Delle Willett | Art on the Land
San Diego’s founding father, Alonzo Erastus Horton, wanted Horton Plaza to provide a central, commodious and attractive place for public purpose; where all public questions might be discussed with comfort, open-air concerts might be given, people might rest, and children might play in safety.
Back in the early- to mid-1870s, the park was on a small, barren plot of land across the street from the Horton House Hotel. The focal point of the plot was a bandstand on D St. (now Broadway), between Third and Fourth avenues that served as a place to get news of pending railroad projects.
In August 1895, Horton turned the bandstand over to the City to create a more fitting park. It took until 1909 for architect Irving Gill’s Horton Plaza Park and Fountain to be completed. Over time, the pocket park fell from grace, and then came back into the spotlight in 1985 with the construction of Horton Plaza Shopping Center. At that time, the historic park was also renovated to replace the grass and benches with shrubbery in an effort to deter loitering. In 2008, water conservation efforts led to the fountain being shut off and a fence erected around the fountain.
Today, with a budget of $11.7 million, Horton Plaza Park is undergoing a major restoration and expansion that will create an economic catalyst for the surrounding neighborhood and have a transformational effect on Downtown.
Prime consultant landscape architects Walker Macy of Portland, Oregon, is working in collaboration with San Diego’s landscape architects, Schmidt Design Group, Inc., and architects Carrier Johnson + Culture, to realize Alonzo Horton’s original vision of the park.
Active urban public spaces such as Horton Plaza are a major focus of Walker Macy’s work, and the firm is also known for its award-winning waterfront redevelopment, community planning, mixed-use development, and higher education work.
The new plan includes revival of the existing 20,000-square foot historic park as well as the creation of a new, approximately one-acre public plaza created by the removal of the former Robinsons-May building. Combined, the new Horton Plaza Park will cover 1.3 acres.
“Currently San Diego is experiencing significant redevelopment in the core of the city and surrounding the Gaslamp area,” said Chelsea McCann, principal, landscape architect with Walker Macy. “However, what the city lacks is an urban public gathering space that can become the center of the community and serve as a stage for events and activities.
“We are designing Horton Plaza Park to become a hub for outdoor public civic and cultural events in the heart of Downtown San Diego. The plaza will be a destination for both locals and tourists, with programming that welcomes people of all ages and walks of life, a place for people to relax and enjoy casual daily activities,” McCann explained.
The historical significance of the park leaves little wiggle room for changes outside historic parameters. The rehabilitation will return the area to grass, reintroduce the iconic early 20th century lighting and refurbish the now-out-of-use fountain, the park’s centerpiece. The new pavers will closely match the original terra cotta colors that Irving Gill used at the time. Even the decorative lighting built into the fountain will be brought back to life.
In its detailing, the plaza draws inspiration from the history and culture of the San Diego region, making it a unique reflection of the community.
The main inspiration for the design is the old Cabrillo Theatre’s arches. Originally opened around 1918, the theater was located on the south side of Horton Plaza. It was demolished in 1982 to make way for the new Horton Plaza.
The form of the semi-circular amphitheater is reminiscent of the Cabrillo arch and provides seating for events. The plaza’s paving pattern is inspired by the tradition of woven basket patterns from the Kumeyaay Native-American people, and the plant palette is inspired by plants popularized by Kate Sessions.
Upright electric luminaries, whose patterns are derived from the native grasses of the region, will circle the amphitheater-style arch. An interactive water feature will provide activity and draw people to the plaza.
Three pavilions will offer retail space and uses not yet determined. Each will have an extended shade lattice covered in vegetation. The largest of the pavilions will also include public restrooms.
Shade trees are planned for both the eastern edge along Fourth Avenue and the southern edge, adjacent to the Balboa Theatre.
This project is the result of a complex public-private partnership negotiated by Civic San Diego, working on behalf of the former Redevelopment Agency of the City of San Diego, and Westfield Horton Plaza. It is consistent with goals within the adopted 2006 Downtown Community Plan, which guides the development of the urban parks, open spaces and historical resources in the Downtown area.
The partnership also provides for the maintenance, operation and programming of the site by Westfield for 25 years. With construction documents completed in 2013, the opening is planned for late fall 2015.
The project will be a significant achievement for all team members, including Walker Macy – Urban Design and Landscape Architecture; Carrier Johnson + Culture – Design collaboration and Architecture; Schmidt Design Group – design collaboration and planting; Heritage Architecture and Planning – historic preservation; Nasland Engineering – civil; Kanrad Engineering Inc – electrical; Aquatic Design Group – water feature design; HLB Lighting Design – lighting design; Hope-Amundson Structural Engineering – structural; MA Engineers – MEP; CompView – audio design.
—Delle Willett cut her teeth traveling as the daughter of a career Navy man. A graduate of USD with a BFA in hand, her career in marketing and public relations has flourished for over 30 years. An active volunteer for various local organizations, she currently works as a freelance publicist and writer when she’s not traveling the world with her husband, a retired airline pilot. Delle can be reached at email@example.com.