Operation Mickey Mouse

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Horton Plaza is a decidedly more sedate experience. Situated in the middle of downtown San Diego, Horton was opened in 1985 as a pioneer project in San Diego's seedy downtown.

City leaders forced retail developer Ernest Hahn to build the downtown complex in exchange for permission to continue putting up shopping centers in the city's rapidly expanding fringes.

The idea was that Horton Plaza would suck wary visitors into San Diego's decrepit downtown and provide them a safe and (the developers promised) "exciting" shopping experience.

Spread over six blocks, Horton is inaccessible to pedestrians along most of its perimeter. Its daunting exterior is designed to keep the homeless and drifters who are part of the real downtown scene from gaining ready access to the sanitized and heavily policed mall.

Once inside, Horton appears less plastic than other Jerde developments. There are narrow, mazelike walkways that give the illusion of density. The food court, which overlooks a plaza jammed with shoppers, seems more like a street-side cafe than the communal dining hall typical of suburban shopping malls.

The project was built for $170 million and now features a Nordstrom, a Macy's and a Mervyn's, along with scores of the chain stores common at shopping centers across the country.

City officials expected it would take Horton Plaza five years to spark a noticeable change in downtown San Diego, but the project attracted 25 million people in its first year and immediately served as a catalyst for downtown regeneration, Jerde Partnership claims on its Web site.

Jerde may not be exaggerating. City leaders credit Horton with helping trigger a $2.4 billion wave of downtown investment that includes massive expansion of the city's waterfront convention center and ongoing construction of a new baseball stadium for the San Diego Padres.

In every direction leading from Horton Plaza, either new residential high-rises are going up or developers are converting old warehouses and flophouse hotels into lofts. Prices are high -- $1,190 a month for 700-square-foot apartments and more than $2 million for penthouses with views of the bay.

Horton Plaza benefits immensely from a steady influx of tourists who sweep through the area to shop and dine in the adjacent Gas Lamp District, which is jammed with cafes, coffee shops and tourist traps. The supply of tourists is constantly restocked by cruise ships that dock a few blocks away.

While Horton probably isn't the first destination of most of its visitors since refurbishment of the Gas Lamp District, it's every bit as much a retailer's wet dream as CityWalk. Eighteen years after it opened, it boasts San Diego's highest sales per square foot. Assessed property values at the project have increased by $451 million during this period, or 2,721 percent.

It's not difficult to envision Colangelo -- who stokes his entertainment venues with food and booze vendors -- salivating over the prospect of putting a CityWalk or a Horton Plaza in downtown Phoenix.

The problem is, such a development isn't what is needed downtown, Colangelo's critics say. It might be good for the mogul's interests, but the last thing the core city needs is a tourist trap like Horton and the Gas Lamp District. These are the kind of places that lure largely tourists, not locals. And big shopping malls exist in spades in the city's suburbs.

In addition, these critics ask, isn't it time that Colangelo and his backers came out of the shadows? City Hall is the entity that should be ramrodding downtown redevelopment, not a big-business man. They note wryly that Colangelo and his friends aren't even providing incoming Mayor Gordon with insider knowledge about their would-be master plan.

And why should they? If Phil Gordon were to demand something from Jerry Colangelo, he would be the first mayor to do so since Phoenix's version of P.T. Barnum started wheeling and dealing in the Valley more than 30 years ago.

There is palpable fear among artists and business people outside the Downtown Phoenix Partnership that once again City Hall will stand by shyly and let Colangelo put yet another mega-development into a downtown already overwhelmed with monolithic concrete structures.

"It's always top-down, single vision versus a grassroots, organic structure," complains Greg Esser, the eye lounge co-owner.

Esser predicts that Colangelo's going into business with Jerde Partnership would mean another failure downtown. Esser is among an increasing number of small-business owners who insist that the only way to make downtown a magnet for Phoenix-area residents, and not just to tourists, would be to stop relying on mega-projects as a panacea and spread the wealth of economic incentives to small entrepreneurs.

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John Dougherty
Contact: John Dougherty