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“Those improvements, which included the 20-mile San Diego Trolley to the Mexican border, the establishment of a semi-autonomous Centre City Development Corporation and the designation of a housing redevelopment area south of the center, took years to materialize. Some of the items, including the convention center, are not yet finished.”

The developer also blamed the downtown homeless. Apocryphal or not, accounts multiplied of Hahn complaining how hard it was to get department store tenants to locate in a downtown where “bums peed in their shoes.” Hahn made the answer clear: bulldoze their living quarters.

Meanwhile, the developer was allowed by Wilson to extend his empire to the north, as the San Diego mayor cleared the way for the developer’s suburban desires - as in the case of Escondido endorsing a deal to sell off acreage owned by the city of San Diego’s water department.

“Should 75 acres of Kit Carson Park, located in the southern part of Escondido, be leased as a shopping center site and, to replace that land, 77 acres of property adjoining the park be purchased from the city of San Diego?” was the question facing Escondido voters in a June 1979 plebiscite won by Hahn with a 56 percent majority, the Los Angeles Times reported.

Though some in Escondido quibbled over the $1.3 million price their city had to pay San Diego, the deal turned out to be a veritable bargain, costing just $16,775 an acre, the Times noted.

As further sweetener, Hahn’s victory meant that a competing mall he once had planned for Penasquitos, to be built without taxpayer subsidy within the city limits of San Diego, would not be built, allowing the city of Escondido to collect millions of dollars in annual sales taxes at the expense of its municipal neighbor to the south.

Even as progress on Horton Plaza continued to fall behind, the developer pushed ahead with a Wilson-blessed expansion of Fashion Valley in the bed of the flood-prone San Diego River, opening three new department stores, parking garages, and a new level of specialty shops in 1981.

“At Fashion Valley, Neiman-Marcus and Nordstrom, both of which opened in the fall, say their sales are ahead of projections,” reported L.A. Times business writer and future city councilwoman Barbara Bry in December 1981.

Horton Plaza, the mall that was supposed to spawn a downtown revival, became a costly laggard, surviving only by the grace of Wilson’s political ambitions and his ability to spend public money and expedite permits as Hahn consolidated his northern holdings.

Finally, in the summer of 1979, with Escondido voters having safely approved the North County Fair land deal with San Diego that June, Hahn pronounced himself ready to proceed with Horton Plaza and unveiled plans to scrape away blocks of old buildings, many housing low-income residents.

Although construction of the mall wouldn’t begin until three years later as Hahn sparred with the city over financial terms, Wilson sat beaming in his seat atop the city council dais. Besides rousting legions of panhandlers, the mayor could also claim to have destroyed the early 20th Century playhouse occupied by the Pussycat Theatre, a pornographic movie palace.

The lurid enterprise was owned by reputed Hollywood mobster Vince Miranda, whose presence Wilson used to bait critics who questioned the mall’s high cost to taxpayers and its design, walled off on two sides from the surrounding neighborhood by parking structures.

“Rejecting the pleas of theater activists and porno figure Vincent Miranda, the San Diego City Council voted Wednesday to allow construction of a $132 million downtown shopping center where the historic Lyceum Theater and Horton Grand Hotel now stand,” wrote Los Angeles Times reporter Richard Paddock in August 1979.

“On a 5-2 vote, the council approved agreements with shopping center magnate Ernest W. Hahn to build the six-block Horton Plaza Retail Center. Construction of the shopping center adjacent to Horton Plaza will mean relocation of 49 businesses and 253 families and individuals, as well as demolition of the Lyceum Theater and Horton Grand Hotel.”

“This is a great day in the city’s history,” Wilson proclaimed before casting his vote for the mall he would repeatedly cite as proof of his city-building prowess when he ran for governor, the United States Senate, and the presidency. “It would be a tragic mistake to miss this opportunity.”

Decades later, architect and California historic preservation chief Wayne Donaldson suggested the failed mall itself was the tragedy in a March 1992 interview with the Los Angeles Times.

“We lost six buildings that were on the National Register’ of Historic Places,” Donaldson said. “I don’t think that would be allowed to happen today.”

“Looking back,” the Times added, “he regrets the demolition of such historic downtown buildings as the Cabrillo and Plaza theaters to make way for the Horton Plaza shopping center.”

“He also regrets that Horton Plaza is closed off along 4th Avenue, contributing little in the way of foot traffic to the struggling Gaslamp.”

To abet the blanket demolition, Hahn retained the services of Los Angeles architect Jon Jerde, a glib self-promoter who promised to create an unprecedented “festival marketplace” to replace the historic neighborhood to be demolished.

The Knights of Pythias building was to meet the wrecking ball and be replaced with a stucco version, a la Disneyland’s Main Street. A block away, a classical bank building was also to be recast in stucco and welded onto the side of the garish facade of Robinson’s department store.

Locals outside the city’s business establishment scratched their heads, but Jerde’s public relations blitz worked wonders on many East Coast journalists and critics who parachuted into the city to author starry-eyed takes on the redevelopment project

“Rather than an enclosed mall, it is a kind of urban village placed in the heart of the city, with a multilevel, open-air system of twisting streets and walks set in an extraordinary architectural framework,” gushed New York Times West Coast correspondent Robert Lindsey on August 17, 1985, a week after the shopping center opened.

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monaghan June 28, 2018 @ 3:16 p.m.

Sic transit gloria. Horton Plaza in its heyday had restaurants, bookstores, music stores, department stores and Williams & Sonoma for wedding gifts. There were multiplex movies and the San Diego Repertory Theater underground. Interior mall design was flashy/Disney/Northern Italian, even if confusing to pedestrians. Mastery of the parking garage was futile as it was divided oddly between Fruits and Vegetables. I only parked on the roof or floors that said "mall entrance." Getting to Horton required unusual political finesse/chicanery. Its construction destroyed charming old buildings, closed the historic park and fountain out front to discourage bums, dislocated homeless people to other neighborhoods and turned the face of the entire structure inward, reversing what urban buildings customarily did. But once you were inside, it was a consumer funscape and you actually were Downtown, a place most San Diegans had seldom gone before.


dwbat June 28, 2018 @ 5:57 p.m.

I believe San Diego Rep is still there. The horrible parking garage reminded me of the Seinfeld episode, when they couldn't find their car. "Sic transit gloria" is not apropos, as the glory of the world is not passing. ;-) Call Miley Cyrus, to borrow her wrecking ball.


Raverboy1999 June 28, 2018 @ 6:32 p.m.

And it costs $8/hour to park in their rat maze!


monaghan June 28, 2018 @ 6:35 p.m.

San Diego Rep is definitely present and thriving in its Lyceum Theater space. People can park across the way at a discount instead of in the now-full-price Fruits and Vegetables labyrinth. As for sic transit gloria, dwbat, it works for me.


dbdriver June 29, 2018 @ 11:15 a.m.

Worked a few years in the parking garage during the Hahn Company years. There is definitely a trick to finding your way around the structure. I want to joke and say it's called remembering where you park, but it also involves remembering how and where you entered the mall. Having the ramps labeled half of the lower level and half of the upper level did not help. People would park, say on level 5 and walk down to the level 4 mall entrance. Later coming out they remember level 5 and end up walking up the wrong ramp, starting from the wrong mall entrance.


dwbat Oct. 14, 2018 @ 11:21 a.m.

When the center is redeveloped, the parking confusion must be fixed. It should be a seamless process to walk between the two structures. They can start by adding appropriate signage.


r_e_uhhh June 29, 2018 @ 10:18 a.m.

This article reads like a bit like a crime thriller, it's funny that Reader articles always have this conspiracy theory undercurrent to them.

I think most people who were around in it's heyday can attest that it was at least at one time an asset to the area, while some people may have profitted in more ways than one from that, you can see how this investment and others that were made downtown acted as catalysts to bring additional investment to the area.

The problem is that the mall has aged and not been updated or maintained, Westfield is soley responsible for that. Horton's Plaza is an eyesore that is privately owned and at the end of the day if their management seeks to work with government to ensure a smooth transition to a more contemporary concept, that is the least they could do and should not be criticized for it. Every day it stands as a liability to the community is a day wasted.


monaghan June 29, 2018 @ 11:41 a.m.

I don't see conspiracy undercurrents. Potter describes San Diego Business as Usual -- a complex deal benefiting rising politician Mayor Pete Wilson and developer Ernie Hahn and, oh, also you and me, the shoppers. Hahn leveraged his downtown Horton Plaza (Renew! Save Our City!) proposal by dragging out negotiations in order to get concessions that allowed him to build a bunch of other highly lucrative malls around the County.

Subsequent neglect of Horton Plaza by owner Westfield and recent transfer of title to a new brainiac remodeler never has been openly addressed by our passive present Mayor Sunny or by the craven City Council. No conspiracy, just secretive wheeling and dealing, out of the public eye, San Diego-style.


Scott Marks June 29, 2018 @ 8:28 p.m.

He calls it Horton's Plaza. Give it up, mon. There are bigger battles to fight.


megburns July 12, 2018 @ 1:44 p.m.

Roger Hedgecock always called it Willie Horton Plaza.


monaghan June 29, 2018 @ 9:51 p.m.

You're right, Scott. How about truth in advertising? A paid signature gatherer outside busy Reading Clairemont Cinemas tonight falsely claimed "SAVE COMI-CON," verbally and writ large on his clipboard, as he hustled movie-goers to sign on to what is in fact SD hoteliers' plan to raise hotel taxes to finance another expansion of the Convention Center. Apparently they're having trouble meeting their signature quota by the looming deadline.


aardvark June 30, 2018 @ 11:51 a.m.

They are also going door-to-door for signatures. I turned down someone yesterday. After I explained to him why I wouldn't sign it, he then asked me to sign his petition just to put it on the ballot, so he could get the money for the signature.


monaghan June 30, 2018 @ 2:07 p.m.

I had the same experience at home a week ago. The pitch was, well, could you sign just to help me out? I had to laugh at the chutzpah. Today there was a slightly more honest fast-talker outside the grocery store who emphasized help-for-the-homeless and road-repair amid false claims that "Comi-Con is gone." (I love living in California.)


Visduh July 1, 2018 @ 7:13 a.m.

Matt has pulled many threads together and encapsulated the history of the misbegotten mall. The whole idea of trying to bring retailing back to downtown had an appeal at the time, but I always thought Pete Wilson expended too much of his time, energy and political capital on getting it going. Now I understand the reasons for his big push. Too bad for him and us that "Dirty Ernie" Hahn was the developer of the place. Hahn was notorious for his abuse of sub-contractors, and many just chose to avoid bidding on his work. Sadly, the mall didn't function as a jump-start to overall downtown rebirth. It was far later that the residential boom in the area got started. And note that with all that residential property in the area, the mall is sliding into oblivion.

Westfield may have mismanaged the mall, but it cannot be blamed for all its ills. Malls are failing everywhere, and the few that still do well are the exception.


dwbat July 1, 2018 @ 9:02 a.m.

What a terrible shame that we have that beautiful plaza, where you can sit and look at the lame mural of upside-down skyscrapers. Jimbo's was right to sue Westfield America. The City of San Diego should do likewise.


Darren July 3, 2018 @ 12:48 p.m.

Does Ace Parking run the parking for Horton Plaza? What a monopoly Ace Parking has around town--and wonder who in GOV they are in cahoots with?


crad Oct. 14, 2018 @ 10:44 a.m.

Horton Plaza really brought about the beginning of the end of the old downtown San Diego. When I came to the city in 1981 at age 23 I was kind of shocked that this big city did not really have a downtown, at least the kind of downtown that I was familiar with in other big cities. But I realized that San Diego was a different type of city that provided a different lifestyle and I was ok with that; I embraced the city's personality. NOBODY went downtown to do ANYthing, unless you were interested in porn shops and arcades. Well, my friends and I found a small handful of cool places where we could eat, drink and be entertained along with like-minded people and that was good enough. Then when word spread of the planned construction of a MALL, everyone was looking forward to it. I don't remember the general opinion of the mall 'style', but in my circle we all liked it. Horton Plaza was a very different mall in style and vibe and yes, it was packed with shoppers, locals and tourists. And, the rest is history. Now the Gaslamp and surrounding areas are often so packed it looks like Times Square. Thank you, Horton Plaza. I am sad about it's demise. I understand the need for change; perhaps this is a necessary change. But I have a feeling that really bad decisions will be made.


dwbat Oct. 14, 2018 @ 2:05 p.m.

In cities across the land, businesses are moving back to the city core, as are residents (in new apts. and condos). That will only increase. So it IS a necessary change.


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