Horton Plaza is a ghost of itself: What’s next for the iconic mall?

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Many malls of America are dying or changing. And that includes a classic of the mid-1980s: Horton Plaza, in San Diego, designed by the late architect Jon Jerde when he was hot off a huge success helming the design of the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics.

“Horton Plaza was sort of a revolution in terms of our downtown, which had really decayed quite a bit over the years. And it created a center, a sort of a social center for the community,” said Daniel Atkinson, director of public programs at UC San Diego Extension.

Now the once-revolutionary shopping mall has fallen victim to the changing nature of retail and is slated to become a tech complex. Currently it sits almost empty.

DnA learns more about the mall and its past and present from Daniel Atkinson; and tours the strange, dreamlike, mostly vacated space with native San Diegans Jason Araújo and Philip Salata, who will hold a wake of sorts for the plaza, entitled "Ghosting: The Horton Principle".

Philip Salata, left, and Jason Araújo at one of the entrances to Horton Plaza; they will explore why their childhood playground is now "ghosted".         Photo by Frances Anderton/KCRW

Jon Jerde loved creating spaces for crowds with the frenzied energy of fun fairs or amusement parks, and the urban patterns of old Europe, Latin America or Arizona’s Canyon de Chelly created by the vanished Anasazi people. 

He believed you could do all that with shopping centers.

So when developer Ernie Hahn asked Jerde to build a mall in a depressed part of downtown San Diego in the early 1980s, he created Horton Plaza -- five stories of bright colored facades, on mismatched levels along a courtyard that slashed through the entire block. 

The faded name of the store’s former leaseholder still marks the entrance: Taco Bell. Photo by Frances Anderton/KCRW

“It was really sort of a mélange of different styles that were references to Italian piazzas,” said Atkinson. “It was sort of postmodern before the postmodern moniker was applied to a lot of things. And so you would transition from one space to another and sort of feel like you'd gone into a different place or different time almost.”

Horton Plaza was credited with revitalizing downtown San Diego and its Gaslamp district. Jon Jerde went on to become one of the leading mall designers in the world. 

In the Southland alone, his firm designed the Glendale Galleria, Newport Beach’s Fashion Island, Del Mar Plaza, CityWalk at Universal Studios, a makeover of Santa Monica Place, and the Westside Pavilion.

Another empty shop in Horton Plaza: AG Jewelers no more. Photo by Frances Anderton/KCRW

Now the mall that galvanized the redevelopment of downtown San Diego has itself fallen victim to the changing nature of retail. Many of the storefronts are vacant. Muzak plays but hardly anyone is around to hear it. Security guards push away the homeless.

The mall is in a kind of state of stasis as a development firm, Stockdale, plans to transform the plaza into a high-tech campus and entertainment complex. 

The developer has tapped Los Angeles-based landscape architect Rios Clementi Hale Studios to oversee the redesign. RCH Studios recently completed a renovation of Music Center Plaza in downtown Los Angeles.

However, the Macy's department store still has a long-term lease and has sued to stop the construction. And preservationists are clinging to a hope that Jerde’s structures will remain unchanged.

The future Campus at Horton includes a boardwalk weaving through the property. Rendering courtesy of Stockdale Capital Partners

Meanwhile San Diego natives Jason Araujo and Philip Salata are honoring the mall that they loved as children with an event this Friday. It’s called “Ghosting: The Horton Principle.”

“Ghosting is something that I think is very commonplace in our current society. We understand it to mean when someone that you're interacting with suddenly vanishes without apparent reason or without apparent justification. And so one of the things that we're trying to ask is, can we ghost a built environment?,” Araujo said, adding the plaza's evolution fascinates them on many levels, from what caused its decline to how Horton Plaza represents a moment before the end of the Cold War, when American consumer culture appeared to be ruling the world.

The exhibition consists of photographs and a video installation. Salata says they will be “evocative images of a space that has been abandoned. It's a ruin… And so we are also encouraging visitors to come with their own memories… So we're also trying to collectively think about what was this place? What did we do there and what will we do when it changes?”

At the end of the exhibition they plan to hold a funeral procession for Horton Plaza.



  • Daniel Atkinson - Director of Public Programs at UC San Diego Extension
  • Jason Araujo - Graduate student in the Department of Comparative Literature at UCLA
  • Philip Salata - Eugene V. Cota-Robles Fellow and PhD candidate in the Department of Comparative Literature at the University of California, Los Angeles