Revitalization Brings Renaissance Downtown
by Darlene G. Davies
Photography by Vincent Knakal
The downtown San Diego arts scene is popping with creative energy. Until recently, center city patrons were restricted to a limited number of venues when selecting performances or museum destinations — the downtown arts and culture calendar was hardly full. Not so anymore. All that’s changing. With so many new high-rise residential buildings sited in the heart of San Diego, a parallel rise in arts activity has been noticeable.
There are, however, some long-time arts stalwarts who have provided stability and continuity. San Diego Repertory Theatre, located in the Lyceum at Horton Plaza, is now in its 28th season. Self-described as San Diego’s “cultural town hall,” it finds itself, after years of struggle to remain financially viable, at the center of this amazing new vitality. In addition to its own full season production schedule, the Rep opens its two performance spaces to other arts groups in search of venues. The venerable San Diego Opera will soon be 39. “Solid as a rock,” as the song goes, it has produced a wide range of operas each season in the architecturally retro 1960s Civic Theatre, though it has also toured to schools and outlying communities as part of its outreach mission. Our San Diego Symphony gained a permanent home when it took ownership of the beautifully restored Copley Symphony Hall in the 1980s. Though it also tours, the orchestra is securely anchored in the core of the city.
The centrally located Westgate Hotel has proudly hosted high profile arts events, such as annual Bravo and Nutcracker celebrations, and it has been the home away from home for many high profile artists of the world. So, the Westgate has carved a special arts niche for itself and there’s a buzz of activity there. Even a longtime operation like Broadway San Diego, which presents touring productions of Broadway shows for large and loyal audiences, has expanded its attractions in recent years.
The elegant and historically significant Spreckels Theatre, which is privately owned, has been the setting for countless chamber music concerts, ballet performances, and stand up comedy routines. It continues to grace the downtown cityscape and offers a varied selection of performances to the public. The Horton Grand Theatre, which has undergone several name changes during its existence, continues its long run of Triple Espresso, which delights visitors in search of laughs and light entertainment.
The very popular Gaslamp Quarter is replete with clubs and restaurants, offering something for every musical taste. On weekends and holidays, the Gaslamp is jammed with visitors. Convenient to the convention center and a variety of hotels, it attracts both locals and tourists.
Not only residents look for entertainment in urban settings, but so do visitors, and the number of tourists to visit San Diego steadily rises. The downtown area houses arts administration staff for such entities as the City of San Diego Commission for Arts and Culture and the San Diego Performing Arts League. The Arts League operates the Arts Tix booth at the entrance to Horton Plaza, which offers half-price theatre tickets for same day performances. Conventions at the downtown center direct visitors to music, theater, dance, and visual art venues.
As demands increase, so do arts groups. The number of coffee houses with music, poetry, book and play readings, as well as spirited conversation, steadily grows. There are nonprofit and for-profit art galleries dotted around downtown. The Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego (MCASD) for instance, established a satellite in the downtown area some years ago, and has provided a hip edginess to the art scene, attracting young professionals. Expansion across the street in the former baggage area of the Santa Fe Depot will add more space for MCASD exhibitions. The Jacobs Building, named for patrons Irwin and Joan Jacobs, will open in 2005. The handsome 13,000-square-foot exhibition space will dramatically alter the downtown neighborhood. In addition to galleries, there will be an adjacent three-story new wing for education and support functions. This will be a huge expansion of the MCASD downtown location and will spark plug the entire art scene of the area.
In the past, alternative performance companies, frequently transitory and without permanent homes, have provided balance and choice. But until very recently, not enough choice. All this is background. Against this background, there is very discernible change in the air. It’s clear that smaller gains will no longer accommodate the phenomenal growth of boomtown San Diego.
Among major projects in various stages of study or planning, the restoration of the once glorious Balboa Theatre stands out. Originally built in the early 1920s as a legitimate theater, it later functioned as a movie palace, but has remained empty for decades. The city’s redevelopment agency purchased it 19 years ago and has begun the process of restoration. The Balboa’s grand opening is planned for late 2006 or early 2007. It will have a seating capacity of 1,300 to 1,400, an ideal size for small to medium arts organizations, and the reopening will be a welcome addition to the theatre community.
Restoration of the Balboa and return to its full function as a performing arts venue is intended to provide space for many San Diego groups, as well as some commercial touring productions. The Balboa will be another piece in a developing downtown theatre district which, eventually, is projected to expand beyond present size. It’s an architectural gem. With its tiled dome, elaborate arched ceilings, decorative moldings, brass and glass chandeliers, it pleases the eye. Incidentally, waterfalls are featured on each side of the stage. The waterfalls originally cooled the theatre and, therefore, functioned as an early form of air conditioning. Colors of walls, drapes, and decorative details retain remarkable clarity. Theatre amenities will be updated, but the history of the Balboa will be respected. After all, it’s listed in the National Register of Historic Places.
Steps away and bordering downtown is the arts and culture rich, world-renowned Balboa Park. Recently, a downtown representative was appointed by the mayor and city council to the official Balboa Park Committee, underscoring the near inseparability of downtown and Balboa Park, home to major museums and the Old Globe Theatre. Residents of newly built and ubiquitous condominiums and townhomes downtown are only minutes away from the Science Center, the Natural History Museum, Mingei International Museum, the San Diego Art Museum, the Aerospace Museum, the Museum of Photographic Arts, and the Automotive Museum. Fittingly, the San Diego Historical Society also resides in Balboa Park. Spanish Village, San Diego Junior Theatre, the Puppet Theatre, Centro Cultural de la Raza, and the Hall of Champions are some other arts and culture groups situated there. Now, with a landmark study of traffic circulation management in Balboa Park underway and the San Diego Zoo expansion plan before the city, linkage between downtown and Balboa Park is more certain. The momentum is building and it’s very exciting.
For urban art and culture, downtown San Diego is definitely the place to be. Its time is now.