The Downtown Information Center, a service of the Centre City Development Corporation, occupies the ground-floor lobby at 225 Broadway. The center exhibits sketches and charts detailing the area's redevelopment. Its showpiece is a 200-square-foot model of downtown. From a distance, the model looks like an art installation, an abstract, geometric study. Up close, it looks like downtown -- to scale and detailed, with cars, pedestrians, and trees. Black tags pasted to the model mark current and future development projects, most of which proceed under the aegis of the development corporation, a public, nonprofit organization created by the city in 1975 to serve "on behalf of the San Diego Redevelopment Agency as the catalyst for public-private partnerships to facilitate projects." Through an operating agreement, it functions as the "agency's representative in the developments of retail, residential, and other projects."
The development corporation has helped the city revitalize the Gaslamp Quarter. It's an old, familiar story. Once known as Rabbitville after its principal inhabitants, the Gaslamp was saved the first time, in 1867, by Alonzo Horton, who promised that the 960 "barren, sunburnt desert" acres that he purchased would flourish. By the late 1880s, however, the Gaslamp was suffering, and for nearly a hundred years it remained a dangerous district occupied by flophouses, adult bookstores, and peep shows. Many of the buildings were vacant and dilapidated. Using the considerable weight of California Community Redevelopment Law, which provides local governments with the authority to attack urban decay, the city empowered the development corporation and then, in March 1976, adopted an ordinance that established design-and-use guidelines for the redevelopment of the Gaslamp. In July 1982, the Gaslamp Quarter became an official redevelopment project area, based largely on a city council finding that the area was "blighted." That finding emerged from the observation that the Gaslamp languished "because of mixed and nonconforming uses, vacant buildings, substandard dwelling units, the lack of adequate open space, a concentration of 'adult' entertainment uses, and a high crime rate."
Now -- almost 25 years after the adoption of the so-called planned district ordinance -- seemed a good time to examine the original goals and guidelines of the redevelopment project and to ask whether they've been fulfilled. Not surprisingly, city redevelopment officials say that they have. For years, they have celebrated the erasure of blight and the reversal of "physical, social, and economic decline" in the Gaslamp. Today, city websites, advertisements, and brochures describe the area as "vibrant," "attractive," and "entertaining."
What success the Gaslamp has enjoyed it has earned, in part, by emulating New Orleans' French Quarter. The Gaslamp hosts several Cajun-style restaurants and a robust, bacchanalian nightlife, which reaches its apotheosis on Fat Tuesday when, for a price, one can get lit on the street. The area's buildings, like the French Quarter's, are grand; their façades have been historicized and painted in vibrant colors. "Entertaining" is too dainty a word for it. "Jubilant" seems more appropriate. Though most of the drugs and pornography have vanished, they've been replaced by a different kind of partying -- a city-sanctioned culinary and alcoholic indulgence. On weekend nights, Fifth Avenue bustles with handsomely dressed patrons window-shopping for the best restaurant or bar. Pretty women push oversized menus into customers' hands and entice them with promises of choice seating and descriptions of delicious specials. Bouncers stand guard at the clubs, checking IDs. A deep bass spills into the street from the Bitter End; young revelers descend the stairs toward the auspicious glow emanating from the Onyx Room. The street smells of food, cigarette smoke, and cologne. Pedestrians cut in front of cars to catch up with friends. On a recent Friday night, Ed McMahon's emblazoned Star Search bus, double parked between F and G Streets, spilled out diesel fumes and clogged traffic. A crowd gathered around, hoping to catch a glimpse of somebody.
Beverly Schroeder, a senior planner at the development corporation, told me on January 26, "Thirty years ago the plan was to clean up drug use in the area. I don't think anyone imagined that it would become what it has become."
Locals and tourists alike think of the Gaslamp as a nighttime destination. Whether it's Croce's for music, La Strada for food, or the Star Bar for no-nonsense drinking, the Gaslamp caters to evening needs. But officials intended for the district to be a mixed-use area, a place where residents could rub elbows with out-of-towners while they took care of their daytime shopping. The language of the original 1976 planned-district ordinance, which has been upheld in subsequent drafts, says as much. Among the "desired uses" for the Gaslamp were for it to accommodate "day and nighttime entertainment and restaurant establishments" and "activities which attract the casual shopper, whether resident or visitor."
The 1982 redevelopment plan for the Gaslamp Quarter Redevelopment Project -- prepared by the city's Redevelopment Agency in cooperation with the Gaslamp Quarter's Project Area Committee -- reiterated these objectives. Planners listed as "major goals" the "strengthening and encouragement of retail, business, cultural, social, and other commercial functions in the Project Area, including, but not limited to, the establishment of a safe, healthy, and attractive environment in which business, commercial, cultural, and social services activities can thrive and residents live." In May 1992, officials merged this plan with the larger redevelopment plan for the Centre City Redevelopment Project -- which included the Columbia, Marina, and Gaslamp Quarter redevelopments -- but they have never changed the "major goals."
Nevertheless, the Gaslamp Quarter Association, which represents a diverse group of more than 380 businesses located in the 16-block historic district, deemed it necessary late last year to take matters into its own hands and launch an advertising campaign promoting the Gaslamp's retailers. Driving down toward Broadway you might have noticed a new billboard at Front and Beech Streets imprinted with the slogan "Shop Outside the Box." Bill Keller, chairman of the association's board of directors and owner of Le Travel Store at 745 Fourth Avenue, explained the campaign to me on January 29.