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.

“Those improvements, which included the 20-mile San Diego Trolley to the Mexican border, the establishment of a semi-autonomous Centre City Development Corporation and the designation of a housing redevelopment area south of the center, took years to materialize. Some of the items, including the convention center, are not yet finished.”

The developer also blamed the downtown homeless. Apocryphal or not, accounts multiplied of Hahn complaining how hard it was to get department store tenants to locate in a downtown where “bums peed in their shoes.” Hahn made the answer clear: bulldoze their living quarters.

Meanwhile, the developer was allowed by Wilson to extend his empire to the north, as the San Diego mayor cleared the way for the developer’s suburban desires - as in the case of Escondido endorsing a deal to sell off acreage owned by the city of San Diego’s water department.

“Should 75 acres of Kit Carson Park, located in the southern part of Escondido, be leased as a shopping center site and, to replace that land, 77 acres of property adjoining the park be purchased from the city of San Diego?” was the question facing Escondido voters in a June 1979 plebiscite won by Hahn with a 56 percent majority, the Los Angeles Times reported.

Though some in Escondido quibbled over the $1.3 million price their city had to pay San Diego, the deal turned out to be a veritable bargain, costing just $16,775 an acre, the Times noted.

As further sweetener, Hahn’s victory meant that a competing mall he once had planned for Penasquitos, to be built without taxpayer subsidy within the city limits of San Diego, would not be built, allowing the city of Escondido to collect millions of dollars in annual sales taxes at the expense of its municipal neighbor to the south.

Even as progress on Horton Plaza continued to fall behind, the developer pushed ahead with a Wilson-blessed expansion of Fashion Valley in the bed of the flood-prone San Diego River, opening three new department stores, parking garages, and a new level of specialty shops in 1981.

“At Fashion Valley, Neiman-Marcus and Nordstrom, both of which opened in the fall, say their sales are ahead of projections,” reported L.A. Times business writer and future city councilwoman Barbara Bry in December 1981.

Horton Plaza, the mall that was supposed to spawn a downtown revival, became a costly laggard, surviving only by the grace of Wilson’s political ambitions and his ability to spend public money and expedite permits as Hahn consolidated his northern holdings.

Finally, in the summer of 1979, with Escondido voters having safely approved the North County Fair land deal with San Diego that June, Hahn pronounced himself ready to proceed with Horton Plaza and unveiled plans to scrape away blocks of old buildings, many housing low-income residents.

Although construction of the mall wouldn’t begin until three years later as Hahn sparred with the city over financial terms, Wilson sat beaming in his seat atop the city council dais. Besides rousting legions of panhandlers, the mayor could also claim to have destroyed the early 20th Century playhouse occupied by the Pussycat Theatre, a pornographic movie palace.

The lurid enterprise was owned by reputed Hollywood mobster Vince Miranda, whose presence Wilson used to bait critics who questioned the mall’s high cost to taxpayers and its design, walled off on two sides from the surrounding neighborhood by parking structures.

“Rejecting the pleas of theater activists and porno figure Vincent Miranda, the San Diego City Council voted Wednesday to allow construction of a $132 million downtown shopping center where the historic Lyceum Theater and Horton Grand Hotel now stand,” wrote Los Angeles Times reporter Richard Paddock in August 1979.

“On a 5-2 vote, the council approved agreements with shopping center magnate Ernest W. Hahn to build the six-block Horton Plaza Retail Center. Construction of the shopping center adjacent to Horton Plaza will mean relocation of 49 businesses and 253 families and individuals, as well as demolition of the Lyceum Theater and Horton Grand Hotel.”

“This is a great day in the city’s history,” Wilson proclaimed before casting his vote for the mall he would repeatedly cite as proof of his city-building prowess when he ran for governor, the United States Senate, and the presidency. “It would be a tragic mistake to miss this opportunity.”

Decades later, architect and California historic preservation chief Wayne Donaldson suggested the failed mall itself was the tragedy in a March 1992 interview with the Los Angeles Times.

“We lost six buildings that were on the National Register’ of Historic Places,” Donaldson said. “I don’t think that would be allowed to happen today.”

“Looking back,” the Times added, “he regrets the demolition of such historic downtown buildings as the Cabrillo and Plaza theaters to make way for the Horton Plaza shopping center.”

“He also regrets that Horton Plaza is closed off along 4th Avenue, contributing little in the way of foot traffic to the struggling Gaslamp.”

To abet the blanket demolition, Hahn retained the services of Los Angeles architect Jon Jerde, a glib self-promoter who promised to create an unprecedented “festival marketplace” to replace the historic neighborhood to be demolished.

The Knights of Pythias building was to meet the wrecking ball and be replaced with a stucco version, a la Disneyland’s Main Street. A block away, a classical bank building was also to be recast in stucco and welded onto the side of the garish facade of Robinson’s department store.

Locals outside the city’s business establishment scratched their heads, but Jerde’s public relations blitz worked wonders on many East Coast journalists and critics who parachuted into the city to author starry-eyed takes on the redevelopment project

“Rather than an enclosed mall, it is a kind of urban village placed in the heart of the city, with a multilevel, open-air system of twisting streets and walks set in an extraordinary architectural framework,” gushed New York Times West Coast correspondent Robert Lindsey on August 17, 1985, a week after the shopping center opened.

“It is not a shopping center, another complex of buildings,’’ said Jerde, who died in 2015. “It is a new zone of the city, an extension of the city’s streets and a pilot light for the eventual complete rebirth of downtown.’’

A story carried by the Knight Ridder News Service added, “The concentration of stores and activity is designed to evoke a European street scene, Mr. Hahn says, to make Horton Plaza a destination point, an irresistible beehive of culture and commerce.”

When coverage by the San Diego Union’s theatre critic Welton Jones pressed Wilson over the demolition of the Lyceum Theatre, suggesting the historic venue should have been restored instead of leveled, Hahn and Wilson worked out a deal in which the developer hollowed out a 20,000-square-foot concrete shell buried under the mall for a two-theatre complex, also called the Lyceum, to be funded by taxpayers.

“With the Lyceum Theatre at 314 F St. facing a date with the wrecking ball, many city officials and community activists have expressed concern that downtown might be left without a mid-size theater comparable to the Lyceum, a 420-seat facility listed on the National Historic Register,” the Times reported February 24, 1982.

“The city might have to issue as much as $6.4 million in bonds to produce the $3.9 million needed for the new theater,” the paper added that April in a story that featured the center’s growing costs.

Ground for Horton Plaza was finally broken in October 1982, only a month before Pete Wilson beat Democratic ex-Governor Jerry Brown for the Senate and left for Washington. The ex-mayor staged a triumphant homecoming to San Diego for the grand opening party on August 8, 1985.

The next day, an estimated 70,000 people showed up for the official opening ceremonies, which included a beaming Wilson and Hahn together in what the L.A. Times called a “garland-cutting.”

Real estate speculators with friends at city hall also had reason to be happy. Under Wilson’s sway, city law and ethics officials were reluctant to question the rationale for the project’s enormous subsidies or investigate the involvement of the mayor’s contributors and cronies in nearby development.

In one publicized 1982 case, John Davies — Wilson’s roommate in law school who later mentored the mayor regarding San Diego’s brand of big money politics and campaign fundraising — had a financial interest in the Grant Hotel directly across the street from the future shopping center.

Wilson had appointed Davies to the city planning commission, where as chairman the wealthy lawyer repeatedly led votes to approve the mall over the objections of historic preservationists and other critics seeking to change the project’s pedestrian-unfriendly exterior and other design problems which critics now say ultimately doomed it to failure.

“I thought maybe it died,” assistant city attorney Robert Teaze told the Los Angeles Times in September 1982 when a reporter asked him why a conflict-of-interest complaint about Davies lodged the previous April by Democrat Mel Shapiro and onetime mayoral candidate Si Casady had gone ignored for months.

“Just as soon it died.” Teaze explained. “I wasn’t sitting on it. I had other things to do and I hoped it would go away.” Shortly after the query by the Times, he produced an opinion exonerating the mayor’s best friend.

“In and of itself, the determination of the Planning Commission did not have a ‘material financial effect’ on the market value of surrounding land,” contended Teaze, who died in 2014.

“That conclusion is much different from the city’s action in the 1977 Morrow case,” noted the Times, which described a 1970s ethics complaint brought by Republican city attorney John Witt against Democratic city councilman Floyd Morrow.

“In that case Morrow voted on plans for a redevelopment shopping center in Linda Vista located across the street from land owned by a nonprofit corporation in which he was president and counsel.

“Charging that Morrow had a conflict of interest in the matter, Witt prosecuted the councilman and won, a decision which was later affirmed by the state Court of Appeal. The ruling prohibited Morrow from voting again on the project.”

Davies, who died in 2011, downplayed the matter, telling the Times, “It never occurred to me that there was anything the Grant would be interested in one way or another.”

Added the Times, “Davies said he receives no income for serving as secretary of CDS-Grant, which is headed by his friend and business partner in other enterprises, Christopher D. Sickels.”

Hahn did not live much longer to enjoy his triumph, dying at his Rancho Santa Fe estate on December 28, 1992 of prostate cancer at 73. Though remaining as chairman, he had sold his company to Canadian real estate giant Trizec Corporation Ltd. in November 1980 for $267 million, and his role faded with time. He was safely retired when neighborhoods near Horton Plaza began to complain about side effects wrought by the mall.

“When Horton Plaza opened, the public drunks from the central area were pushed into our area,” Juliette Mondot, who with her husband was raising a family in what is now called East Village, told the Reader in August 1989.

“I call it economic feudalism,” Mondot complained. “They have turned a residential area into a de facto refugee camp.”

Added the story, “Around the corner, in front of a rescue mission that was relocated from the Gaslamp Quarter at part of a city-financed effort to revitalize that area, an even greater number of transients congregate on the sidewalks, and in the street, to encourage them not to defecate on the street, the city has installed porta-potties.”

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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.

When the center is redeveloped, the parking confusion must be fixed. It should be a seamless process to walk between the two structures. They can start by adding appropriate signage.

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?

Horton Plaza really brought about the beginning of the end of the old downtown San Diego. When I came to the city in 1981 at age 23 I was kind of shocked that this big city did not really have a downtown, at least the kind of downtown that I was familiar with in other big cities. But I realized that San Diego was a different type of city that provided a different lifestyle and I was ok with that; I embraced the city's personality. NOBODY went downtown to do ANYthing, unless you were interested in porn shops and arcades. Well, my friends and I found a small handful of cool places where we could eat, drink and be entertained along with like-minded people and that was good enough. Then when word spread of the planned construction of a MALL, everyone was looking forward to it. I don't remember the general opinion of the mall 'style', but in my circle we all liked it. Horton Plaza was a very different mall in style and vibe and yes, it was packed with shoppers, locals and tourists. And, the rest is history. Now the Gaslamp and surrounding areas are often so packed it looks like Times Square. Thank you, Horton Plaza. I am sad about it's demise. I understand the need for change; perhaps this is a necessary change. But I have a feeling that really bad decisions will be made.

In cities across the land, businesses are moving back to the city core, as are residents (in new apts. and condos). That will only increase. So it IS a necessary change.

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