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One-hundred years ago, the civic heart of the San Diego region was a narrow, block-long park in downtown called Horton Plaza. The park “was at the center of all the important celebrations, festivities and meetings” in San Diego, historian Mary Maud Burnham wrote in a 1966 newspaper article. It’s where San Diegans gathered to mark the end of World War II, celebrate national holidays and listen to speeches by U.S. presidents.
Today, when you say “Horton Plaza,” people immediately think of the shopping center at Fourth Avenue and Broadway and not the historic park, which has become dilapidated and uninviting. But just as the Horton Plaza shopping center helped usher in the revitalization of downtown in the 1980s, the little park in front of it now has an opportunity to play a similar role.
On Wednesday (November 17), the Centre City Development Corporation Board of Directors will consider a proposal to restore the park to its 1910 look — open, grassy and welcoming — and create a vibrant new urban plaza next to it by demolishing the former Robinsons-May/Planet Hollywood building at the northeast corner of the shopping center. With these plans comes the commitment by the mall owner, Westfield, to maintain the site and coordinate more than 200 annual events at this facility for the next 25 years.
This new open space, combined with a revitalized Horton Plaza park, would re-establish the site as the central gathering space of San Diego County, and create a world-class urban plaza that rivals other well-known landmarks, such as Union Square in San Francisco and Pioneer Courthouse Square in Portland, Oregon. The project would strengthen the social fabric of downtown San Diego and provide a place that would beckon people to stop, sit, eat lunch, meet friends or enjoy a concert. An added benefit is the park would be restored to Secretary of the Interior’s standards, ensuring that its past is honored.
It would be reminiscent of the park as it was in 1891 when it hosted an appearance by President Benjamin Harrison. About 5,000 people nearly a third of the city’s population at the time, showed up, lining the streets and hanging out of windows. It was a shining moment for the young city.
The renaissance of downtown continued, and in 1910 the U.S. Grant Hotel opened directly across Broadway, immediately attracting presidents, dignitaries, artists and other luminaries and further establishing the spot as the cultural and civic center of San Diego. An iconic fountain was dedicated that year in the Horton Plaza park, designed by renowned San Diego architect Irving Gill and featuring something people had never seen before in a fountain: changing colored lights powered by electricity.
Unfortunately, over the course of the 20th century, new suburban subdivisions drained downtown of its luster. The park suffered along with the rest of the city’s urban core.
Today, an odd assortment of spiky vegetation crowds the narrow walkways. The once-proud fountain was shut down for repairs two years ago and has been enshrouded behind a chain-link fence ever since. There’s not a park bench in sight.
As we know, downtown experienced a rebirth in the 1980s, thanks to the historic preservation of the Gaslamp Quarter and the Horton Plaza shopping center. The U.S. Grant underwent a major restoration in 2006 and this year celebrated its centennial anniversary.
The year 2006 was important for another reason: that was when the city adopted the new Downtown Community Plan. While officially a forward-looking blueprint for growth, the document seeks to preserve downtown’s history and enhance it with a call for more parks and open space. How fitting it would be to follow suit with a restored and revitalized historic park and new urban plaza across the street from the U.S. Grant Hotel.
This project is about much more than just a 1.5-acre park and plaza. It’s about forging a new link to San Diego’s past and bringing a piece of downtown’s storied history back to life. As a city, we need to honor the past by preserving the historic Horton Plaza park, while at the same time creating a new gathering place that can serve modern society by expanding and activating open space next to the park.
Back in 1966, when Mary Maud Burnham wrote her history of Horton Plaza park, she noted:
“Many interesting homes and landmarks are being restored in Old Town, but nearly all of the old homes and landmarks known to the settlers of New San Diego (downtown) have been torn down. One of the few landmarks left is the Plaza. Perhaps it can be preserved, beautified and if possible, enlarged.”
As one of the few remaining ties to downtown’s history, Horton Plaza — the park — deserves to finally achieve that long-desired goal of preservation, beautification and rebirth. And the time to do it is now.
Bruce Coons is the Executive Director of Save Our Heritage Organisation and Daniel Tucker is Chairman of the Sycuan Band of the Kumeyaay Nation.