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Downtown San Diego is built around the waterfront on the northeast side of San Diego Bay. First developed in the mid-19th century as a “New Town” alternative to the declining Mexican-era Old Town, it weathered a century of boom-and-bust cycles before decaying into slums by the 1960s. A program of concerted urban renewal begun in the 1970s has transformed Downtown into an exciting place to visit (and to do business).
Downtown is compact enough to explore on foot, which is fortunate because it’s really best visited that way. Despite the redevelopment, Downtown retains its grid of one-way streets from the horse-and-buggy days. Parking is scarce and expensive. Walking is the best way to appreciate the mixture of 19th and 20th century architectural styles. A good example is the domed Santa Fe (now Amtrak) train depot built in 1915 for the Panama-California International Exposition. The surrounding glass skyscrapers came later.
The waterfront is the western edge of Downtown. The passenger ferry
to Coronado and various boats offering harbor cruises dock at the
Broadway Pier, at the end of a major street. Passengers on cruises that
call at San Diego can walk right off the ship to Downtown attractions,
or to a trolley that goes to the most popular tourist destinations. The
Maritime Museum of San Diego is an easy walk just north of the pier. Its
collection of seven historic vessels includes the 1863 Star of
India, the world’s oldest seaworthy ship.
The Convention Center’s nautical theme is appropriate for a port city with a large Navy presence. Designed in 1981 by Canadian architect Arthur Erickson and completed in 1989, it provides what has to be the most interesting path to the waterfront.
From the “land” side, along Harbor Drive, it’s a collection of concrete diagonals. Among those diagonals is set of very steep stairs and a funicular glass elevator. You can walk up more stairs, or ride a series of glass elevators, to the top of the complex and then down to Embarcadero Marina Park on the bay.
At the top of all those stairs is Sails Pavilion, an exhibit hall on the building’s upper floor. Its open-air roof is made of Teflon “sails” held up by nautical ropes and riggings. The green-tinted glass shows interesting reflections of Downtown buildings.
Right next to the Convention Center is the Gaslamp Quarter, a 15-hectare National Historic District with buildings dating from 1873 to 1930. This was the original “New Town” that first grew during the Gold Rush, complete with the essential Wild West accoutrements of saloons, brothels, and gambling halls. During an economic recession in the 1890s, legitimate businesses moved away, leaving the area to become a red-light district known as the “Stingaree” (you could get badly stung there). Not surprisingly, it was a favorite hangout for sailors during World War II.
By 1974 the Stingaree had become a decrepit cesspool of urban blight. But the cloud of decrepitude had a silver lining: The area’s unsuitability for any new commercial development had spared most of its 19th century buildings. When the City Council announced plans for demolition as part of the Downtown renewal project, the Gaslamp Quarter Association raised the funds to clean up and preserve the historic architecture.
Most of the Stingaree was scrubbed, polished, painted, gentrified, and reborn as a very pleasant, very wholesome tourist attraction with the requisite quota of restaurants, shops, and romantic bed-and-breakfasts. The Association’s literature avoids any mention of where all the skid-row residents went when their flophouses were torn down in the cleansing. But they didn’t conveniently vanish into thin air. The homeless are a visible presence in Downtown San Diego, just as they are in any major American city center.
Horton Plaza is an equally impressive example of urban renewal. Inside are 158,000 square meters of retail space filled with a collection of department stores, small shops, and fast food emporia indistinguishable from hundreds of other American malls. But outside that ordinary retail space is an extraordinary fantasy of shapes and colors that combines at least fourteen different architectural styles, from Renaissance to ultra-modern.
Like the adjacent Gaslamp Quarter, by the 1970s the derelict streets that the Plaza would replace were San Diego’s prime location for a sordid assortment of “adult” vices. The City began a redevelopment project in the mid-1970s to create a modern squeaky-clean mall named for Alonzo Horton, the man responsible for the 19th century development of the Downtown area.
San Diego is possibly most famous for two extremely popular “family attractions.” Sea World® is a very commercial marine theme park on Mission Bay, the recreational area at the north end of San Diego Bay. Its 76 hectares are filled to the gills with aquariums, wildlife exhibits, rides, shows with performing dolphins, and spectacular summer crowds.
Balboa Park has the other “family attraction,” the San
Diego Zoo. But it costs nothing to explore the park’s distinctive Spanish-Colonial