May 10 2016 06:06 PM

'Argument Park' is now 'a living room for San Diego'

Workers (one below ground) tinker with the water pressure for the renovated Broadway Fountain.
Photo by John R. Lamb

You'll find in no park or city, a monument to a committee.
—Victoria Pasternak

The spray from the historic Broadway Fountain in the newly renovated Horton Plaza Park never felt better—particularly after spending an hour in the solar oven of an amphitheater just to the south.

Spin Cycle on Monday decided to stroll down to the reopened urban park to see if the army of workers frantically whizzing about a week earlier had actually completed the work they looked so far removed from completing just two days before its public unveiling last Wednesday. But even by this week, considerable work still remains.

"The core of the park is complete, including the kiosks, amphitheater and splash pad water feature," said Katie Keach, head of the city's communications department. "There is stone work on the peripheral walkways that is still being completed."

That work on Monday was masked by plywood planks covered in beige AstroTurf, including portions of the sidewalk along Third and Fourth avenues. Drain specialists peered down a manhole behind the Starbucks kiosk, which nevertheless saw brisk business. An ice-cream kiosk to the west was equally busy.

The historic portion of the park, with its square red tiles, palm trees and newly rolled lawn, harkened to an earlier time, as young parents walked their children up to the gurgling fountain so they could touch a water stream and giggle.

"They did a nice job restoring the fountain," said Bruce Coons, executive director of Save Our Heritage Organisation, the local nonprofit that typically has less nice things to say about San Diego's historic-preservation efforts. "You can even see the red and green veining in the marble columns. Previously, those were covered with decades of grime."

A civic embarrassment in downtown's central core for years, the park's transformation came about from a "unique" public-private partnership with Westfield Corp., the operators of the adjacent Horton Plaza shopping center, Mayor Kevin Faulconer explained in remarks during a rededication ceremony a week ago.

Westfield sold the site of the former Robinson's-May department store (later a Sam Goody's and a Planet Hollywood) to the city and agreed to operate the park for 25 years. In return, the city bowed out of a profit-sharing parking agreement. Westfield officials have boasted that this may be the first time in world history that retail commercial space has given way to open public space.

But while the mayor bragged in his opening remarks that San Diegans and tourists alike will flock to the renovated park "to enjoy the sunshine," the crowd on Monday was doing its best to find shade.

"Where are the trees?" one downtown resident asked Spin, requesting his name not be used. As he fed cherries to his dog, Baja, beneath one of the 14 umbrella-covered tables in the new amphitheater, the longtime San Diegan also wondered how long it would be before the place looks run down.

A local architect passing through Monday also worried whether the granite expanse that feeds into the shopping mall will be sealed to protect against staining. Additional shade opportunities would be ideal as well, he agreed.

It's not likely to come from additional trees, though. "The design was based on community input that was completed prior to the end of redevelopment," Keach said. "As it is intended to be an urban programmable plaza, trees in the amphitheater wouldn't be complementary to this use."

Westfield has agreed to work its way up to scheduling 200 events a year in the new plaza, including 75 this year. Events with 50 or more people will require a special permit, raising an interesting issue with future plans should a large political protest decide to occupy the plaza some day—harkening back to its earlier days as "Argument Park," where political clashes were not uncommon.

On Monday, no events were scheduled, so the immense granite amphitheater seemed more useful as a cut-through for business types getting to and from work. Some folks stopped in briefly to take selfies in front of the three-story Kelsey Montague mural depicting an inverted skyline, rumored to be a temporary adornment until a giant video screen can be approved and installed.

Some visitors weren't sold on the notion that this 1.9-acre urban space compares to New York's grassy Bryant Park or Chicago's Millennium Park as city leaders would have them believe, but San Diego—its history steeped in an unshakable inferiority complex—can't seem to do anything without making parallels.

Spin even heard some comments that the plaza comes off as cold, which was hard to sense on a warm May day. The stonework does dominate, but perhaps the swirling splash fountain in the amphitheater will distract from this once it's up and running. Workers were still tinkering with its plumbing on Monday.

Goodness knows shooting streams of water will be a necessity once July rolls around, lest anyone pass out from heatstroke.

City councilmember Todd Gloria, whose district includes downtown, told attendees at last week's re-opening ceremony that he looks forward to watching how the park gets used, including during Comic-Con, the holiday season and even New Year's Eve. He referred to it as "a living room for San Diego."

As most speakers noted, events like the dedication of a new urban park don't happen too often in San Diego—where city leaders seemingly pledge to uphold the status quo rather than risk change, where history often takes a back seat to the whims of greed-driven developers out for a quick profit, where sunshine masks the dark underbelly of city power.

Moments like the reintroduction of Horton Plaza Park to generations of San Diegans both old and new is indeed worthy of historical notation, not only for the changes it can inspire but also as a reminder that a vibrant city is always evolving, never static.

Then again, that could just be the heatstroke talking.


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