Every year, the San Diego Opera puts on a series of free outdoor concerts in front of the Civic Theatre downtown.

With the impending opening of Horton Plaza Park – the revamped plaza in front of Westfield Horton Plaza mall – the opera’s director of education and community engagement, Nicolas Reveles, looked into moving the free concert program over to the new park. He’d read the city had plans to hold more than 200 events there every year.

“There are a lot more people walking in and out of the shopping center than Civic Theatre,” Reveles said. “So we thought it would be a good move for us.”

But when Reveles got a quote back from Westfield, the company that owns the mall and will operate the park for the next 25 years under a public-private partnership agreement with the city, he was taken aback. It would cost more than $5,000 to rent the space out – and that was the discounted rate.

“We were shocked,” Reveles said. “That’s just impossible for us – there’s no way.”

Reveles said the rate is higher than rental quotes he’s received from places like the Civic Theatre and Balboa Theatre. Part of the problem, he said, was that Westfield wasn’t willing to rent out the plaza for just a few hours; instead it insisted the opera pay the full-day rate even though the concert only takes about three hours, including set-up and teardown.

“I don’t know of any non-profit arts organization in this city, in fact, that could afford that rate,” Reveles told Westfield in an email. “And we’re one of the largest arts organizations in San Diego. … If you’re going to develop the space for the community to be involved in providing content, I think you’ll be hard-pressed to find any groups who can afford the fee.”

The death of redevelopment sent the Horton Plaza Park project into a tailspin and its opening has been delayed several times. City officials and Westfield representatives said they’re still nailing down the pricing structure and other details of how best to go about activating the park when it finally opens in the next few months.

From Fortress to Forum

The importance of making Horton Plaza Park an active space programmed with hundreds of events a year was identified early on, said David Graham, the city’s deputy chief operating officer.

Westfield Horton Plaza mall was originally constructed in the 1980s when downtown was mostly blighted. Because of its sketchy surroundings, the shopping center was designed as an internally focused fortress that didn’t open up to the streets around it.

Fast-forward a few decades, and the shopping center became widely viewed as the main catalyst for the downtown development that followed. The design, though, started becoming problematic once the rest of downtown was revitalized. The old, hulking Robinson-May/Planet Hollywood building acted as a towering entrance to the fortress that was the mall. But it was languishing, in part, because tenants were unable to turn a profit while paying for so much square footage.

City officials and residents began imagining a better use for the space. They came up with the idea of purchasing the land under the big vacant building, tearing it down and creating a new, open public plaza that could act as a more welcoming front door for both the mall and all of downtown.

“But there was this question of, since it’s in the very center of downtown where there’s homeless issues and other security issues, are we just creating a blank space that becomes an attractive nuisance right on the front door of this retail space?” Graham said. “We really needed the new plaza to be activated and activated on a regular basis. We want people circulating there – we want eyes on the park.”

There was a small public plaza in front of the big building, but because it was quickly overtaken by the homeless population. The plaza’s ornamental fountain fell into disrepair and other elements of the plaza were crumbling since the city didn’t have adequate funds for maintenance.

The revamped Horton Plaza Park was envisioned as a busy urban hotspot – think Union Square in San Francisco or Bryant Park in New York – to keep history from repeating itself, Graham said. To make it work, the city needed someone to manage the space.

The city struck a deal with Westfield and, by wrapping requirements into the purchase of the land, it passed off the cost of the park’s operations, maintenance and programming to Westfield for the next 25 years. In turn, Westfield is allowed to recoup costs by leasing out three kiosks on the space and charging for the events held at the park.

Because it’s a public piece of property, though, there are rules about the types of events that can be held in the space and the number of events required annually. There’s also a revenue cap, and any profits from events that top a certain threshold are to be split between the city and Westfield, with a portion going into a capital fund that helps pay for bigger park repairs over time.

The city and Westfield settled on 208 events – four events a week – to be held every year after a few years of ramping up (Westfield will only be required to host 75 events this year, and 150 next year). Three-quarters of events are to be non-ticketed affairs like community fairs, performances, educational events or even private weddings or company picnics. The remaining 25 percent can be events that require a ticket or shut down the entire park to public access.

Kimberly Brewer, vice president of development for Westfield, said she doesn’t expect many of those big, fenced-off events. She also said Westfield expects to lose money on the events for the first few years, then the goal is to eventually break even. Ultimately, she said, a busy plaza is good for business since folks who are attracted to the park might also be tempted to wander through the mall.

“Our goal is just to make it feel used and open to the public as much as possible,” Brewer said.

So Why the High Price Tag?

Brewer said Westfield is still figuring out the exact rates and other details. But she said the current rates, like the quote the opera received, are competitive with similar venues.

“But to be honest, we’re still establishing what the program is,” she said. “We’re also exploring the possibility of something like the Free Tuesdays program at Balboa Park that would give more people access to the space.”

“It would be wonderful if the city could subsidize all of our public spaces to allow for free events all over the place,” Graham said. “But the city does a significant amount of that already.”

Graham also pointed to the crumbling and abandoned Starlight Bowl in Balboa Park as an example of what can happen when the city enters into agreements that don’t make sense financially in the name of providing arts venues.

“Horton Plaza Park is going to be a space that I think we’ll continue to work on,” he said. “But the point is for it not to be a dead space.”

The Cost to the Community

The opera’s free outdoor concerts are a way for the nonprofit to expand its reach and engage with a broader, more diverse audience – particularly an audience that can’t afford a full-blown theatrical production.

Reveles said he thinks if Westfield holds firm on charging high prices for use of the space, the community will be the real loser.

“There are a number of arts organizations that could take advantage of that wonderful space and give Westfield some artistic content,” he said. “These are arts organizations that want to do community engagement and that’s a prime spot.”

Kinsee Morlan was formerly the Engagement Editor at Voice of San Diego and author of the Culture Report. She also managed VOSD’s podcasts and covered...

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