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Downtown San Diego — Still a Work in Progress

Written by

Michael Stepner

A short essay on the history of planning, development and redevelopment in Centre City San Diego, according to Mike Stepner.

“In building the city, let us remember that the material things which will endure the longest are those that express the spirit in art. In the art of landscape and architecture, the spirit of a city can be preserved for the ages.”  George White Marston, 1927.
In San Diego, we have been so effective in bringing activity to Centre City that in many ways San Diego has become a national model for successful downtown redevelopment. Many cities have tried to stimulate their downtowns by building a shopping center or a convention center or a ballpark. San Diego has done it all and reinforced it with historic preservation, housing, public transportation and public facilities.
In fact, San Diego has done lots of things; and, having done them comprehensively rather than just one big thing is what we are cited for. We are not New York, Chicago, Boston or San Francisco. Those cities are in a unique class by themselves. But, so is San Diego. We have developed a Downtown that never was!
Downtown San Diego’s heyday ended after World War II with flight to the suburbs. What the Downtown people left was a downtown of 200,000. What has been put in its place is a downtown for a region of over 3 million.
Conversations about Downtown San Diego often include questions that seek to learn when redevelopment started and who the heroes were, the champions, the people who made it happen. Depending on a person’s frame of reference, Downtown redevelopment started with an event or a project 10 years ago; 20 years ago; 30 years ago; or some time last week when he went to the ballpark or a new restaurant. Ironically, all are correct because Downtown, like all parts of a city, is a work in progress. Never finished; and you would never want it to be finished.
Many individuals, groups and events have all played a role in the evolution of our Downtown. Each advocated for a project, an initiative, an approach. It has not been a linear process but, rather, one of building on the work of others, of collaboration and passion about Downtown on the part of all involved.

Alonzo Horton’s Influence
However, in this commentary, I want to start earlier. When Alonzo Horton came to San Diego in the late 1800s, he founded what is now Downtown San Diego and what is now Uptown. Horton was laying out his town next to the site of an earlier attempt at Downtown — what is now the Marina neighborhood but was called Newtown or, because of its lack of success, Davis’ Folly.
Horton’s subdivision was established as San Diego’s Downtown in 1871 after a mysterious fire in Old San Diego. When the smoke cleared, all the city’s records — presumed to have been burned — were found in a building in Horton’s Downtown.
The promised coming of the railroad to San Diego — to make it the western terminus — led to the development of what is now the Gaslamp Quarter, envisioned to be the creation of aDdowntown to match coast cities befitting the railroad hub. However, the railroad did not come and San Diego went from 40,000 to 12,000 almost overnight.
Roger Showley, author and San Diego Union-Tribune columnist, writes that modern comprehensive planning was born of a desire in 1903 to relocate City Hall from Fifth Avenue and G Street — what is now the Gaslamp Quarter. “George W. Marston, founder of the Marston Department Store, prompted the Chamber of Commerce to form a civic improvement committee to hire city planner John Nolen . . . to lend some direction to San Diego’s unmanaged growth.”
Nolen’s 1907 “Plan for San Diego” proposed that the waterfront be developed as a recreational place for San Diegans, that twin railroad stations be constructed, that a civic center be developed around a public plaza at the site of the current county courthouse and that a boulevard link between Balboa Park and San Diego Bay be created. All subjects are still under discussion.
The opening of the Panama Canal in 1915 and the creation of a fair in Balboa Park were key to planning for the growth of San Diego in the early 20th century. And World War II made San Diego a boom town.
Societal changes, post-war growth and development policies led to suburban flight.  In 1958, intense pressure from the May Company department stores resulted in the City Council’s approval to rezone and allow construction of the Mission Valley Shopping Center. This action accelerated the displacement of farming and hastened the decline of Downtown.  At the time of the City Council’s action, Arthur Jessop, a Downtown merchant, said, “We might as well tattoo on the Council wall, ‘Here died planning in San Diego.’”
Those events led to the formation of the Central City Association, one of the first Business Improvement Districts in California, and San Diegans incorporated a business and property owners association. The groups began an effort to revitalize Downtown and created a Downtown community plan. Subsequently, the two groups merged into what is now the Downtown Partnership.
As the city prepared for its 1969 bicentennial, San Diego Magazine proposed that Old San Diego and the Gaslamp Quarter should become the locations of our celebrations, each representing phases of San Diego’s evolution. Nevertheless, the city chose to focus its celebration on Old San Diego. Gaslamp and south of Broadway were written off because that area was home to adult entertainment, Navy locker clubs and the poor.
However, property owners in the Gaslamp Quarter had other ideas. Under the leadership of Tom Hom, they formed an association and began to study what was happening in other parts of the country; how cities like Seattle, St. Louis and others were preserving and reusing their historic cores. In the early 1970s, the Gaslamp Quarter Association petitioned the city to develop special zoning, assist with public improvements and to recognize the area as a historic district.
Also during this period, San Diegans Inc. and the Central City Association began to see results from their efforts — the construction of two high-rise banks and office buildings at Fifth Avenue and B Street and the bank and office building at Seventh and Broadway. The Westgate Hotel and the bank/office building across the street at Second and Broadway, the county courthouse, state office building, and Civic Center all result from the efforts of the 1960s (although the latter two offer little to be proud of as symbols of who we are as a community).

Pete Wilson Comes to Power
In 1971, Pete Wilson was elected mayor of San Diego. His platform of managing the growth of San Diego included a plank on revitalizing Downtown, which reinforced the work of San Diegans Inc. and Central City Association. His vision for Downtown was guided and assisted by city planner Max Schmidt. (During a 40-year career with the city and Centre City Development Corp., Schmidt was the “keeper of the flame” for Downtown redevelopment and revitalization.)
Under Wilson’s leadership, the City Planning Department produced the 1974 Centre City Community Plan, which provided a comprehensive approach to Downtown’s revitalization.  The city’s Redevelopment Agency worked with the federal government and the private sector to develop the federal courthouse on Front and Broadway. The tax increment from the courthouse provided a cash flow to begin the redevelopment process. Wilson’s effort led to the creation of the Centre City Development Corp. (CCDC), a municipal entity that could bridge the gap between the public and private sectors and could implement plans for Downtown using a variety of tools, including those provided by traditional planning like design review, zoning, and tax increment financing and eminent domain — tools provided by California redevelopment law.
The newly formed CCDC focused its resources on Horton Plaza, the first redevelopment project area in Downtown. The Horton Plaza retail center was considered the centerpiece of Downtown redevelopment. The adoption of the Columbia and Marina redevelopment project areas followed shortly.
The Horton Plaza redevelopment was proposed in 1974 as a way to clean up the area south of Broadway. It was first thought of as a high-rise office park with some retail support because no one saw a viable future for anything else in Downtown.  But, then, enter Ernie Hahn, who felt that the time was right for major urban infill retail. After some of his initial designs for the shopping center were rejected as too suburban, he decided that a different model was necessary to be part of Downtown.  He retained architect John Jerde to design something that was unique yet would fit into the Downtown environment. To complement the retail center he would build, Hahn required the city to proceed with plans for Downtown housing, a convention center, the revitalization of the Gaslamp Quarter and public transportation.
When the first phase of Horton Plaza was completed, the Fourth Avenue frontage was an exposed parking garage. The Gaslamp Association, working on the revitalization of the district, complained that Horton Plaza was “mooning” the Gaslamp Quarter. This accelerated the completion of the frontage along Fourth Avenue.
In subsequent years, Downtown revitalization has greatly expanded new housing, new office buildings, the ballpark and the convention center; but, there were other, perhaps smaller projects that added to Downtown’s revitalization and San Diego’s reputation as a national model.

Live-Work Artist Lofts
In the late 1970s, two issues came to the forefront. Some of the earliest Downtown pioneers were artists. First, south of Broadway, then the Gaslamp Quarter, then East Village — the artists were always being forced to move as revitalization proceeded and that gave birth to the obvious question: How could we maintain the artists’ presence in Downtown? Coincidentally, there was a great concern about the loss of Downtown’s warehouse and manufacturing buildings that could not be adapted to new uses because of building code requirements.
Through a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts and using the “sewing factory” at 12th and F streets as a test case, the city investigated and developed new codes that would allow live-work artist lofts. Not only have the codes been applied in San Diego, they have become a national model code as well.
Downtowns have always been home to the poor, especially singles and the elderly.  They have lived in Single Room Occupancy hotels (SROs) — often called “flop houses.” An SRO, typically, was a small room in those earlier days — just enough for a bed and a dresser. Shared bathrooms and kitchen facilities were “down the hall” or in another part of the building. As Downtown development proceeded, SROs were removed. Many times for parking lots. Studies conducted for the city discovered a support network for the occupants; e.g., restaurants where they are, facilities where services were provided as well as people who would check up on their well-being if they did not show up according to the normal routine.
The SROs long had been considered the opposite of “safe and sanitary” housing.  People hesitated to use the common facilities. Fires occurred when people would set a hot plate on a bed to cook a meal. Judy Lenthall, a banker turned city planner, was assigned to find a solution. She discovered that the economics of an SRO provided a great R.O.I. and that with a change of codes to allow in-room toilets, sinks, and microwave ovens, the entire living environment of an SRO could be changed. The first new SROs in almost 70 years were built in Downtown San Diego — many designed by award-winning architect Rob Wellington Quigley.
The Ford Foundation recognized this breakthrough in housing and funded city staff to consult with cities across the country to assist them in creating this housing type.
In 1992, a second Centre City plan was adopted that promoted the collection of Downtown neighborhoods as everyone’s second neighborhood. The 2006 community plan focus, once again, was on revitalizing the Downtown neighborhoods. What has made the revitalization of Downtown so successful is that it has always been a comprehensive approach — that there is no “silver bullet,” that no one project or initiative would produce an environment that is the heart of our community.
It cannot be done just with a shopping center, just with a convention center, just a ballpark or just an anything else. A city is composed of many elements and to revitalize a city successfully, one must address all the elements and at the same time.  That has been the key to San Diego’s success.
And, the planning and discussion continues. Will we get a new civic center? When will we begin the central library? Is East Village the right location for a football stadium? And when will the waterfront be San Diego’s front porch? It must be remembered that Downtown — as with any other neighborhood — will never be finished nor built out. Cities continually change and evolve; and, building a city is like building a personal relationship. To be successful, we must continually work at it.

Michael Stepner is a professor of architecture and urban design at the NewSchool of Architecture & Design in Downtown San Diego. He is the city of San Diego’s city architect emeritus and a planning consultant who was involved in the planning and revitalization of Centre City during a career of more than 27 years with the city of San Diego.

2 Comments on “Downtown San Diego — Still a Work in Progress

  • Mike Stepner is a great institution resource for San Diego. He is correct, downtown San Diego is a constant work in progress, however, a beautiful work in progress

  • Thank-you for all your efforts over the years Mr. Stepner. Because of you and many others, Centre City has developed into a vibrant enjoyable group of neighbourhoods ; the heart of San Diego.

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