With a large excavator just a few feet to his side, Pete Wilson helped usher in a new era for Horton Plaza as he and the development project planners held a ceremonial groundbreaking in downtown San Diego on Nov. 29.
“This is a day of celebration, as it should be,” said Wilson, the former San Diego mayor and California governor.
The celebration was large, with local elected officials joining a big crowd on the very site that will, in just a few months, look much different than it does now.
Plans include a return of the historically grassy look at Horton Plaza Park, which has changed appearance time and again — most recently looking like lawn-sized planters for green shrubs with an unchanging perimeter of palm trees.
The shrubs are already gone, leaving the four large barren quadrants of the park waiting for grass.
The paving surrounding the spaces and the iconic fountain at its center, designed by Irving Gill, will be restored to 19th century historical specifications.
The rest of the plans for the Horton Plaza Improvement Project include demolishing the Westfield Horton Plaza mall’s former Robinsons-May department store building, south of the park, and replacing it with a large amphitheater.
Financing for the project will be accomplished through a development agreement between Westfield and Civic San Diego, which implements development downtown on behalf of the city.
Civic San Diego’s investment in the project comes from funds recognized as obligations of the city’s former redevelopment agency, Centre City Development Corp., which was dismantled early in the year per new state law.
“As we prevented the abandonment of downtown, this day celebrates the ongoing effort to do exactly what [San Diego City Councilman] Kevin Faulconer just said — to improve life for San Diegans,” Wilson said to the crowd.
Wilson connected the Horton Plaza project to the many downtown additions attributable to the efforts of CCDC, created during his tenure as the city's mayor, and redevelopment.
Among the redevelopment projects that came during Wilson’s mayoral term was the shopping center at Horton Plaza, which he said changed downtown.
“It wasn’t just that it added to the tax base; it wasn’t that it removed blight. That was part of it,” he said. “But it was to bring downtown the kind of multi-activity, the sort of commercial, residential, recreational opportunities that would make this a lovely place to live and a lovely place for people to visit.
“This, I must say, is in that tradition.”
Westfield will manage the space and program around 200 events per year at the plaza for 25 years.
The planned amphitheater will include an interactive water feature, architectural luminaria, public restrooms, granite paving, three pavilion kiosks for retail space and underground storage.
The San Diego City Council voted unanimously earlier in November to allow Civic San Diego to put the project out to bid for construction with a total expected price tag of $14.2 million.
Mayor Bob Filner also gave praise to the efforts of Civic San Diego, as well as to Wilson for helping kickstart San Diego’s redevelopment efforts.
“It’s not every day that a commercial developer takes joy in tearing down some retail space, but they’re doing so in the knowledge that what replaces it will be better, better serving their customers, better serving the citizens of San Diego,” Wilson said.
The new plaza will help fulfill the prophecy of Alonzo Horton, creator of the original plaza in the late 19th century, which was that it would one day be a place for concerts and public gatherings, Wilson said.
After portions of the north-facing wall of the old Robinsons-May building fell down in a ceremonial first stab at demolition, Faulconer said thoughts are already circulating of making the plaza San Diego’s version of Times Square.
“I firmly believe this will become the downtown heart of San Diego for major civic events,” Faulconer said. “People are already talking about holding New Year’s Eve celebrations here once it’s open.”
Former San Diego Mayor Jerry Sanders recalled the days before the redevelopment that brought the shopping mall to Horton Plaza as it’s seen today, and the “less-than-reputable” activities known to take place in the area at the time. Restoring the park was exciting for the outgoing leader.
Filner said he believes the new Horton Plaza Park and the adjoining amphitheater will spark a new “renaissance” for the city.
Last week's bit of work was largely ceremonial, as demolition beyond the few chunks of stucco wall falling to the ground isn't planned to start until mid- or late January.
Construction of the new plaza will follow, and is expected to begin by April or May for an eventual opening in early 2014.