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San Diego's lively new-and-old downtown.

San Diego's lively new-and-old downtown

Long a city of sunshine and suburbs, SanDiego is enjoying a change of heart. For years its downtown has been considered a wasteland--a place where only the train stopped and sailors played. But no longer.

There's the new: new theaters, galleries,restaurants, and a four-block-square, pastel-painted shopping center whose architecture makes visitors stop and take note. There's also the historic: a downtown newly revived, the Gaslamp Quarter's Victorians, the elegant U.S. Grant Hotel, 1920s office buildings latticed with the scaffolding of renovation. The eras come together to create a redefined urban center for sprawling San Diego, offering many new reasons to go downtown.

We've chosen more than 40 of those reasons--walking tours, restaurants, bank lobbies, and more--all within a 15-minute walk of Horton Plaza park (downtown's center for 120 years). These finds are keyed to our map on page 70.

If you visit Horton Plaza shopping center,try lunch, too, in the historic district. If you come to the waterfront, check out G Street's galleries or take a walking tour. You can spend a weekend--splurging on rooms at the Grant and tickets to the theater--or simply drop in for the day, rent bikes, and explore.

Downtown can also be a jumping-offpoint for San Diego's other attractions, such as Balboa Park, Old Town, or Sea World. At the new Transit Store (8 on map), you can get bus schedules and information. To get to Tijuana, take the red San Diego Trolley, which runs frequently from the Santa Fe train depot (2).

From Alonzo Horton to Horton Plaza

In 1867, when Alonzo Horton arrivedfrom Wisconsin, San Diego was a scrabble of adobe buildings in Old Town. Impulsively, Horton bought 960 acres to the south, then gave some away to those who'd build immediately. He laid out streets and a small park, Horton Plaza (9), whose formal neatness and fountain by architect Irving Gill have always been the city's center. Banks and stores came steadily after 1880, peaking in the 1920s.

With the coming of World War II, theNavy became an increasingly visible presence downtown. While respectable businesses, following a national trend, began to move to the suburbs, tattoo shops and burlesque houses catering to sailors kept the area alive--but not attractive to developers. The Navy, as one architect puts it, kept the area in mothballs.

This began turning around when, in 1976,then-mayor Pete Wilson fought for a "Centre City' plan to revitalize the downtown. He and other civic leaders felt that the city's far-flung communities needed a center. The Santa Fe depot was restored, and a feisty group of citizens succeeded in making the Gaslamp Quarter a historical district in 1980. Though the area is still redolent of its past, the city's redevelopment agency has worked to bring in condominiums, offices, and Horton Plaza.

The weekend it opened in August 1985,Horton Plaza (21) drew a crowd of 250,000 people enticed by promises of its being not just another mall. Though the crowds have thinned, the center fills on weekends.

What's coaxing people away from theirneighborhood malls to a downtown they've not visited in years? Architect Jon Jerde, also the designer for the 1984 Olympic Games, capitalized on San Diego's sunshine by opening the center to the sky. He also seized on the fact that this was to be not a suburban mall, but an urban one; he gave the center a "street,' edged by arcades of stores rising four levels, that curves through the mall and ends either way in department stores.

It's more intricate than it may sound. Atstreet level, it's virtually hidden from the city, with indirect entrances. Stairways, ramps, and escalators crisscross overhead to link the levels. Architctural styles collide: the Palazzo looks vaguely Italian; a tower at one end of the plaza echoes the landmark Balboa Theatre at the other.

This electic mix is painted turquoise,salmon, and yellow and is highlighted with a circus of banners, neon signs, and arches. There is much to engage the senses: eye-catching banners, displays, and jugglers; musicians; a cinnamon roll store, designed by a local architect, jetting its delicious aromas through a giant funnel onto passersby. Visitors stroll, comment, stop to enjoy views framed by arches. It's been said that the shopping mall is the new piazza; at Horton Plaza it's become, in Jerde's words, urban theater.

A note on parking: 3 hours are free behindthe center; after that, it's $1 an hour. The parking levels are marked with signs that can be confusing. To avoid losing track of your car, remember which parking-area exit and mall entrance you've used.

New theaters, grande-dame hotels

While Horton Plaza has sparked downtown'scommercial life, an increasing concentration on the arts is spurring its cultural life. Theater, dance, and opera are thriving. Although financial problems caused this year's season to be canceled, the San Diego Symphony opened in 1985 with much promise in an elegantly restored movie house; for details on future performances, call (619) 699-4200.

After 10 years of playing in a chapel, theSan Diego Repertory Theatre (14) had earned a reputation for fresh presentations of contemporary plays. When the company moved last year into the Lyceum --two new stages snuggled under Horton Plaza--and expanded its season, the number of subscribers went from 2,300 to 10,000. The official season begins in April; this month, you can see Warren's Story (February 1 through 22) and Ma Rainey's Black Bottom (February 5 through 15).

Inaugurating their new Deane Theatre(39) stage, the five-year-old Gaslamp Quarter Theatre Company will present Somerset Maugham's The Circle February 4 through March 1. At the city's performing arts certer (4), the San Diego Opera presents its winter program: Wagner's Flying Dutchman and Rossini's Barber of Seville.

For information on shows, call ARTSTIX (3), a nonprofit service run by the San Diego Theatre League in historic Spreckels Theater. The group offers half-price day-of-performance tickets.

At two newly revivified downtown hotels,you can either stay for a lavish weekend or just admire the architecture.

When first opened in 1910, the marble-pavedU.S. Grant Hotel (7) was downtown's poshest. After falling into disrepair, it has reopened as a cosmopolitan-- and expensive--hotel. You can dine in the Grant Grille, a wood-paneled restaurant justly proud of its wine list, or take afternoon tea under wedding cake chandeliers in the lobby from 2:30 to 5:30 daily.

Two Victorian hotels slated for demolitionwere dismantled and then reassembled as the Horton Grand Hotel (38). Staff wear 19th-century costumes; rooms have four-poster beds and swags of curtains. In the Chinese exhibit, you can have Chinese tea 11 to 4 Wednesdays through Sundays, or try the English version (reservations required) in the lobby between 2:30 and 5 daily.

Exploring the city on foot

Alonzo Horton gave the city good genes: acompact grid of streets with brief blocks that lend themselves to walking. Remember that this is a city in transition; you may be approached by a panhandler or pass an adult bookstore.

Gaslamp Quarter. The Gaslamp's Victoriansare dotted with shops and inexpensive eating places. Following our map's walk, begin at Fifth Avenue and Broadway and head south.

The Granger Building (16), with itsarched entry of rusticated stone, was recently renovated to hold offices and stores--the story of many buildings around Horton Plaza. The 40-year-old Western Hat Works (17) is cowboy hats from floor to ceiling. San Diego Hardware (22) stocks amazing selections of products--a hundred different screwdrivers, uncountable nails--and the salesmen seem to know them all. A November fire damaged the store; it should reopen in expanded quarters in March.

With its tiny twin towers and intricatefacade, the 1888 Louis Bank of Commerce Building (19) has a prissy Victorian handsomeness. Go to the fourth floor to see the beautiful skylight.

Continuing south, you'll pass throughwhat was, at the start of the century, the red light district; many of today's transient hotels were once cathouses. The area was also Chinatown; Wong's Nanking Cafe (40), built in 1913, retains the atmosphere of the past.

Heading to Fourth Avenue, enter the WilliamHeath Davis House (37), museum and headquarters for the Gaslamp Quarter Foundation. Built in 1850 and moved here two years ago, it's the oldest house downtown. From across the street, baking smells waft from Royal Pie Bakery (35).

To shop for antiques in the quarter, trymultistoried Unicorn Antiques (43) or Cracker Factory (26), or smaller Gaslamp Emporium Antiques (42).

Galleries. A 1984 loft ordinance encouragedartists to live in warehouses southeast of Horton Plaza. G Street is the neighborhood's spine.

International Gallery (29) brings togethercontemporary crafts and ethnic arts. Next door is Pannikin (32), a coffee store that roasts beans and sells brewing equipment.

Two buildings combine galleries and studios.Spectrum, on the first floor of M.B.S. Studios (30), shows San Diegans' prints and paintings. Run by a resident paper maker, 9-G Arts Complex (33) houses several galleries. Perspectives displays both crafts and fine art. Around the corner upstairs, Quint Gallery offers very sophisticated contemporary work.

Java (34), new last year in 9-G, is a cafeout of Edward Hopper's painting Night-hawks, brought into the 80s. One owner is an avid art collector, the other a coffee aficionado. Their expertise shows up on both the walls and the menu. Inside (31) features up-to-the-minute Italian lamps and furniture; prices are usually below retail. The La Jolla Museum of Contemporary Art has a gallery within the store.

To the waterfront. Looking down thesestreets, you'll often glimpse the bay. The water is temptingly near, but it's difficult to get to; many streets dead-end at railroad tracks. Follow our map's route to thread your way there past civic offices, low condominiums, and Kansas City Barbecue (25)--a neighborhood restaurant. You'll end at Embarcadero Marina Park and Seaport Village.

Organized walks. Three groups give freedocent-led tours. The Gaslamp Quarter Foundation (37) emphasizes the area's architecture on 2-hour Saturday walks ($2) at 10 and 1. Covering more ground, Walkabout International (19) leads groups from the Santa Fe depot to the Hotel Intercontinental, walking briskly but stopping for coffee. The 2 1/2-hour walks begin Saturdays at 10.

Walks sponsored by Centre City DevelopmentCorporation (20), the redevelopment agency, cover the Horton Plaza area and include public artworks. These leave Sundays at 1 and 3. Downtown bus tours start Saturdays at 10 and 11. You must make reservations for CCDC tours.

Golf gear and bank lobbies. If the nonstopniceness of Horton Plaza's stores starts to overpower you, look for these grittier ones. Farmers Bazaar (41) is a producedistrict slice of the Third World--a long way from the plaza's gourmet Irvine Ranch Market. Contrasting with the sleek sporting goods stores is the jampacked, 40-year-old Polar Golf Shop (27), which sells clubs--and has a driving range for trial swings.

At the rear of San Diego Trust and SavingsBank (10), through its splendid Romanesque lobby, is a museum. You'll find photographs of 19th-century San Diego and relics of older banking days, such as an art deco window display with a moving Cleopatra drifting on the Nile. In the black granite lobby of the First Interstate Bank (5) is a striking modern sculpture of green glass, copper, and stone.

Pasta with politicos

Restaurants abound, in case all this exploringmakes you hungry. "Fifteen years ago, we couldn't get a fast-food franchise down here,' a planning director has said. Now, fast-food stops and restaurants cater to lunching office workers, tuxedoclad opera-goers, and frugal artists.

For inexpensive food, try Pacifically Fish(18), a long narrow hole in the wall that gives you grilled mahi mahi with salad for $4.50 and fishing booklets to read on the counter. La Fresqueria (11) serves justsliced fruit salads and smoothies. The Little Cafe (12) dishes up homey meat loaf and apple pie.

Weekday early birds can find Cajunbreakfast at Vieux Carre (24); try the eggs scrambled with shrimp. Night owls can head to several places, including La Grand Tapa (6)--serving small portions of garlicky Spanish dishes in an upscale atmosphere--and the Golden Lion Tavern (23), whose oyster bar lies under the restaurant's glowing stained-glass dome.

For elegant dining, try Pacifica Grill (1),a pretty, candlelit restaurant serving imaginative fare in the renovated McKlintock Building. At Dobson's Bar and Restaurant (13), a small restaurant lined with wood and downtown business people, local politicians can be found hanging out at the bar or dining on angel hair pasta.

Photo: Strings of lights, bridges, and escalators spanHorton's open-air "street.' Tiled, three-story prism-shaped Palazzo juts at left. Eighty-year-old clock adds vintage touch to modern mall

Photo: Like a modern mission, new adobe-toned Horton Plaza shopping center settles in below the towers of San Diego's skyline

Photo: Crooning trio sings old show tunesto noontime shoppers--including a group of sailors, for decades the embodiment of the Navy's dominant presence downtown

Photo: HortonPlaza is just a few minutes from San Diego's other major attractions

Photo: At Horton Plaza, entertainment spillsout onto outdoor lobby of Lyceum. Inside center, shops vie for attention with lavish window displays like this Arabian Night's scene at Laise Adzer, or temptations like the whopping cinnamon rolls at Claudia's

Photo: Two restored symbols:locally revered architect Irving Gill's 1909 fountain in the original Horton Plaza, in front of classical U.S. Grant Hotel--where tea is genteelly served every day

Photo: Farmers Bazaar offerswell-priced produce, spices, and take-out Mexican seafood

Photo: Gleaming with brass nauticalequipment, West Sea Recovery also offers ensigns, posters, ship paintings, antique diving masks

Photo: Wall of glassangles over office workers lunching downtown in a bank-lobby restaurant that also lures late-night diners

Photo: Brewed-to-ordercoffees and a rotating display of art make Java a gallery-like hangout for local artists

Photo: On tour of the Gaslamp Quarter,guide notes handsome Keating Building with its swelling bay. In 1890, it was a modern office tower

Photo: Tile-topped tower of 1915 Santa Fe depot was an early entryin city's contest of towers

Photo: Jump aboard the red trolley to passthrough downtown en route to Tijuana. The ride takes an hour and costs $1.50

Photo: Rent a set of wheels--these arefrom Pennyfarthing's--and head for the waterfront or Balboa Park
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Date:Feb 1, 1987
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