Why San Diego Should let Amazon have Horton Plaza

By Sean Canning

The Seattle-based mega company Amazon is soliciting bids from North American cities for the location of a 2nd headquarters, HQ2. The instructions are to think “big” + “creative” for a new location. W/ 50k tech jobs, $5B in construction budget, + an estimated $38B in economic impacts this could be huge for San Diego!

While the winning city will most likely gain the edge by offering significant tax incentives, I thought it would be interesting to address Amazon’s requests through big / creative architecture + urban planning.

The planning concepts used by Amazon are vastly different than that of Apple or Google, both the later have introverted, isolated campus designs. The Seattle Amazon campus intentionally provides less extra services than the employees need which forces them to use local restaurants, dry cleaners, etc. This has proved to integrate the large campus w/ the surrounding city -an ideal of Amazon’s listed design requirements.

The geographical heart of downtown San Diego is Horton Plaza, the same location as the historic town plaza. You wouldn’t know it if you were there today, but in he late 80’s Horton Plaza was partially responsible for the revitalization of downtown San Diego. These days it’s nothing more than a maze of closing or closed storefronts, w/ Macy’s the final anchor tenant remaining. I saw a tumble weed roll through the other day.

Maybe Horton Plaza is the perfect spot for Amazon’s HQ2.\

The newly constructed Horton Plaza Park breathed life into the development (as long as you remembered your sunscreen + hepatitis vaccination). This is actually more important to the story than you think, you see this was an unprecedented partnership; a privately owned mall donating a public center. So there is a recently established relationship between the City of San Diego + Westfield [the owners].

Meanwhile back in the 1980s, Horton Plaza was originally designed as experience architecture. A rare experimental approach where the design allows the user to become “safely lost,” (yeah that’s why it looks so funky). The focus is on the experience of the space rather than the products in the windows. This is drastically different than conventional retail thinking. These concepts seem akin to the design ideals of Amazon. Those established concepts could be updated as part of a remodel, converting the storefronts into office space which open onto the terraces of the mall. A great architect could really play-up the retrofit.

But we’ll have to offer Amazon more than expensive downtown real estate.. 4th Ave. from Broadway to G St. should also be converted to green park space which compliments the restaurants + bars on 4th. Employees could also use the existing 24hr Fitness, Jimbos, or Vons. The company could host events in the Park or @ Balboa Theater. Larger keynote presentations could take place next door @ the Historic Sprekels Theater. This facility could really rejuvenate the adjacent urban core.
Horton Plaza is only about 750k sf, but Amazon needs the ability to expand to 8M sf. The Horton Plaza office facility would serve as a satellite location to either of the site of the previously failed proposals for Chargers Stadium, the Qualcomm Mission Valley site or the site adjacent to Petco Park. Mission Valley can be accessed w/ the new trolley extension in 35min. This allows Amazon to design a signature building as an architectural icon of San Diego.

San Diego would really be a great fit. Check out the list of Amazon’s other requirements:

More than 1M population, check
10min to recently remodeled international airport (45min required)
In / within 15min of city center (30min required)
Up to 8M sf of office space
A diverse population, check
Outdoor activities, check
Tech talent, double check!

The bids are due on October 19th + it appears like San Diego will make an offer. We’ll have to wait to see which of the 130+ cities Amazon decides to expand to.

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