The Legacy of Horton Plaza Mall: Iconic Landmark in San Diego, CA

The Birth of Horton Plaza

Horton Plaza Mall, once a bustling hub of San Diego’s downtown, began as a visionary project in the early 1970s. A proposal in 1972 aimed to refurbish San Diego’s historic town plaza, but it wasn’t until 1982 that construction began.

The delays were due to numerous setbacks and resistance from preservation groups, reflecting the complex nature of urban development.

The plaza was named after Alonzo Horton, a figure primarily responsible for the location of downtown San Diego. Opening its doors on August 9, 1985, Horton Plaza marked a significant milestone in urban retail, becoming the first thriving downtown retail center since the rise of suburban shopping centers.

The mall’s inception was a commercial venture and a symbol of revitalization and growth. Horton Plaza connected the city’s historical roots and contemporary life, occupying 6.5 city blocks next to San Diego’s renowned Gaslamp Quarter. The excitement of its opening was palpable, and the mall quickly became a favorite destination for locals and tourists alike.

Architectural Marvel

Horton Plaza’s architecture was nothing short of revolutionary. Jon Jerde designed the $140 million project inspired by Ray Bradbury’s essay “The Aesthetics of Lostness.” The building featured mismatched levels, long one-way ramps, sudden drop-offs, and brightly painted facades constructed around a central courtyard.

This radical departure from standard mall design was risky but a masterstroke. The mall’s labyrinthine layout encouraged exploration and discovery, making shopping an adventure. The colorful facades and shadowy colonnades became iconic, making Horton Plaza a must-visit landmark.

The historic Jessop’s Clock, built in 1907, found a home within the mall’s vibrant walls. This beautiful timepiece added a touch of elegance and nostalgia, connecting the mall’s modernity with San Diego’s rich history.

Horton Plaza Mall
Horton Plaza Mall” by JusDaFax is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

Economic Impact and Controversies

Horton Plaza’s impact on San Diego’s economy was immediate and profound. It was an instant financial success, credited by some for revitalizing downtown San Diego. However, others argued that the revitalization of the area benefitted the mall itself, sparking debates about urban development and commercial interests.

But the mall’s history was not without shadows. Not long after the mall opened in 1985, a tragic event occurred when a man took his own life by leaping from a walkway on the third floor. This sad occasion was the first of five suicides in the mall’s history, casting a tragic note on an otherwise vibrant place.

New stores and entertainment venues continued to open throughout the 1990s, including Sam Goody and Planet Hollywood. The mall’s popularity soared, but the controversies and challenges it faced served as a reminder that success often comes with complex and unexpected consequences.

Changes and Challenges (2000-2017)

The new millennium brought changes and challenges to Horton Plaza. Major stores closed, and ownership changed hands. In 2003, FAO Schwarz closed, replaced by various businesses over the years. Mervyn’s announced its closure in 2006, reflecting the shifting retail landscape.

In 2011, the San Diego City Council approved a plan to create a 37,000 square feet urban park, enlarging the adjacent historic Horton Plaza and Broadway Fountain. This development, culminating in the grand opening of Horton Plaza Park in 2016, added a new dimension to the mall’s surroundings.

However, the period was also marked by incidents that shook the community. In 2016, a local woman, previously suicidal, shot herself in a crowded mall. A shooting in 2017 left an active-duty Navy personnel dead. These events added to the complex narrative of Horton Plaza, a place of joy and sorrow, commerce and community.

Horton Plaza Mall
Horton Plaza” by Allan Ferguson is licensed under CC BY 2.0

Transformation into The Campus at Horton

In August 2018, a new chapter began for Horton Plaza. After being acquired by Stockdale Capital Partners, the new owners revealed their intentions to transform Horton Plaza Mall into The Campus at Horton, a mixed-use complex featuring offices and retail spaces.

The proposal focused on creating an “innovation hub” for technology and biotechnology companies, retaining some retail and entertainment offerings.

In the summer of 2019, the once-thriving mall closed nearly all its stores, with only Macy’s and 24 Hour Fitness remaining open for business. They were closed in April 2020. Most of the center was closed, with massive renovations beginning in May 2020.

The transformation was met with resistance from architecture preservationists, leading to spirited debates about the value of preserving Horton Plaza’s unique design. However, the transformation of the shopping center has begun in full swing. The first phase of the technology center called The Campus At Horton, is expected to be completed in late 2023.

Legacy and Cultural Impact

Horton Plaza’s legacy extends beyond its physical structure. It played a vital role in San Diego’s history and influenced mall design nationwide. Its colorful architecture, inspired by literature and art, made it a cultural landmark.

The mall’s transformation into a tech hub reflects the evolving needs of the city and the nation. While some may feel a sense of loss as the mall’s retail era ends, others see promise in its new direction.

The future of Horton Plaza as “The Campus At Horton” is a testament to San Diego’s adaptability and innovation. It’s a story of growth, change, and resilience, embodying the spirit of a city that continues to evolve.

Horton Plaza Mall
Horton Plaza” by Dennis S. Hurd is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

A Glimpse into the Future

The planned redevelopment of Horton Plaza into a tech hub is a bold step into the future. The focus on technology and biotechnology companies and some retail, food, and beverage offerings promises to make it a vibrant innovation center.

The expected completion in late 2023 marks a new era for this iconic location. The blend of the mall’s historic charm with modern innovation symbolizes San Diego’s forward-thinking approach.

The anticipation of its new phase and memories of its past make Horton Plaza a living testament to the city’s dynamic spirit. It’s where history meets the future, nostalgia mingles with excitement, and the past is honored even as new paths are forged.

Horton Plaza Mall
Horton Plaza” by Vrysxy is licensed under CC BY 2.0

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Comments: 2
  1. Avatar of Anamous

    Why then many times in over the past few years has been written up as a complete flop it from the very beginning??? You need to get the correct information and and post

    1. Avatar of Spencer Walsh
      Spencer Walsh (author)

      I appreciate your comment on Horton Plaza Mall. Your insights prompt a reevaluation of the information and a deeper understanding of the mall’s history.

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