Will Ernie Hahn's or Ed Scott's plan re-do Horton Plaza?

Suburbanizing San Diego's downtown

Horton Hotel. Of the seven hotels the elderly now live in — the Commodore, the Knickerbocker, the Federal, the Senator, the Horton, the Mason, and the Golden West — only the Golden West looks like it will be saved.

Horton Hotel. Of the seven hotels the elderly now live in — the Commodore, the Knickerbocker, the Federal, the Senator, the Horton, the Mason, and the Golden West — only the Golden West looks like it will be saved.

  • The redlight district was closed yesterday morning by the police under Captain John L. Sehon's order, issued the night before to Chief of Police Wilson. One hundred and thirty-eight women were taken to headquarters by detectives and patrolmen, and after individual examination. were given the option of living respectably or leaving the city by three o'clock this afternoon.
  • San Diego Union, November 11, 1912

It was thus some sixty years ago, under pressure from the Vice Suppression Committee, the Purity League from University Heights, San Diego ministers, and local suffragettes, that the life flame of the south-of-Broadway region of bars, prostitutes, and Chinese opium dens known as Stingaree was snuffed.

Or was it? Most of the Chinese may have followed the upward ethnic flow, out of the shanty houses on Island and Market Streets to places like Chula Vista and Clairemont, and the red lights may have been replaced by the more palatable blue movies and strip joints. But a large part of the area, especially Market Street and south, still remains a commercial and entertainment center for San Diego’s meagre ethnic groups: the Zebra Club, the Crossroads, and the Climax (black nightclubs), the P.I. Club, the Manila and Luzon Cafes, the Bataan Annex, the Corregedor Barber Shop (Filipino places), the few Chinese, Japanese, and Korean places of business. And the flashing light, blue movie area, especially along 4th and 5th Streets below Broadway, throughout World War II and even now provides entertainment for the most desperate of souls.

  • His heart thumped as he made it to a bus stop and inquired the way into San Diego ...gaudy, tin-plated Broadway ... Blinding, blinking lights. Hawkers. Dim lights and soft music of the hundred bars. The sea of white-capped sailor hats bobbing up and down, the drunks, the litter, the noise.
  • — Leon Uris in Battle Cry

And so again, a new Purity League, this time the Horton Plaza Redevelopment Project, has its eyes on this “blighted area.”

The Redevelopment Project, the 15 blocks limited by Broadway on the north, G Street on the south. Union on the west, and 4th on the east, means the destruction of all present buildings in the Project area except for possibly the Balboa Theatre, famous for its Spanish Baroque dome, the fountain at Horton Plaza (because otherwise, according to Jim Spotts, the head of the Redevelopment Agency, “we would have all the historical buffs coming unglued”), the Golden West Hotel, because of the high cost of relocating its residents, and maybe the Spreckels Theatre building. The area would develop around a huge modern plaza in the northeastern-most six blocks, and the public contribution to this would be financed by tax increments — the new tax increases produced by each new stage in the area’s upgrading. The City Council/Redevelopment Agency has chosen for the development none other than Parkway Plaza and Fashion Valley owner Ernest Hahn. Hahn’s plan for the Horton Project was selected by the Council early in June.

The Redevelopment plan was given a general design even before Hahn got the go-ahead for development, by an architectural firm commissioned by the city — wide sidewalks, an elevated mall running diagonally from Horton Plaza southwest to “Horton Square” at Second and E Streets, new office buildings, modern concrete and glass hotels. Stores like Bullocks, Lord and Taylor, and Nieman Marcus are tossed around as likely tenants of this Project area.

Hahn and the City are right now going through negotiations on what exactly will be done. The interesting thing is that Hahn has “taken the liberty” (his words) of expanding the 15-block Horton Plan into a much larger project which would include all the land from Horton Plaza to the Bay, including Navy Field, which would become a park, and including the Coast Highway, which would become a wide boulevard. His plan hopes to boost the downtown area population from 13,000 to 200,000 with high density housing, mostly along the bay, mostly “market rate” (plush), some subsidized. San Diego Magazine calls it “a smashing plan.”

One of the sticky questions even for only the 15-block plan is the present residents of the Horton Plaza area, the 700-800 people, most of them elderly, who will have to move even before the 15-block project is completed. Most of them have indicated to surveyors that they want to stay in the downtown area. Of the seven hotels they now live in — the Commodore, the Knickerbocker, the Federal, the Senator, the Horton, the Mason, and the Golden West —, only the Golden West looks like it will be saved. And the issue of the justice in merely sweeping these people out of their present environment leaves the people in the City’s Redevelopment offices fumbling. “Well, it's mostly just sailors who use that area now ...it’s not a matter of displacing poor people in favor of rich people ...it’s a matter of opening the area to all kinds of people.” These were the words of a Mr. David Allsbrook. one of several bespectacled young bureaucrats who look at the south of Broadway area as an area of “just parking lots and old buildings.” He sees the area is “blighted". But as I left his office, I was still puzzled to think that “all kinds of people” would be shopping at Lord and Taylor and Bullocks.

One person who has avoided the onus of being a big time, plastic developer, and yet is very much a part of the City’s Redevelopment plans is former City Councilman Tom Hom. Seemingly recovered from his indictment in the Yellow Cab case of four years ago, Hom, along with his brother, owns the Far East Trading Company in the old First National Bank building on Fifth and E Streets. Hom, who as a poor boy from San Diego's Chinatown sold papers in front of this building years ago, has acted as a kind of bridge between the San Diego establishment and his not-so-respectable neighborhood. “I tried to get Admiral Gehres (chairman of the San Diego County G.O.P. and an officer in the Westgate Corporation) to move the Republican offices down here and he was afraid for the safety of the women volunteers. Now we have the Flournoy offices and the G.O.P. women in our building (upstairs from the Far East Trading Company) and they're pleased as can be. They think it’s really colorful, this area."

Hom’s enthusiasm for the below-Broadway area is most recently manifested in his leadership plans for a Gaslamp Quarter. He would like to see the eight blocks just east of the Horton Redevelopment area, taking in Fourth and Fifth Streets between Broadway and Market, declared a “planned district.” That would mean property taxes from the region could be spent on upgrading the area and a local governing body would have to approve any signs or major plans for construction or painting in the area, and would keep the general turn-of-the-century tenor of many of the buildings on 4th and 5th Streets. “I’d like to see a trolley car run up and down 5th Street and policemen on horseback. Chief Hoobler has agreed to the horses, but I don't think he'll go for the keystone cops uniforms. But that’s what they wore. I remember them when I was a small boy, when I was growing up.”

Hom says he has interested Southern California First National Bank and Home Federal Savings and Loan in the area. He says that his Gaslamp District will avoid the problems of a similar district in St. Louis that has now deteriorated because San Diego’s will be locally governed, where St.Louis’s was not. “There have been lots of other successes with areas like this — Pioneer Square in Seattle and Gastown in Vancouver have had their property values go way up.” Hom stirs through some files and finds an article in Reader’s Digest that details other gaslamp developments.

The funny thing about Hom's position is that he, a scion of the local Republicans, he, a real estate broker in staid North Park, has enlisted the support of his Gaslamp neighbors like the Pussycat Theatre, Doc Webb’s Tattoo Parlor, the Hollywood Adult Theatre, and the China Doll “cocktail lounge.” “Over 65 per cent of these property owners have signed the planned district petition.” But with a rise in property values, these neighbors and supporters of his could be the first to get priced out of the area. He admits he's in a delicate situation. “There’s no design to move them out, but the economics of the area will have its effect.”

In a much more delicate situation is a man named Ed Scott. Instead of dovetailing with the Horton Redevelopment Plan, as Hom’s Gaslamp Quarter seems to do (even the City’s brochures describe the Gaslamp as an area where the "nightowls” displaced by the project will go), Ed Scott is fighting the Redevelopment Project down to the last tree-lined mall. Scott is an older, white-haired, cancer-afflicted ex-Marine who lives in a downtown hotel himself and uses a cane to walk between his hotel and the City Administration Building. He and a few others (mostly property owners and a few Save Our Heritage people) oppose the Plan for its whole attitude of demolishing and bulldozing the old. "What is San Diego if it isn’t this area? What have we got that’s authentic or historic if it isn't this area?’’ But Scott is smart enough to have come up with a nice-sounding. positive proposal for the tastes of. say. a City Councilman. The “Theatre Square Plan.’’ Under Scott’s plan, the city would save the buildings around today’s Off Broadway Theatre — the R.E. Lee-Commodore Hotel, the Knickerbocker Hotel, Bob Johnston’s Sports Palace, and the Horton Hotel. Though an architectural firm has been hired to study the feasibility of saving the buildings and is supposed to have the results by August first, the city is already pooh-poohing the idea, and Scott and friends are already getting ready to take the architectural firm’s findings and plead with the city that these buildings are worth saving even if it does cost a lot.

Unfortunately, the whole issue of whether to demolish the old-downtown and replace it with a Fashion Valley-Parkway Plaza may have already been decided for good when the City Council approved the Redevelopment Plan idea last October and chose Ernest Hahn as developer this June. And maybe the Gaslamp Quarter and the Theatre Square — if they are both successful — will only be museum-like pieces in a context of a shiny sparkling new downtown. But at least they may be a few monuments to the past, a few dusty, dimly-lit hallways with a few sepia-toned photographs of what downtown San Diego used to be.

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