By Dave Fidlin
Westfield says it is committed to Horton Plaza’s revitalization
When the wraps were taken off it in 1985, the open-air Horton Plaza mall was ballyhooed as a game-changer that was going to breathe new life into San Diego’s Downtown.
In the ensuing decades, the sprawling five-story complex, with its Italian-inspired design, has been a notable feature that brought San Diegans and tourists alike into the mall’s corridors.
But as it meanders into its third decade of life, Horton Plaza is showing its age and several high-profile retail departures — most notably, last summer’s closing of Nordstrom — has fueled speculation of the mall’s future.
The retail scene within Horton Plaza has been in flux in recent years. Case in point: Chinese eatery Panda Inn, the mall’s last full-service restaurant, closed a month ago. But there have been notable retail additions as well, including Jimbo’s …Naturally, which opened its Horton Plaza store in fall 2013.
Westfield Group, the Australia-based shopping center owner, has owned Horton Plaza the past 20 years through its U.S. subsidiary in Los Angeles. The company has been mum on future plans for the property, though it has hinted changes are afoot.
“We don’t have any new specific information or announcements to share at this time,” Zach Eichman, Westfield’s vice president of marketing and communications in Los Angeles, said in an interview exchange over email.
But in a big-picture sense, Eichman said Westfield remains committed to Horton Plaza. He declined to divulge a timetable, but said announcements of revitalization efforts will likely come down the pike in the near future.
“Moving forward, the future revitalization of Horton Plaza is an essential facet of Westfield’s long-term commitment to San Diego,” Eichman said.
He continued, “The company envisions Horton Plaza as a truly fashionable front door to Downtown’s Gaslamp Quarter and a modern urban oasis where community, culture and commerce combine alongside curated fashion and world-class cuisine.”
The future of Westfield Plaza could include more decisions akin to the development of the Horton Plaza Park.
A public-private partnership between the city of San Diego and Westfield, inked in 2011, called for razing the Planet Hollywood and Robinsons-May buildings and replacing the spaces with the park, which opened in May 2016.
Westfield has a history of revitalizing the properties it owns on an as-needed basis, Eichman said. He pointed to the company’s other commercial properties in San Diego, some of which have gone through spruce-ups in recent years.
Eichman said the company has sunk $600 million into the transformation of Westfield’s UTC property in La Jolla and has also made investments into its Mission Valley and Plaza Bonita developments.
Because of a confluence of circumstances — including the rise of online shopping and consolidation within the retail industry — the traditional mall business plan with department store anchors and in-line retail tenants has gone through dramatic changes in recent years.
Weaker malls have succumbed to the market forces, while stronger properties have gone through evolutionary changes.
The Downtown San Diego Partnership is among the local civic groups hoping to have a seat at the table as discussions of Horton Plaza’s future ensue.
From her vantage point, Katherine Johnston, senior vice president of communications for the partnership, said she believes Horton Plaza remains an important part of the Downtown fabric.
“We’re excited and optimistic,” Johnston said of Westfield’s commitment to the property. “We think there’s a lot of opportunity for revitalization.”
Johnston said she believes the key to securing Horton Plaza’s long-term success is a change in strategy. Instead of the retail-heavy focus, Johnston said a mixed-use approach that would include, but not stop at retail is the best course of action.
“The nature of retail is changing, and I think we see a vibrant mix of dining, retail and office,” Johnston said.
Although it is an open-air center, Horton Plaza has a common thread with the enclosed shopping malls that sprouted up across the U.S. in the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s: The shops are inward facing.
Johnston said the partnership is recommending Westfield make tweaks to Horton Plaza’s design by offering street-level access to some of the stores.
“This is a dynamic space,” she said. “We feel it should be opened up.”
Despite overall shifts in retail and shopping patterns, Johnston said there are plausible reasons a shopping mecca should continue to operate in San Diego’s Downtown.
The city’s Downtown population has increased in the past three decades. Today, 38,000 residents call the area home, which is nearly triple the amount from when Horton Plaza first opened.
Eichman, in discussing Westfield’s review of the property, made note of this trend.
“We continue to evaluate strategic opportunities and new prospects, in conjunction with the city of San Diego, to introduce new life, energy and choices to the property,” Eichman said.
—Dave Fidlin is a freelance journalist with a special affinity for San Diego and its people. Contact him at email@example.com