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Has Gaslamp Lived Up to Its Promise?

The Downtown Information Center, a service of the Centre City Development Corporation, occupies the ground-floor lobby at 225 Broadway. The center exhibits sketches and charts detailing the area's redevelopment. Its showpiece is a 200-square-foot model of downtown. From a distance, the model looks like an art installation, an abstract, geometric study. Up close, it looks like downtown -- to scale and detailed, with cars, pedestrians, and trees. Black tags pasted to the model mark current and future development projects, most of which proceed under the aegis of the development corporation, a public, nonprofit organization created by the city in 1975 to serve "on behalf of the San Diego Redevelopment Agency as the catalyst for public-private partnerships to facilitate projects." Through an operating agreement, it functions as the "agency's representative in the developments of retail, residential, and other projects."

The development corporation has helped the city revitalize the Gaslamp Quarter. It's an old, familiar story. Once known as Rabbitville after its principal inhabitants, the Gaslamp was saved the first time, in 1867, by Alonzo Horton, who promised that the 960 "barren, sunburnt desert" acres that he purchased would flourish. By the late 1880s, however, the Gaslamp was suffering, and for nearly a hundred years it remained a dangerous district occupied by flophouses, adult bookstores, and peep shows. Many of the buildings were vacant and dilapidated. Using the considerable weight of California Community Redevelopment Law, which provides local governments with the authority to attack urban decay, the city empowered the development corporation and then, in March 1976, adopted an ordinance that established design-and-use guidelines for the redevelopment of the Gaslamp. In July 1982, the Gaslamp Quarter became an official redevelopment project area, based largely on a city council finding that the area was "blighted." That finding emerged from the observation that the Gaslamp languished "because of mixed and nonconforming uses, vacant buildings, substandard dwelling units, the lack of adequate open space, a concentration of 'adult' entertainment uses, and a high crime rate."

Now -- almost 25 years after the adoption of the so-called planned district ordinance -- seemed a good time to examine the original goals and guidelines of the redevelopment project and to ask whether they've been fulfilled. Not surprisingly, city redevelopment officials say that they have. For years, they have celebrated the erasure of blight and the reversal of "physical, social, and economic decline" in the Gaslamp. Today, city websites, advertisements, and brochures describe the area as "vibrant," "attractive," and "entertaining."

What success the Gaslamp has enjoyed it has earned, in part, by emulating New Orleans' French Quarter. The Gaslamp hosts several Cajun-style restaurants and a robust, bacchanalian nightlife, which reaches its apotheosis on Fat Tuesday when, for a price, one can get lit on the street. The area's buildings, like the French Quarter's, are grand; their façades have been historicized and painted in vibrant colors. "Entertaining" is too dainty a word for it. "Jubilant" seems more appropriate. Though most of the drugs and pornography have vanished, they've been replaced by a different kind of partying -- a city-sanctioned culinary and alcoholic indulgence. On weekend nights, Fifth Avenue bustles with handsomely dressed patrons window-shopping for the best restaurant or bar. Pretty women push oversized menus into customers' hands and entice them with promises of choice seating and descriptions of delicious specials. Bouncers stand guard at the clubs, checking IDs. A deep bass spills into the street from the Bitter End; young revelers descend the stairs toward the auspicious glow emanating from the Onyx Room. The street smells of food, cigarette smoke, and cologne. Pedestrians cut in front of cars to catch up with friends. On a recent Friday night, Ed McMahon's emblazoned Star Search bus, double parked between F and G Streets, spilled out diesel fumes and clogged traffic. A crowd gathered around, hoping to catch a glimpse of somebody.

Beverly Schroeder, a senior planner at the development corporation, told me on January 26, "Thirty years ago the plan was to clean up drug use in the area. I don't think anyone imagined that it would become what it has become."

Locals and tourists alike think of the Gaslamp as a nighttime destination. Whether it's Croce's for music, La Strada for food, or the Star Bar for no-nonsense drinking, the Gaslamp caters to evening needs. But officials intended for the district to be a mixed-use area, a place where residents could rub elbows with out-of-towners while they took care of their daytime shopping. The language of the original 1976 planned-district ordinance, which has been upheld in subsequent drafts, says as much. Among the "desired uses" for the Gaslamp were for it to accommodate "day and nighttime entertainment and restaurant establishments" and "activities which attract the casual shopper, whether resident or visitor."

The 1982 redevelopment plan for the Gaslamp Quarter Redevelopment Project -- prepared by the city's Redevelopment Agency in cooperation with the Gaslamp Quarter's Project Area Committee -- reiterated these objectives. Planners listed as "major goals" the "strengthening and encouragement of retail, business, cultural, social, and other commercial functions in the Project Area, including, but not limited to, the establishment of a safe, healthy, and attractive environment in which business, commercial, cultural, and social services activities can thrive and residents live." In May 1992, officials merged this plan with the larger redevelopment plan for the Centre City Redevelopment Project -- which included the Columbia, Marina, and Gaslamp Quarter redevelopments -- but they have never changed the "major goals."

Nevertheless, the Gaslamp Quarter Association, which represents a diverse group of more than 380 businesses located in the 16-block historic district, deemed it necessary late last year to take matters into its own hands and launch an advertising campaign promoting the Gaslamp's retailers. Driving down toward Broadway you might have noticed a new billboard at Front and Beech Streets imprinted with the slogan "Shop Outside the Box." Bill Keller, chairman of the association's board of directors and owner of Le Travel Store at 745 Fourth Avenue, explained the campaign to me on January 29.

"Basically, there was some extra money left over from last year, and we designated it for the retailers in the neighborhood. I think we've got a lot of high-profile events for the bars and clubs, and what we were looking to do was promote retail. So with a little seed money we put together a group of Gaslamp retailers starting last summer and tried to figure out how to spend it. The concept was 'What makes us unique?' Well, obviously we have a high percentage of locally owned businesses. We don't have the big boxes of malls and big chains, and we were thinking about the process of shopping, of going in and out of stores. In trying to figure out what makes us unique, we came up with the initial phrase, 'I found it in the Gaslamp.' It was that sense of the discovery of something that we wanted to communicate. We handed the program off to Juddesign, and they took it over and turned it into several different concepts, all of which were amazing. The one we chose was 'Shop Outside the Box.' That phrase captures what we are going after. The obvious comparison is to malls and chain stores. The hot trend in retail has obviously been the superstore, but we know there are a lot of people who absolutely hate those places. This was an effort to communicate with those people."

Keller added, "Our goal is to get people to realize that there are 75 to 80 stores in the Gaslamp and that it is more than just a great dining and entertainment district. There is something else happening here, and so we need to start adding that idea of shopping to people's idea of the Gaslamp."

Even though city press releases plug the Gaslamp's shopping, Keller thinks the Gaslamp has a way to go before it becomes a reputable retail district. "From my point of view," he said, "and I know that not everybody agrees with me, I think that a certain percentage of national stores here is critical. There just isn't that much good independent retail. I say we need some of the clothing stores. I don't think that we'll become a real shopping district until we get some more of the nationals, with all the product and expertise that they bring. In order for us to be perceived by San Diegans as a shopping district, we need to get more retailers down here. And I hope that includes some additional independents and a few more national chains. I hope we end up with a balance. That will benefit the local stores, who in turn will attract people to the national stores. What the billboard promotes is old-fashioned street shopping, like that on the street level in San Francisco, Santa Monica, Pasadena."

Michael Stepner, dean of the New School of Architecture and a planner for the Gaslamp Quarter from 1975 until 1992, agrees with Keller. "The goal of balance really has not been achieved," he told me on January 30. "You have Fridays and Saturdays when the place is jammed with people going down for the restaurants and the entertainment. I think we haven't developed a sufficient retail market downtown to cause a lot of retail to spill out from Horton Plaza. While some things have gone in, what was envisioned was a lot more businesses going in on the ground floor of Fifth and Sixth Avenues, not just restaurants. We haven't quite achieved that. I would like to see city officials get more daytime commercial tenants in there and go out and find businesses."

Stepner also thinks that Pasadena can be a lesson for San Diego planners. "I look at Old Pasadena as a model, which has achieved more of a balance," he said. "You do have a real strong daytime use there. The big chains can be used to bring in business."

Patti Judd owns Juddesign, an advertising and design firm at 696 State Street, and the Paperie, a retail store at 534 Fifth Avenue. Judd developed the billboard and a "Shop Outside the Box" campaign that ran in San Diego Magazine in December. She told me on January 29, "We took a look at what's unique about shopping in the Gaslamp, which is that the stores are not all cookie-cutter like at the malls. There's a certain cachet with downtown right now, and there's an urban quality that you can't get anywhere else, and so, in terms of developing this campaign, we asked, how do we go in and talk to San Diego, not just to the tourists, but to get the word out that there is quality retail down here. I think that a lot of people still have the impression of downtown as kind of creepy and not the most desirable place to go."

I asked Judd if she would like to see more city-sponsored endorsements of the retail aspects of the Gaslamp. "Absolutely," she said. "Absolutely. But we know it's not going to happen overnight. We have to make it a more attractive place for retail, and that means there has to be a draw during the daytime as well as the nighttime to support the rents that are going on. As far as what CCDC [Centre City Development Corporation] can do, I think it's really their messaging. Previously, the Gaslamp has been touted as a place for nightlife. Part of our messaging has been to make sure they include this shopping experience. We wanted to get away from the perception of the Gaslamp as just a historical district or just an entertainment and dinner place. It needs to be a complete community."

According to Judd, parking has contributed to the problem. "It's affecting both of my businesses, and that is something they can do something about to make it more attractive. A lot of people say, 'Oh, I don't want to go down there and pay for parking.' They know that the meter maids are scooting around."

San Diego redevelopment officials have just started to address the parking issue. On January 24, they celebrated the opening of a 500-space public parking garage on Market Street between Sixth and Seventh Avenues. It is the first publicly financed garage built downtown since the 1960s and is part of a larger plan to add close to 5000 parking spaces downtown over the next three years. The spaces will be more affordable than the private ones currently available at exorbitant rates.

But we cannot blame parking alone for the lack of daytime visitors to the Gaslamp. The noise and commotion coming from the clubs has prevented a residential community from taking root in the quarter. The authors of the original plans for the Gaslamp envisioned a mixed-use area that would include residents, independent stores, and entertainment venues. The 1976 planned-district ordinance called for "activities which encourage maintenance and development of balanced housing," and the 1982 redevelopment plan mandated the "expansion and improvement of the supply of low- and moderate-income housing." If the city had met these objectives the Gaslamp would be a more diverse area, with residents who would support daytime shops. "I still think that the Gaslamp should strive to attract as much daytime use as possible," Stepner told me. "I say that because I think that in order for the partying to burn out, the daytime uses have to thrive."

Debi Owen, a Gaslamp resident for almost eight years, owns the Debra Owen Gallery on Eleventh Avenue. She has also sat on the Project Area Committee, a citizen group that advises the San Diego Redevelopment Agency about downtown projects, for five years. "My gallery used to be in the Gaslamp," she told me on January 30. "Being there does nothing for a business. All people think about is not being able to park and not wanting to deal with the drunk people. In my vision from ten years ago, I used to imagine all these cute little storefronts. It would be wonderful if we were like Union Street or Fillmore Street -- or any street in San Francisco. It isn't going to happen."

Owen added, "What I remember from the original goals was that the purpose really was to make the whole downtown a 24-hour place, which of course means that people live there, work there, and play there. I've lived here for eight years and sat on the board, and I've always said you have to think about the residents. That's what makes it feel like a neighborhood. It really is tough living in a place that's a party zone. I guess I think that the Gaslamp's best days have come and gone," she said with a nervous laugh. "If we wanted it to be a balanced, mixed-use zone, at this point in time, the pendulum is way too far on the entertainment and nightclub side of it."

Owen believes that to find a balance you have to look at the whole of downtown. "I think that it's happening, that downtown is becoming viable as a residential area," she said. "And maybe the Gaslamp just has to be the designated party zone."

Stepner agrees with Owen's characterization of downtown. "The housing market, I think, is there to some extent," he said. "But a lot of the housing is in the East Village, on the other side of Sixth. And those people should start going to the Gaslamp for some of their specialty needs. That's just beginning to happen. If the housing gets built up the way it's proposed in the East Village, that should at least cause things to happen along Sixth Avenue and eventually make some of those commercial spaces viable for other kinds of uses along Fifth, which will promote that diversity of use. But all of these things take time."

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