Horton Plaza has Big Dreams for the Future

Horton Plaza: A Brief History

Known for its avant-garde architecture, odd spatial rhythms, split-level walkways, and rich color schemes, the history of Horton Plaza is as complex as its construction. Nestled in downtown San Diego between Broadway and G Street, and 1st and 4th Avenue, this labyrinth-like outdoor shopping center was once considered to be one of California’s most interesting malls.

It all started in 1977 when developer Ernest Hahn approached Los Angeles-based architect Jon Jerde to help him build a new urban district that would bring commerce back to the city. Much of Jerde’s design aesthetic was originally conceptualized by Fahrenheit 451 author, Ray Bradbury's 1970 Los Angeles Times essay, "The Aesthetics of Lostness.”

In it, he praised the virtues of getting "safely lost" in unknown places. Similarly, the premise behind the design of Horton Plaza was to provide a safe, visually stimulating environment for people to get comfortably lost in, in the city.

With the combined efforts of Hahn, Jerde, Bradbury, as well as various other city planners, politicians and activists, Horton Plaza officially opened to the public in August 1985.

While it was a drastic departure from the standard archetype of mall design, with its mismatched levels, abrupt drop-offs, and brightly painted exterior, Horton Plaza challenged the conventional wisdom of mall management and represented a radical reimagining of the average shopping center. The mall itself was the main attraction, not just the merchandise.

Expected to take five years to produce any measurable results, Horton Plaza attracted a record 25 million people in its first year alone. Prior to its construction, downtown only housed 13,000 residents and the area was notorious for drug trafficking and prostitution.

There was also concern over whether or not there would be a draw for suburbanites to bypass malls in their area and come to downtown to do their shopping. But, despite initial skepticism, the project was hailed as an instant financial success.

Has Horton Lost its Luster?

Today, patrons who visit the once-lively shopping center can enjoy little to no retail therapy. In 1988, Horton Plaza was credited with jump-starting the Gaslamp renaissance and was the third-most-visited site in the city following the zoo and SeaWorld. Now, it’s not even the third-most-visited mall in San Diego.

In addition to a string of retail closures, Horton Plaza is facing various infrastructure challenges. Its deterioration is on full display, with its chipping paint, cracking woodwork, structural damage, and frequent visits from homeless people leaving their belongings and at times, sleeping on the property.

The 738,200 square-foot mall that used to house retail giants such as Nordstrom’s is now lined with vacant storefronts and small kiosks. With the exodus of many of the mall’s tenants, the commercial property has a surplus of store space while foot traffic to malls continues to decline.

In a report commissioned by Credit Suisse, analysts predicted that nearly a quarter of all shopping malls in the United States would close down over the next five years, largely due to store closures.

With the retail industry becoming more dynamic than ever, Horton Plaza has failed to keep up with the times. Over the past 30 years, shopping center developers, managers and retailers say consumer attitudes and habits are shifting and in order to ensure their survival, malls have to shift with them.

The way in which consumers make purchasing decisions has transformed with the emergence of the Internet. Shoppers are not obliged to stand in store lines anymore.

Nowadays, they’re using their smartphones to compare prices and product reviews and when they’re ready to buy, an ever-growing list of online retailers can ship their items directly to their door, occasionally on the same day. E-commerce heavyweights such as Amazon and Ebay are putting considerable strain on the traditional retailers’ economic model.

The popularity of online shopping shows no signs of slowing down. To remain a viable contender in the marketplace, Horton Plaza is in dire need of some major renovations.

Hope for Horton’s Future

Thankfully, it’s not a complete lost cause for Horton hopefuls. Trends in the real estate space indicate that more and more people are flocking to urban environments, as well as mixed-use developments that function as public spaces, like a plaza park.

A renewed focus on healthy lifestyles and walkability makes downtown San Diego an ideal candidate for retail spaces to thrive. And Horton Plaza’s location, in particular, makes it a commodity for such opportunities in the city.

Melina Cordero, the CBRE brokerage’s national retail research director, said Horton should profit from investor preference for urban retailing because it’s a segment that’s expected to perform well over the next five to 10 years.

The era of the traditional shopping experience is over. The commercial real estate space is ripe for new business ventures such as craft beer gardens, wine bars and trendy eateries. These businesses will have to compete with a growing demand for authentic experiences, creating a stress-free atmosphere that you can freely get lost in, just like Bradbury imagined.

Topics: San Diego