One could find worse symbols for the Loma Portal area than the Midway Drive-In. Opened in 1947, San Diego’s first outdoor movie theater commanded the position at the intersection of Midway Drive and Sports Arena Boulevard in the days when the latter was named Frontier Street and Navy Barracks still stood on the site now occupied by FedMart. Khaki yellow and tinged by palm trees, the drive-in’s tired façade matched the neighborhood – mostly lower-income, military inhabitants. Now the Midway is about to be torn down, but even its demise says a lot about what’s happening today to Loma Portal.
The drive-in will be replaced by a shopping center, yet another landmark in the commercial boom that has been shaking the area. “You can’t hardly buy land here anymore,” says Elmer L. Faiman, who’s managed the Loma Portal industrial and commercial property for years. “The Sports Arena itself (opened in 1966) helped more than anything else,” he contends. Others cite the advent nine years ago of the FedMart store, which since has grown to be the second-largest single-story retail store in the West. Scattered reminders of the old Loma Portal, with its commercial focus on the military, remain (girlie reviews like the pink and white Les Girls), but now a surging air of prosperous vitality predominates.
Since the arrival of FedMart, the changes have come faster and faster. A little more than two years ago the Sports Arena Village shopping mall materialized on the vacant property to the west of the arena and quickly attracted such tenants as Wherehouse Records, Straw Hat Pizza, and Yakitori II restaurant (the mall is ninety-eight percent occupied at present). That development also included four office buildings behind the retail stores, and the demand for that commercial space has been strong enough to spawn plans for two more such office buildings. Just down the road from Sports Arena Village, on the arena’s east side, another center called Sports Arena Square opened in November of 1978. Among its tenants is the Mann Theaters sixplex, so successful that an expansion is now in progress to bring the number of screens up to eight. (The square itself has no commercial vacancies left and parking is now at a premium.)
Despite that concentration of movie seats, developers of Glasshouse Square (just down the block from Sports Arena Square) say a six-screen movie theater will be part of their project when it opens. That opening has been long in coming: problems with a parade of different developers have plagued the site which formerly held an old Cal store. But now the current owners are hoping that at least some of the forty-five or so retail units will be ready for customers by December.
Billed as a specialty center, Glasshouse Square won’t include any major department stores, but instead will have an emphasis on entertainment. In addition to the movie theaters, three large restaurants have made commitments to move into the center: Garcia’s, a Mexican restaurant which is part of a large Arizona chain; Yet Wah, a Chines operation with San Francisco owners; and Marc’s Place, a new venture for local concert promoter Marc Berman, which should combine elements of both a restaurant and a cabaret. Tim Taylor, one of the shopping center publicists, explains the developers’ confidence in the location. “It is a high-income area,” he says. “We’ve seen studies which show that about 100,000 cars go by on Sports Arena Boulevard every day.”