Downtown San Diego’s Horton Plaza Park expansion opened last week . . . more or less. Construction is not quite complete. San Diego’s downtown (at least post-WWII downtown) has thus far lacked a vibrant town square like San Francisco’s Union Square or similar successful plazas in other major cities. This major expansion of the small historic plaza is intended to fill the bill. The design team for Horton Plaza Park included Walker Macy | Landscape Architecture, the same firm that designed Pioneer Courthouse Square in Portland. Features include cafe-style tables and chairs, amphitheater-style steps / bleachers, and pillars / obelisks that double as lighting for events. There’s a Starbucks, Sloan’s Ice Cream, Arts Tix Kiosk, and a yet to be named vendor all built into the park.
In the middle of the plaza is a water feature of the ‘dancing waters’ type, which is usually accompanied by children playing in the surprise geysers. When the water feature is not activated, it blends in with the rest of pavers becoming useable plaza. Next to the water feature are two outdoor showers – the type you see at the beach – to rinse off. Notably, this type of water feature was removed from the plaza at the entrance to the Gaslamp Quarter (accross from the Convention Center) some years ago because it repeatedly broke down and was reportedly too expensive to maintain, although they appear to have a better track record in other cities.
Perhaps the most surprising and useful feature (surprising only in San Diego) is a public restroom. It is located next to the showers in the building closest to Balboa Theater, which is awaiting a tenant (sandwich specialist Bruxie backed out). This location is the historic site for just such a town square – in front of the U.S. Grant Hotel and where the Horton House used to be, and the historic Horton Plaza Fountain.
You may notice a striking resemblance to Pioneer Courthouse Square in Portland. Compare the first photo (Horton Plaza Park) with the next photo (Pioneer Courthouse Square). Then compare the photos of the newly opened Horton Plaza Park in the Gallery below with the photos from Walker Macy’s website of Pioneer Courthouse Square. The steps, the pillars . . . different pavers though.
Portland’s square is both highly touted and criticized. It has been ranked as one of the world’s great public squares and it is criticized for what some view as harsh postmodern hardscape and for lacking shade. Last I checked, Portland is known for clouds and rain. The same shadeless (and possibly breezeless, due its sunken plaza) configuration may be more of a concern in San Diego.
There are a few other oddities. For example, the fenced in configuration of the original plaza with the historic fountain remains, well, fenced in – and not integrated into the expanded plaza. If you’ll recall, it didn’t work well as public space before. It was surrounded by a decorative chain fence with entrances / exits only on either end. It was foreboding and claustrophobic; especially since it seemed to have become the gathering place for some rough looking owners of Pit Bulls. The fence remains with some additional openings without pavers or walkways. Additional efforts to make it porous and open would, I think, made it more user friendly for everyone.
The Robinsons May building was demolished to make room for the expansion. It was part of the Horton Plaza Shopping Center. It had been vacant and underutilized in recent years. Horton Plaza Shopping Center was originally touted as a redevelopment catalyst. However it was also criticized for being inward facing and a fortress to the rest of the city. Like suburban malls, the shopping center stores were located on the inside and the parking garages on the outside, which is what faced the rest of the City. These garages, it was said, were its fortress walls. Ironically, as the area outside of the shopping center began to thrive, Horton Plaza’s fortress design became its downfall, as people bypassed it in favor of a more authentic urban experience in the neighboring streets. Westfield Co., the shopping center owner, has been looking for opportunities to integrate the shopping center with its surrounds. The demolition and plaza expansion is part of this effort. Westfield has committed to providing maintenance and extensive programming to keep the Plaza active and attractive.
Well, in any case, San Diego’s Horton Plaza Park is Pioneer CH Square 2.0 (the improved version?) and its seems perfectly located to be the City’s grand ceremonial town square.