Downtown San Diego:
The Little Engine That Could Is Clearly On The Right Track
by Ryan Thomas
Take a trip to downtown San Diego and you’ll be amazed at how far it’s come in just a few short years. Gone are the abandoned buildings, the transients, and the crime. In their place have sprung restored architecture, arts and entertainment, shopping amenities, and a wealth of new residential complexes. Yet when you consider how long it’s been since Alonzo Horton purchased the downtown acreage, the question arises: Why has it taken so long for downtown San Diego to reach its full potential?
The answer is simple: roadblocks — and not those of the construction type. Throughout downtown’s history, just about every step forward was met with two steps back as the result of events — the Great Depression, World War II, a nationwide exodus to suburbia — outside the realm of control. In this respect, San Diego is a bit like the little engine that could, fighting an uphill battle and never quitting. Today, downtown is a splendid hive of activity, a national destination for both business and pleasure, but the journey has been a long one indeed. Like most major cities, downtown San Diego began as a vision, the vision of Alonzo Horton, who saw in San Diego’s future a West Coast port to the world. In 1867 he purchased 960 acres of land for $265, about 27.5 cents per acre. With help from San Francisco businessman John Spreckels, a wharf was erected at the foot of Broadway to welcome new business. Ever the shrewd businessman, Horton then built his city blocks half as long as what was considered normal to have more corner plots to sell at higher prices — earning him the nickname “Corner Lot Horton” — and followed up with a 96-room hotel. As he predicted, purchasers came out of the woodwork, erecting tents on the bare ground until construction of their units could begin.
Fast forward 20 years to the turn of the century: construction has long since commenced, John Spreckels’ railroad is near complete, downtown San Diego is a hub of activity.
A port it had become, but not for the commercial opportunities Horton anticipated. Rather, the Navy routinely chose San Diego as its R and R destination, and the city obliged. Saloons and brothels overtook the area, a welcome site for men who had been long at sea, but also an invitation to pickpockets, drug dealers, and other prolific rabble. Soon, an influx of Chinese immigrants led way to the spread of opium dens, and in all areas, less than adequate living situations became the norm.
By 1910, no respecting citizen would be caught dead in the Redlight district — or Stingaree as it became known, an ode to a local fish with a needle-tipped tail that stung many a swimmer — and no politician with a need for voters would shut it down. In an effort to introduce culture to the area, Spreckels built a theater, and more importantly, helped win the bid to host the World Exposition Fair. Citizens outside the Stingaree suddenly had to consider impressions of San Diego from an outsider’s perspective. They formed a Purity League and pressured authorities to conduct the first effective raid on downtown’s debauchery. With prostitution squelched, the health department played its trump card, resolving to burn down buildings not up to code. Ironically, as a city worker approached the first victim with a lit torch, some unknown individual beat him to it, and ignited the entire block.
Downtown was now set for refurbishing.
Despite the completion of Spreckels’ railway offering east-west access across the country, little else lured entrepreneurs downtown until the El Cortez opened its luxurious doors in 1927. With its red neon sign towering over Cortez Hill, the hotel was dubbed the “finest” hotel/apartment building downtown. The sign, however, became the flame to which the moths of underground society flew, and soon El Cortez was synonymous with gamblers, hookers, and the occasional coin flipping muscleman.
Still, an economic boom was slowly unfolding, and Hollywood had exploded. In response, the 2,400-seat Fox Theater was built, helping revitalize the arts scene. Following in its wake, the San Diego Trust and Savings building was erected, a huge building that immediately became a landmark to the skyline. Fearing a repeat of Stingaree crime, the top floor was built as a firing range where employees learned to shoot straight in case of a robbery. It was a moot point though, because in just four years time, the only thing a thief would get from robbing a bank was exercise.
The Great Depression sideswiped the nation, halting everything.
World War II arrived on the heels of the Depression, and government funding had to support the war effort. Four years later, when the war ended, people no longer looked toward downtown as a place to live, rather as one in which to work. Suburbia, white picket fences, two and a half kids chasing Fido in the yard — this was the new American dream. The first large-scale shopping center to be constructed since the war, Fashion Valley, was built several miles north of downtown to accommodate the new exodus to suburban living. Downtown was not so much ostracized as simply forgotten, and remained as such in the years that followed.
The next 20 years saw little activity. Downtown businessmen realized they were losing money to the suburbs and formed San Diegan’s, Inc., an organization focused on bringing people back to the area, though it would be years before it would have an effect (they later merged into The Downtown Partnership, which today is instrumental in much of downtown’s development). In the meantime, the Spreckels Building and Horton Plaza, sites created for concerts and civic events, decayed and became sad reminders of a time when downtown San Diego seemed poised for greatness.
By the time the 1970s rolled in with its disco party attitude and rock and roll substance abuse, downtown was once again echoing the days of the Stingaree. Bookstores of the x-rated variety, public drunkenness, and crime sprang up like weeds through cracked cement. But dismayed locals suddenly realized there was grand architecture under the patina of grime, a heart waiting to beat. Restoration plans — The Gaslamp District Plan — were drawn up, both inspiring and frustrating the community. What if it didn’t work, what if nobody came? Add to these doubts the city’s budgetary difficulties, and a proposal to spring clean the past 60 years was a hard sell.
The Gaslamp District Plan had to prove that refurbishing the historic buildings would not only spawn benefits aesthetically, but also economically. One helpful factor was the decision to tighten the noose on liquor licenses. The plan was approved, and the Gaslamp Quarter, with its cobblestoned sidewalks and restored facades, became not only a renewed area of production, but also a successful experiment in downtown redevelopment.
Using this lesson, the city began to accept development proposals for the eyesore that was Horton Plaza. Ernest W. Hahn, developer of the already successful Fashion Valley Mall and Parkway Plaza, announced he would build a six-block shopping center on the decrepit site. Citizens went wide-eyed. “You’re crazy, nobody wants to shop in that area,” was a common refrain. The reason: after the Gaslamp’s restoration, Miami vice’s crackdown on Cuban drug trafficking had refocused the cocaine trade to Tijuana, and these illegal border crossings had brought the crime problem back to square one. It would take ten years of debate, controversy, and struggle before Hahn could say “I told you so” — Horton Plaza reopened to enormous success. In the interim, Mayor Pete Wilson, instrumental in much of downtown’s redevelopment, drove the first spike into the city’s new light rail trolley system.
Historic flare, vibrant commerce, and accessible mass transit now formed the foundation for downtown’s new golden age; all that was needed was a reason for out-of-staters to bring their money. Skip ahead to 1998, the convention center expands and San Diego, in a move reminiscent of Spreckels’ bid on the World Exposition, hosts its first Super Bowl.
More than a century had passed since Horton laid down his money, and downtown was finally living up to his vision, not just a hotspot for business, but for entertainment, culture, and vacation.
“San Diego has been discovered,” says Bill Shrader, vice president with Burnham Real Estate. “We’ve got the convention center, we had the Republican National Convention and Super Bowls, and the new ballpark has jumpstarted a lot of additional development.”
Discovered it is, and as a result, space is now at a premium, with the average condo price rising from $250,000 to $450,000 in the last five years. According to Shrader, 4,000 units are currently under construction, with 5,000 more in the development pipeline. As new buildings create new neighborhoods, retailers and services fill in the gaps. Shrader confirmed rumors that a new supermarket will open downtown, though he was unsure of the chain.
“Nobody expected the residential side of it to develop so quickly,” explains Gibbs Saunders of the San Diego Downtown Partnership. “The development has already started spilling over into neighboring areas such as Little Italy, Bankers Hill, and even Hillcrest.”
And it will continue to overflow in the coming years. Aside from units currently under construction, international developers, such as Bosa Development, have purchased so many plots that many of downtown’s projects won’t even begin construction until 2007.
If “the little engine that could” sums up the first half of the century, perhaps now, as we gain momentum, “runaway train” is more appropriate. Tickets please.