in 1969, when a study of the area was done for San Diego’s 200th anniversary.

The effort got a boost in the 1970s, when Pete Nilson was elected mayor and pushed for redevelopment of Horton Plaza.

In 1974, Hahn Co. was tapped to redo the plaza.

Hahn recruited San Diego architect Jon Jerde as his principal designer.

The Jerde Partnership, founded by Jerde in 1977, went on to do work for the 1984 Olympics in Los Angeles, Minnesota’s Mall of America and the Palms Casino Resort in Las Vegas.

Horton Plaza’s revival brought signs of life back to Downtown, which, like other urban cores in the 1980s, was a run-down place many San Diegans avoided.

The adjacent Gaslamp Quarter, which back then was a low-rent district with X-rated theaters and tattoo parlors, slowly evolved into what it is today: several blocks filled with some 90 restaurants, nightclubs and shops.

Horton Plaza also spurred tourism in Downtown San Diego, said Margaret Stephens, Westfield’s vice president of marketing for the West Coast.

“Tourism is an important segment of our business,” she said.

Some 12 million visitors a year walk through Horton Plaza, many of them tourists, Stephens said.

Hahn’s vision for Horton Plaza gave weight to plans for a new convention center. In 1989, just five years after Horton Plaza opened, the San Diego Convention Center debuted, drawing 1.1 million visitors and 354 events its first year.

The Convention Center was expanded in 2001, doubling its size.

Last year, the Convention Center held some 230 events that brought in $26.4 million in hotel room and sales taxes.

Then there’s Petco Park. The area around the baseball stadium, which opened in 2004, has grown into a hub of its own.

The ballpark district’s 26 city blocks include hotels, stores, offices and homes.

Civic leaders say little in Downtown today would have happened without Hahn.

In 1946, Hahn started his own construction company, later to become Hahn Co., and grew into one of the largest general contractors focusing on retail.

Later, Hahn served as chairman of the board of trustees for the University of San Diego, a trustee of the University of Southern California and a trustee of the Scripps Institute of Medical Sciences in La Jolla.

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