"Basically, there was some extra money left over from last year, and we designated it for the retailers in the neighborhood. I think we've got a lot of high-profile events for the bars and clubs, and what we were looking to do was promote retail. So with a little seed money we put together a group of Gaslamp retailers starting last summer and tried to figure out how to spend it. The concept was 'What makes us unique?' Well, obviously we have a high percentage of locally owned businesses. We don't have the big boxes of malls and big chains, and we were thinking about the process of shopping, of going in and out of stores. In trying to figure out what makes us unique, we came up with the initial phrase, 'I found it in the Gaslamp.' It was that sense of the discovery of something that we wanted to communicate. We handed the program off to Juddesign, and they took it over and turned it into several different concepts, all of which were amazing. The one we chose was 'Shop Outside the Box.' That phrase captures what we are going after. The obvious comparison is to malls and chain stores. The hot trend in retail has obviously been the superstore, but we know there are a lot of people who absolutely hate those places. This was an effort to communicate with those people."
Keller added, "Our goal is to get people to realize that there are 75 to 80 stores in the Gaslamp and that it is more than just a great dining and entertainment district. There is something else happening here, and so we need to start adding that idea of shopping to people's idea of the Gaslamp."
Even though city press releases plug the Gaslamp's shopping, Keller thinks the Gaslamp has a way to go before it becomes a reputable retail district. "From my point of view," he said, "and I know that not everybody agrees with me, I think that a certain percentage of national stores here is critical. There just isn't that much good independent retail. I say we need some of the clothing stores. I don't think that we'll become a real shopping district until we get some more of the nationals, with all the product and expertise that they bring. In order for us to be perceived by San Diegans as a shopping district, we need to get more retailers down here. And I hope that includes some additional independents and a few more national chains. I hope we end up with a balance. That will benefit the local stores, who in turn will attract people to the national stores. What the billboard promotes is old-fashioned street shopping, like that on the street level in San Francisco, Santa Monica, Pasadena."
Michael Stepner, dean of the New School of Architecture and a planner for the Gaslamp Quarter from 1975 until 1992, agrees with Keller. "The goal of balance really has not been achieved," he told me on January 30. "You have Fridays and Saturdays when the place is jammed with people going down for the restaurants and the entertainment. I think we haven't developed a sufficient retail market downtown to cause a lot of retail to spill out from Horton Plaza. While some things have gone in, what was envisioned was a lot more businesses going in on the ground floor of Fifth and Sixth Avenues, not just restaurants. We haven't quite achieved that. I would like to see city officials get more daytime commercial tenants in there and go out and find businesses."
Stepner also thinks that Pasadena can be a lesson for San Diego planners. "I look at Old Pasadena as a model, which has achieved more of a balance," he said. "You do have a real strong daytime use there. The big chains can be used to bring in business."
Patti Judd owns Juddesign, an advertising and design firm at 696 State Street, and the Paperie, a retail store at 534 Fifth Avenue. Judd developed the billboard and a "Shop Outside the Box" campaign that ran in San Diego Magazine in December. She told me on January 29, "We took a look at what's unique about shopping in the Gaslamp, which is that the stores are not all cookie-cutter like at the malls. There's a certain cachet with downtown right now, and there's an urban quality that you can't get anywhere else, and so, in terms of developing this campaign, we asked, how do we go in and talk to San Diego, not just to the tourists, but to get the word out that there is quality retail down here. I think that a lot of people still have the impression of downtown as kind of creepy and not the most desirable place to go."
I asked Judd if she would like to see more city-sponsored endorsements of the retail aspects of the Gaslamp. "Absolutely," she said. "Absolutely. But we know it's not going to happen overnight. We have to make it a more attractive place for retail, and that means there has to be a draw during the daytime as well as the nighttime to support the rents that are going on. As far as what CCDC [Centre City Development Corporation] can do, I think it's really their messaging. Previously, the Gaslamp has been touted as a place for nightlife. Part of our messaging has been to make sure they include this shopping experience. We wanted to get away from the perception of the Gaslamp as just a historical district or just an entertainment and dinner place. It needs to be a complete community."
According to Judd, parking has contributed to the problem. "It's affecting both of my businesses, and that is something they can do something about to make it more attractive. A lot of people say, 'Oh, I don't want to go down there and pay for parking.' They know that the meter maids are scooting around."