San Diego 30 Years Later: Special Report

August 26, 2011 8 comments Open printer friendly version of this article Print Article

Ever wondered what Downtown Jacksonville could look like if we changed public policy, invested in fixed mass transit and clustered complementing development in a compact setting? Metro Jacksonville visits a West Coast city that was in our shoes in 1981: San Diego.

Tale of the Tape:

San Diego Pop. 2010: 1,307,402 (City); 3,095,313 (Metro-2010) - (incorporated in 1850)

Jacksonville Pop. 2010: 821,784 (City); 1,345,596 (Metro-2010) - (incorporated in 1832)

City population 1950: Jacksonville (204,517); San Diego (333,865)

Metropolitan Area Growth Rate (2000-2010)

San Diego: +10.00%
Jacksonville: +19.85%

Urban Area Population (2000 census)

San Diego: 2,674,436 (ranked 15th nationwide)
Jacksonville: 882,295 (ranked 43rd nationwide)

Urban Area Population Density (2000 census)

San Diego: 3,418.7 people per square mile
Jacksonville: 2,149.2 people per square mile

City Population Growth from 2000 to 2010

San Diego: +84,002
Jacksonville: +86,281

Convention Center Exhibition Space:

San Diego: San Diego Convention Center (1989)  - 615,701 square feet on two levels
Jacksonville: Prime F. Osborn III Convention Center (1986) - 78,500 square feet

Attached to Convention Center:

San Diego: San Diego Marriott & Marina
Jacksonville: N/A

Tallest Building:

San Diego: One America Plaza - 500 feet
Jacksonville: Bank of America Tower - 617 feet

Downtown Fortune 500 companies:

San Diego: Qualcomm (222), Sepra Energy (274)
Jacksonville: CSX (230), Winn-Dixie Stores (324), Fidelity National Financial (398), Fidelity National Information Services (426)

Urban infill obstacles:

San Diego: Interstate 5 cuts Downtown San Diego from Park West, Balboa Park and other neighborhoods.
Jacksonville: State & Union Streets cut off Downtown Jacksonville from Springfield.

Downtown Nightlife:

San Diego: The Gaslamp Quarter District
Jacksonville: East Bay Street

Common Downtown Albatross:

A large number of surface parking lots and underutilized property.

Who's Downtown is more walkable?

San Deigo: 96 out of 100, according to
Jacksonville: 78 out of 100, according to

San Diego - Jacksonville Scaled Comparison

Jacksonville municipal borders: present (red), pre-consolidated city limits (green)

A scaled overlay of Jacksonville's border next to San Diego's city limits.  The light blue line represents the San Diego Trolley (light rail).  The dark blue line is the Coaster (Commuter rail), green is the Sprinter (DMU commuter rail) and the yellow line is the Amtrak Pacific Surfliner.  Metrolink, a Los Angeles commuter rail system, connects with the Coaster and Sprinter at Oceanside.

San Diego History

Old Town San Diego, San Diego's version of St. Augustine, is now a pedestrian-friendly tourist district a few miles north of downtown and is accessible via light and commuter rail.

The city of San Diego was originally focused in Old Town near the Presidio. In 1850 William Heath Davis and four partners purchased 160 acres of land in what is now Downtown San Diego, believing that a town closer to the waterfront would attract more trade. They laid out a street plan and built a wharf and warehouse, but nothing much came of their planned development.

In 1867 Alonzo Horton purchased 800 acres of pueblo lands in the current Downtown area, and in 1869 he added Davis’s 160 acres to his holdings; the area was referred to as the Horton Addition. Davis’s wharf had fallen to pieces by then, but Horton realized the area was still ideal for a harbor. He built a new wharf at the end of Fifth Avenue in 1869. He vigorously sold property and gave away land to promote development of the area, fueling the first of San Diego’s many real estate speculation booms. People flocked to the area, which became known as New Town, because of its better access to shipping. In 1871 government records were moved to a new county courthouse in New Town. By the 1880s New Town had totally eclipsed Old Town (as it is called to this day) as the heart of the growing city.

In 1885 the transcontinental railroad reached San Diego. The Santa Fe railway station opened downtown in 1887. (That station was replaced in 1915 by the Downtown landmark Union Station which is still in use.) In 1886 the city’s first electric lights and first streetcars were established in New Town. In 1912 the Spreckels Theater opened downtown, the first modern commercial playhouse west of the Mississippi. A new commercial pier, the Broadway Pier, was built by the city in 1913.
In the 1910s, Downtown became one of the many San Diego neighborhoods connected by the Class 1 streetcars and an extensive San Diego public transit system that was spurred by the Panama-California Exposition of 1915 and built by John D. Spreckels. These streetcars became a fixture of the neighborhood until their retirement in 1939.

In 1964 the multi-story City Hall and Community Concourse were dedicated on a four-block-square property at 202 C Street. Recent mayors and city councils have discussed building a replacement city hall, but no replacement plan has been approved.
In the 1960s, Centre City began to fall into a state of disrepair and disrepute. Major businesses and stores moved from downtown to suburban shopping malls. Downtown became known as a hangout for homeless people and sailors on liberty. Tattoo parlors, bars, and strip clubs were predominant forms of business. Trash littered the Gaslamp Quarter, many 19th century Victorian houses were rundown, and there were few buildings of significant size (the tallest building at the time was fourteen stories, the locally famous El Cortez Apartment Hotel). Despite this, low- and mid-rise buildings were beginning construction.
In 1975, redevelopment plans were created for Downtown.[9] In 1985, Downtown underwent more redevelopment with the completion of Horton Plaza, the Gaslamp Quarter revival, and the completion of the San Diego Convention Center. Petco Park, a baseball ballpark used by the San Diego Padres, opened in 2004.

Downtown San Diego Map

Harborview (Little Italy's waterfront)

Little Italy

Historically, Little Italy was the home to Italian fishermen and their families. Many Italians moved to San Diego from San Francisco after the 1906 San Francisco earthquake in search of tuna and other deep-sea sport and commercial fish. When Interstate 5 was constructed through Little Italy in the early 1970s, 35% of the neighborhood was destroyed and during the same time the California tuna industry was declining, which caused the neighborhood to suffer nearly 30 years of decline.With the creation of the Little Italy Association in 1996, the neighborhood has gone through gentrification and has seen a renaissance as Community Benefit District specializing in Italian food, boutique shopping and maintenance that makes this shopping district the place to live in Downtown San Diego. Prior to gentrification, the neighborhood was mainly composed of low-density commercial businesses and single-family detached homes. Currently, the neighborhood is mainly composed of residential units, mostly mid-rises, high-rises, and lofts, with ground floor retail stores and a few commercial buildings. India Street serves as the 48 block district's thriving commercial corridor.

Cortez Hill

Named after the historic El Cortez Hotel, this district is one of San Diego's oldest residential neighborhoods.  The city is currently considering a plan to reduce the number of non-resident parking.

San Diego's Airport.

San Diego/Jacksonville Connection

San Diego: Cortez Hill - One of San Diego's oldest residential neighborhoods with original dwellings still in existance.

Jacksonville: Cathedral District - One of Jacksonville's oldest residential neighborhoods with several original dwellings still remaining.


Columbia is the heart of downtown San Diego and dominated by office uses.  This district is the home of the Santa Fe Depot, which is served by the Trolley (LRT), Coaster (Commuter Rail) and Pacific Surfliner (Amtrak Corridor Service).

A family poses for pictures with the USS Midway Museum in the background.

With bridge heights not a concern, San Diego's new cruise ship terminal is constructed on a pier similar to the four remaining and underutilized piers at the Jacksonville Shipyard's site.

San Diego/Jacksonville Connection

San Diego: Columbia - Core of downtown San Diego features a transit mall populated by vagrants.

Jacksonville: Northbank/Hogan Street - Core of downtown Jacksonville features an elevated transit corridor populated by vagrants below.


Historically, the Marina district was dominated by warehouses and vacant lots along the waterfront.  Today, it houses mid-rise and high-rise hotels, apartments, condominiums, medical offices and retail, as well as Seaport Village and the San Diego Convention Center.

Downtown charter fishing industry.

Completed in 1983, the San Diego Convention Center offers 615,701 square feet of exhibit space. As of 2009 it was the 24th largest convention facility in North America.

Seaport Village is shopping and dining complex featuring more than 70 shops, galleries and eateries on 90,000 square feet of waterfront property. Completed in 1980 on the site of a former railroad yard, it is designed to be a car-free environment with four miles of winding paths connecting various buildings.

San Diego/Jacksonville Connection

San Diego: Seaport Village - 90000-square-foot waterfront entertainment/retail/dining complex connected to a four mile car-free pedestrian path.

Jacksonville: Landing - 125000-square-foot waterfront entertainment/retail/dining complex connected to a three mile car-free riverfront path.

Horton Plaza

Horton Plaza, officially Westfield Horton Plaza, is a five-level, outdoor shopping mall located in downtown San Diego and remarkable for its bright colors, architectural tricks and odd spatial rhythms. It stands on six and a half city blocks and is adjacent to the city's historic Gaslamp Quarter. It is currently anchored by Macy's and Nordstrom. It was the first successful downtown retail center since the rise of suburban shopping centers decades earlier.

Horton Plaza was the $140,000,000 centerpiece of a downtown redevelopment project run by The Hahn Company, and is the first example of architect Jon Jerde's so-called "experience architecture".[citation needed] When it opened in August 1985, it was a risky and radical departure from the standard paradigm of mall design. Its mismatched levels, long one-way ramps, sudden dropoffs, dramatic parapets, shadowy colonnades, cul-de-sacs, and brightly painted facades create an architectural experience in dramatic contrast to the conventional wisdom of mall management. Conventional malls are designed to reduce ambient sources of psychological arousal, so the customers' attention is directed towards merchandise. By making the mall an attraction in itself, Jerde stood this model on its head.
Horton Plaza was an instant financial success, with 25 million visitors in the first year. Twenty years after opening, it continues to generate the city's highest sales per unit area, in the range of $600 to $700 per square foot ($6500 to $7500/mē)). From an urban planning standpoint, Horton Plaza is a civic asset that generates pedestrian traffic and shares it with a number of contiguous destinations, paving the way for the revitalization of the Gaslamp District. According to its web site, the mall has been "hailed locally and nationally as an overwhelming success since its opening in August 1985, winning dozens of awards in design, architecture and urban development."
When originally built, the center was anchored by The Broadway, Mervyn's, Nordstrom and J. W. Robinson's. The Robinson's was renamed Robinsons-May in early 1993 and closed in June 1994, being subdivided for shopping and entertainment space. The Mervyn's was closed in 2006.
In 1998 Hahn sold the center to Westfield America, Inc., a precursor of The Westfield Group. It was renamed "Westfield Shoppingtown Horton Plaza" shortly afterwards. The unwieldy "Shoppingtown" name was dropped in June 2005.,_San_Diego,_California

San Diego/Jacksonville Connection

San Diego: Horton Plaza - Five-level mall built on a former public square that was once the city's major bus transit center.

Jacksonville: Hemming Plaza - A public square that was once the city's major bus transit center and centerpiece of a failed mall plan that killed downtown's remaining department stores for good.

Gaslamp Quarter

The 16.5-square-block Gaslamp Quarter is the historic heart of San Diego and center of downtown nightlife.  It includes 94 historic buildings, most of which were constructed in the Victorian Era, and are still in use with active tenants, including restaurants, shops and nightclubs.  For the enhancement of the pedestrian experience and safety, the majority of intersections in the Gaslamp have four-way stop signs instead of traffic signals.  By forcing all automobiles to come to complete stops, motorized vehicles travel at slower speeds, making it easier for pedestrians to cross the Quarter's gridded street network.

Gaslamp Quarter Development Timeline:

1850: William Heath Davis buys 160 acres in what will eventually become the Gaslamp Quarter. Despite heavy investment from Davis, little development happens in this period.

1867: Alonzo Horton arrives in San Diego and purchases 800 acres of land in New Town for $265. Major development begins in the Gaslamp Quarter.

1880s to 1900s: Now known as the Stingaree, the area is home to many saloons, gambling halls, and bordellos. Wyatt Earp and his wife Josie come to San Diego and invest in real estate and saloons.

1950s-1970s: The decaying Gaslamp Quarter becomes known as a "Sailor's Entertainment" district, with a high concentration of pornographic theaters, bookshops and massage parlors.

1970: The start of the public interest in preserving buildings downtown, especially in Gaslamp Quarter.

1976: The city adopted the Gaslamp Quarter Urban Design and Development Manual, aimed at preserving buildings in the area, and the redevelopment of Gaslamp Quarter as a national historic district.

1982: Gaslamp Quarter became the major focus of the redevelopments in downtown by the city of San Diego.

San Diego/Jacksonville Connection

Although they have been compared locally in the past, the Gaslamp's historic building fabric is nearly twice as dense as Jacksonville's East Bay's.

San Diego: Gaslamp Quarter - 94 historic buildings on 16.5 square blocks.

Jacksonville: East Bay - 25+ historic buildings on eight square blocks.

East Village

East Village was traditionally a series of warehouses and vacant lots.  It wasn't until the 1990s that it became a community for artists and social services, making it a place populated by dive-bars, eclectic dwellers of artists, and drug addicts.  With the addition of Petco Park and light rail in the 2000s, it has undergone extensive and rapid redevelopment.

The ballpark was constructed by San Diego Ballpark Builders, a partnership with Clark Construction, Nielsen Dillingham and Douglas E. Barnhart, Inc. The construction cost of over $450 million was partially funded by the Center City Development Corporation and the San Diego Redevelopment Agency. The stadium was intended to be part of a comprehensive plan to revitalize San Diego's aging downtown, particularly the East Village area.[2] The stadium is located across Harbor Drive from the San Diego Convention Center, and its main entrance behind home plate is located two blocks from the downtown terminal of the San Diego Trolley light rail system.
The ballpark was originally scheduled to open for the 2002 season; however, construction was temporarily suspended for legal and political reasons. One portion of this was a court decision which nullified a ballot proposition which had already been passed (approving the city's portion of the stadium financing package), and required that the proposition be put to the voters a second time. Another delay resulted from the Western Metal Supply Co. building being declared a historic landmark, which prevented its demolition. After court hearings, it was determined that its landmark status only applies to the exterior facade, as it was supported entirely by panoramic photographs of the early San Diego skyline, and the building was renovated and included in the stadium design in an example of adaptive reuse.

The grounds of Petco Park is designed to also serve as urban green space available to the general public when San Diego Padres games aren't scheduled.

San Diego/Jacksonville Connection

San Diego: East Village - A former warehouse district on the edge of downtown that comes back to life with the addition of a baseball park in 2005 and light rail.

Jacksonville: Sports District - A former maritime industrial district on the edge of downtown, home to an arena and baseball park built in 2004, but still dominated by surface parking lots.

Redevelopment Concepts for Jacksonville

Here are four successful urban redevelopment techniques applied in San Diego that Jacksonville should seriously consider adding into its urban landscape.

Fixed Rail As An Economic Development Stimulant

San Diego was one of the first second-tier American cities to invest in light rail (1980) and modify land use policies to support sustainable, transit-supportive development.  Today, downtown San Diego has 28,000 residents and that number is expected to increase to 90,000 over the next decade.  All of these uses are within a quarter-mile radius of fixed transit.

Importance Of Historic Preservation

The abundance of historic and existing building stock was a major factor in the compact revitalization of the Gaslamp Quarter as an entertainment district.  Existing building stock allows a city to hit singles in the form of small business growth and investment, as opposed to swinging for the fences and coming up empty by focusing primarily on multi-million dollar gimmicks as the main path to downtown revitalization.

Vagrancy Not The Main Issue

Downtown San Diego's homeless population far exceeds Downtown Jacksonville's.  However, the combination of things people expect in an urban environment, such as street-level building density, a mix of uses, well-maintained parks and reliable transit have led to the creation of an atmosphere where people still desire to live, work and play.  With this in mind, cities seeking to blame their limited success at reviving their cores on the homeless should instead focus their energy on investing in the things people expect in urban settings.

Clustering Complementing Uses Within A Compact Setting

One of the easiest, yet most overlooked techniques to stimulating urban vibrancy is to build density by clustering complementing uses within a compact setting.  Not only does such a strategy encourage walkability by increasing density, it also opens growth opportunities for small and large businesses.

Click here for more images of Downtown San Diego:

Previous Article: Part 1 - Mass Transit 30 Years Later
Next Article: Part 3 - Rail In A Suburban Setting

Article by Ennis Davis.