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.
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.
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.
“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.
“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.”
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.
“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.
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.