By Tim Briggs | Downtown Partnership News
Downtown San Diego is obsessed with new. A recent building boom in East Village and the Columbia District has dotted the skyline with modern residential high rises, attracting thousands of new residents. This, in turn, has ushered in the latest wave of food, beverage, and entertainment options, some of which have already come and gone.
Yet, what is new eventually becomes old, as we have seen with Horton Plaza. Thirty years ago, Horton Plaza opened to large crowds and rave reviews of its cutting-edge urban design. Now, it is a ghost town that is scheduled to be redeveloped by Stockdale Capital Partners into a state-of-the-art office and retail complex.
This emphasis on the new obscures the fact that Downtown San Diego is the true historic heart of the region. Sure, the Spanish were the first to establish a settlement along the river that later became a U.S. military outpost, but there were never more than a few hundred people living in Old Town. It was the vision of Alonzo Horton to create a “new town” along the harbor that gave birth to the San Diego of today.
In our modern metropolis, we have only a few places to connect to history. Potential destinations for Downtown San Diego are our parks and public spaces. Though often overlooked, Pantoja Park, Amici Park, and Gaslamp Quarter Park hold a significant place in our local history. Did you know that Pantoja Park predates Horton’s founding of San Diego (it was the town square of William Heath Davis’ failed development)? That the corner of Date and State streets, the present location of Amici Park, was the social and cultural center of Little Italy? Or that, in his old age, Horton used to sit in a wagon at the foot of Fifth Avenue (what is now Gaslamp Quarter Park) and welcome visitors to “his” town?
Visiting these locations, there is little to remind us of this rich history. In our embrace of the new, we have too often lost sight of what has come before. Substantive change to our public spaces is needed for us to reclaim our shared history. Merely adding a plaque or a statue is not enough; we must transform the design of our Downtown parks.
Interactive water features have been a hit at the county Waterfront Park and should be incorporated into Pantoja Park, with a historic twist to reference the efforts of women in the 1880s who carried water in tin buckets to nurture the trees that grace the park today. Removing some of the barriers within Amici Park and integrating the different elements would allow children, dog owners, and older residents to connect with one another, just as they did in the days when the Washington Street School, Our Lady of the Rosary, and Bayside Social Center were the focal points of the community. Even the simple addition of patio tables and chairs would greatly enhance the friendliness of Gaslamp Quarter Park.
It is unlikely that change will happen without initiative from residents. As part of its Parks Master Plan update, the city of San Diego is gathering input in person and online to explore the needs and priorities of park users. Downtown residents can call attention to the need for upgrades to Pantoja, Amici, and Gaslamp Quarter parks, as well as participate in upcoming workshops, to envision the long-term future of their parks.
Another option is to adopt a conservancy model to manage Downtown parks and raise money for their improvements. While this is commonly done for larger parks, including our own Balboa Park, strong management is needed for all parks, especially given the particular challenges Downtown parks face.
Horton Plaza may point the way forward. While the mall awaits a new makeover, the adjacent park blends the old and the new by honoring Irving Gill’s historic fountain, as well as creating an updated common for residents and visitors to Downtown. Though more still needs to be done to elevate Horton Plaza Park to its earlier prominence, the park evokes a sense of history that is missing from many of our public spaces.
—Tim Briggs is pursuing a master’s in city planning from San Diego State University. He was a graduate fellow at the Downtown San Diego Partnership, where he researched and analyzed public spaces in Downtown San Diego.