“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.