The fall of Horton Plaza

What happened between 1985 and now?

The New York Times called it “an urban village in the heart of the city.”
  • The New York Times called it “an urban village in the heart of the city.”
  • Image by Matthew Suárez

Pete Wilson grins at a homeless man sprawled near Horton Plaza mall, the downtown shopping center he muscled through city hall in the late 1970s.

Wilson’s eyes never blink; the coattails of his tailored suit don’t flutter; his cultivated “Aw, shucks,” slightly stooped posture doesn’t change. Like the historic facade of the mall across the street, this Pete Wilson isn’t real.

The still-living Wilson, San Diego’s one-time mayor who rose to become a United States Senator and then governor of California, is now 84, ensconced in the privileged district of Los Angeles that he retreated to after leaving public office in 1998.

C. Arnholt Smith, along with Horton Plaza's developer Ernie Hahn, built San Diego’s Fashion Valley mall in 1969.

C. Arnholt Smith, along with Horton Plaza's developer Ernie Hahn, built San Diego’s Fashion Valley mall in 1969.

The latest candidate Wilson endorsed for public office, his stepson Phil Graham, an anti-sanctuary Republican running in this June’s primary race for North County’s 76th District Assembly seat, placed third behind two Democrats.

Horton Plaza’s version of Wilson is a life-size bronze statue, erected in 2007 with $200,000 from the ex-mayor’s friends and associates, some enriched by the public money that taxpayers paid for the mall. Lately, though, Pete Wilson’s ghostly monument has been condemned to witness the collapse of the real Pete Wilson’s urban legacy.

Juliette Mondo: “When Horton Plaza opened, the public drunks from the central area were pushed into our area.”

Juliette Mondo: “When Horton Plaza opened, the public drunks from the central area were pushed into our area.”

The retail emporium that Wilson argued would save downtown from itself by leveling its historic center and displacing hundreds of homeless denizens with high-spending fashionistas is falling apart.

As ever-growing waves of the homeless sweep across downtown, critics who have followed the byzantine history of the flawed mall are happy to say good riddance to the ex-mayor’s brand of 70s-style social engineering.

But now what?

The future of Horton Plaza is so clouded that Jimbo’s, one of the mall’s newer tenants, has gone to court against the owner Westfield America over millions of dollars in lost sales, alleging that Westfield has virtually abandoned the property.

Horton Plaza fountain 1915

Horton Plaza fountain 1915

Wikipedia Commons

“Westfield’s complete disinterest in maintaining Horton Plaza was appropriately demonstrated when it did not even bother to decorate the mall for the holiday season in 2017,” asserts Jimbo’s, an organic grocery chain.

New Lyceum Theater. Wilson worked out a deal in which the developer hollowed out a concrete shell buried under the mall for a two-theatre complex, called the Lyceum.

New Lyceum Theater. Wilson worked out a deal in which the developer hollowed out a concrete shell buried under the mall for a two-theatre complex, called the Lyceum.

“It’s not any secret that (Westfield is) trying to get out from underneath (Horton Plaza) at this point,” Jimbo’s founder Jim “Jimbo” Someck told the Union-Tribune. “That leaves me in an untenable position.”

The fall of Horton Plaza is made even more painful by the fact that the mall’s costly history may be in danger of repeating itself. As Pete Wilson did four decades ago, an aide to Kevin Faulconer, the present day Republican mayor, has met quietly with at least one wealthy out-of-town developer known for making campaign contributions to secretly map the center’s fate.

An April 30 filing with the city clerk’s office shows that Southwest Strategies, a San Diego influence peddling firm retained by Stockdale Capital Partners of Los Angeles, has lobbied Faulconer’s chief of staff Kris Michell regarding “Horton Plaza land use entitlements related to redevelopment of site.”

Pete Wilson statue. Wilson wanted to be governor of California, giving Hahn an opportunity to ply the young mayor with campaign cash.

Pete Wilson statue. Wilson wanted to be governor of California, giving Hahn an opportunity to ply the young mayor with campaign cash.

According to Stockdale’s website, the two partners and co-founders of the firm are brothers Steven and Shawn Yari. The Arizona Republic has reported Shawn Yari has fought bitterly with neighbors over his company’s developments in once-sleepy downtown Scottsdale, Arizona.

A March 2012 defamation suit against Bill Crawford, president of the Association to Preserve Downtown Scottsdale’s Quality of Life, was subsequently dismissed.

Kris Michell. Southwest Strategies has lobbied Faulconer’s chief of staff Michell regarding “Horton Plaza land use entitlements related to redevelopment of site.”

Kris Michell. Southwest Strategies has lobbied Faulconer’s chief of staff Michell regarding “Horton Plaza land use entitlements related to redevelopment of site.”

“Crawford has been a critic of Yari and his developments and is opposing his latest proposal for Scottsdale Retail Plaza, a restaurant, nightclub and retail complex with an indoor-outdoor beach club,” the Republic reported in April 2012. Two weeks ago, word surfaced that Stockdale’s representatives were quietly making the rounds of San Diego business insiders to show off plans to convert the mall into an example of the latest developer fad, a multi-story office park, ostensibly appealing to Millennials with a collection of high-tech work spaces, gourmet eateries, and fitness boutiques.

Jimbo’s founder Jim “Jimbo” Someck: “It’s not any secret that (Westfield is) trying to get out from underneath (Horton Plaza).”

Jimbo’s founder Jim “Jimbo” Someck: “It’s not any secret that (Westfield is) trying to get out from underneath (Horton Plaza).”

How much money taxpayers would end up paying to subsidize the scheme, or whether there are better things that could be done with the center of downtown, are questions remaining to be answered.

Two years ago, Faulconer held secret discussions with Horton Plaza owner Westfield America about redeveloping the property, documents released by the city after a request under the state’s public records act show.

“On behalf of our client Westfield, we are requesting a meeting between Mayor Faulconer and Bill Hecht, the Chief Operating Officer of Westfield America,” lobbyist Chris Wahl emailed the mayor’s office on June 3, 2016.

“The purpose of this meeting would be to provide the Mayor with an update on: 1.) Major tenant plans at Horton Plaza 2.) Development plans for Horton Plaza and Mission Valley 3). Opportunities to streamline permit requirements at [University Town Center].” No other information has been released, and the mayor’s office has gone dark on the matter as levels of stores have abandoned the mall.

Malls across America are dying, as the bricks-and-mortar retail business succumbs to the rise of the Internet. But Horton Plaza’s failure is a special case of urban planning gone awry, beset by blatant conflicts of interest and secretive financial and political agendas that allowed competing malls Fashion Valley, University Towne Center, and even North County Fair in Escondido to flourish as downtown struggled with a tide of unrelieved homelessness worsened by the shopping center’s development.

A child of born of political convenience between Wilson and Ernie Hahn, who built San Diego’s Fashion Valley mall in 1969 with the notorious financier and Richard Nixon-backer C. Arnholt Smith, Horton Plaza became a pawn in Hahn’s great game of expanding his shopping center empire by expanding Fashion Valley and building Escondido’s North County Fair.

Wilson wanted to be governor of California, giving Hahn an opportunity to ply the young mayor with campaign cash and years of public relations assistance in exchange for development permits.

Hahn first promised to build Horton Plaza in 1974, but that turned out to only the beginning of an eight-year-long stall. “At the time he signed the Horton Plaza development agreement, Mr. Hahn specified that a ‘laundry list’ of downtown improvements had to be made before he would proceed,” the Baltimore Sun observed when the mall finally opened in August 1985.

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Sic transit gloria. Horton Plaza in its heyday had restaurants, bookstores, music stores, department stores and Williams & Sonoma for wedding gifts. There were multiplex movies and the San Diego Repertory Theater underground. Interior mall design was flashy/Disney/Northern Italian, even if confusing to pedestrians. Mastery of the parking garage was futile as it was divided oddly between Fruits and Vegetables. I only parked on the roof or floors that said "mall entrance." Getting to Horton required unusual political finesse/chicanery. Its construction destroyed charming old buildings, closed the historic park and fountain out front to discourage bums, dislocated homeless people to other neighborhoods and turned the face of the entire structure inward, reversing what urban buildings customarily did. But once you were inside, it was a consumer funscape and you actually were Downtown, a place most San Diegans had seldom gone before.

I believe San Diego Rep is still there. The horrible parking garage reminded me of the Seinfeld episode, when they couldn't find their car. "Sic transit gloria" is not apropos, as the glory of the world is not passing. ;-) Call Miley Cyrus, to borrow her wrecking ball.

And it costs $8/hour to park in their rat maze!

San Diego Rep is definitely present and thriving in its Lyceum Theater space. People can park across the way at a discount instead of in the now-full-price Fruits and Vegetables labyrinth. As for sic transit gloria, dwbat, it works for me.

Worked a few years in the parking garage during the Hahn Company years. There is definitely a trick to finding your way around the structure. I want to joke and say it's called remembering where you park, but it also involves remembering how and where you entered the mall. Having the ramps labeled half of the lower level and half of the upper level did not help. People would park, say on level 5 and walk down to the level 4 mall entrance. Later coming out they remember level 5 and end up walking up the wrong ramp, starting from the wrong mall entrance.

This article reads like a bit like a crime thriller, it's funny that Reader articles always have this conspiracy theory undercurrent to them.

I think most people who were around in it's heyday can attest that it was at least at one time an asset to the area, while some people may have profitted in more ways than one from that, you can see how this investment and others that were made downtown acted as catalysts to bring additional investment to the area.

The problem is that the mall has aged and not been updated or maintained, Westfield is soley responsible for that. Horton's Plaza is an eyesore that is privately owned and at the end of the day if their management seeks to work with government to ensure a smooth transition to a more contemporary concept, that is the least they could do and should not be criticized for it. Every day it stands as a liability to the community is a day wasted.

I don't see conspiracy undercurrents. Potter describes San Diego Business as Usual -- a complex deal benefiting rising politician Mayor Pete Wilson and developer Ernie Hahn and, oh, also you and me, the shoppers. Hahn leveraged his downtown Horton Plaza (Renew! Save Our City!) proposal by dragging out negotiations in order to get concessions that allowed him to build a bunch of other highly lucrative malls around the County.

Subsequent neglect of Horton Plaza by owner Westfield and recent transfer of title to a new brainiac remodeler never has been openly addressed by our passive present Mayor Sunny or by the craven City Council. No conspiracy, just secretive wheeling and dealing, out of the public eye, San Diego-style.

He calls it Horton's Plaza. Give it up, mon. There are bigger battles to fight.

Roger Hedgecock always called it Willie Horton Plaza.

You're right, Scott. How about truth in advertising? A paid signature gatherer outside busy Reading Clairemont Cinemas tonight falsely claimed "SAVE COMI-CON," verbally and writ large on his clipboard, as he hustled movie-goers to sign on to what is in fact SD hoteliers' plan to raise hotel taxes to finance another expansion of the Convention Center. Apparently they're having trouble meeting their signature quota by the looming deadline.

They are also going door-to-door for signatures. I turned down someone yesterday. After I explained to him why I wouldn't sign it, he then asked me to sign his petition just to put it on the ballot, so he could get the money for the signature.

I had the same experience at home a week ago. The pitch was, well, could you sign just to help me out? I had to laugh at the chutzpah. Today there was a slightly more honest fast-talker outside the grocery store who emphasized help-for-the-homeless and road-repair amid false claims that "Comi-Con is gone." (I love living in California.)

Matt has pulled many threads together and encapsulated the history of the misbegotten mall. The whole idea of trying to bring retailing back to downtown had an appeal at the time, but I always thought Pete Wilson expended too much of his time, energy and political capital on getting it going. Now I understand the reasons for his big push. Too bad for him and us that "Dirty Ernie" Hahn was the developer of the place. Hahn was notorious for his abuse of sub-contractors, and many just chose to avoid bidding on his work. Sadly, the mall didn't function as a jump-start to overall downtown rebirth. It was far later that the residential boom in the area got started. And note that with all that residential property in the area, the mall is sliding into oblivion.

Westfield may have mismanaged the mall, but it cannot be blamed for all its ills. Malls are failing everywhere, and the few that still do well are the exception.

What a terrible shame that we have that beautiful plaza, where you can sit and look at the lame mural of upside-down skyscrapers. Jimbo's was right to sue Westfield America. The City of San Diego should do likewise.

Does Ace Parking run the parking for Horton Plaza? What a monopoly Ace Parking has around town--and wonder who in GOV they are in cahoots with?

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