Horton Plaza’s days as a ghost town are numbered

by | Oct 3, 2019 | The San Diego Union-Tribune

New owner Stockdale Capital Partners is working mostly behind the scenes but says its tech campus and a revitalized park are still on track to open late next year

Horton Plaza, the retail ghost town that was once the heart of San Diego’s downtown, is an active construction site as the center’s overseer works to remake the property into a thriving tech hub — although changes may not be immediately apparent to passersby.

Since July, Horton Plaza owner Stockdale Capital Partners, with the help of contractor AMG Demolition, has been swinging hammers and bulldozing by way of compact robots inside the plaza’s buildings. Thus far, work has concentrated on the southeast edges of the mall, with the center’s former food court now just one big, empty shell.

The old Nordstrom building on G Street is also in the process of being gutted as the real estate investment firm prepares to add 150,000 square feet by adding four stories for a yet-to-be-signed office tenant. The demolition work is barely visible to outsiders who can still walk freely through Horton Plaza’s meandering outdoor spaces. The mall still has a functioning parking garage and three major tenants: Macy’s, Jimbo’s Naturally and 24 Hour Fitness.

The gutting process will set the stage for a more noticeable exterior construction job expected to start early next year and wrap up before the end of 2020, said Dan Michaels, who is Stockdale’s managing director.

When it opened in 1985, Horton Plaza helped revitalize downtown San Diego and, according to historians, was the archetype of a successful American mall. In more recent years, the outdoor shopping center became a victim of its fortress-like design and evolving trends in retail.

Los Angeles-based Stockdale purchased the 10-block property last year from Westfield for $175 million. It is now working to remake the mall into a $275 million mixed-use office campus where Bay Area employers are projected to house as many as 4,000 of their workers in 772,000 square feet of facilities. The plan also involves 300,000 square feet of ground-floor retail space reserved for food, beverage and fitness tenants.

In addition, the developer expects to lease the city’s connected Horton Plaza Park and add improvements with the goal of making it a more attractive gathering place for the public. The park is now used mostly by homeless people and as a thoroughfare for scooter riders.

Park lease negotiations with the city of San Diego are still ongoing. An agreement is expected to go before City Council early next year.

The behind-the-curtain work follows a formal go-ahead from the City Council in May. The approval cemented a new deal with different land-use restrictions, most notably a 50 percent reduction in the amount of retail required at the property.

However, the approved contract, known as the First Implementation Agreement to the Owner Participate Agreement, has yet to take effect. That means the clock has not started on the document’s schedule of performance, which dictates when Stockdale must complete tasks such as the park lease.

“The first amendment to the OPA is signed by all parties. However, Stockdale is still working to finalize its construction financing which is a condition precedent to the First Amendment to the OPA becoming effective,” said Erik Caldwell, who runs the city’s Smart and Sustainable Communities division. “(Horton Plaza Park) lease discussions with Stockdale are underway. Once a final agreement is reached it will require council approval.”

In the interim, the firm is managing operations — and increased security — at the park, which includes the Bradley Building along with three commercial kiosks constructed by the city in 2016. Stockdale has also retained Los Angeles-based landscape architect Rios Clementi Hale Studios to design its version of the park. The group hosted the final of three public workshops in mid September as part of the developer’s commitment to solicit community input.

“For us, coming to this site, we like to look at how (Horton Plaza Park) fits in context. … How do we make it the epicenter of open space in downtown?” RCH landscape director Brent Jacobsen said at the meeting. “We see (Horton Plaza Park) as a real connection to the nightlife and vitality of downtown, part of that because it’s a knuckle to the Gaslamp District.”

The current concept, he said, is centered around making the park an inviting gathering spot with a balance of green space and hardscape. The historic portion of the park that fronts Broadway and includes the fountain will remain in its existing state. But RCH is pitching a “green edge” along Fourth Avenue, meaning plants that act as filter to the site but still allow for visual access. And, at the heart of the park, would be a flexible outdoor dining environment with movable furniture shaded by umbrellas and surrounded by trees.

Although Stockdale will need to lease the park before it can begin to overhaul its appearance, the firm says a revitalized urban park should open to public some time next year ahead of the debut of the campus.

Other complications could change the timeline. The developer is being sued by Jimbo’s founder, Jimbo Someck. That case is scheduled to go to trial in February.

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