Proposal aims to change the face of downtown with eight-block pedestrian plaza
San Diego officials and community leaders are exploring plans to create an eight-block pedestrian plaza in the Gaslamp Quarter by closing Fifth Avenue to vehicles between Broadway and L Street.
Supporters say the plaza would become a magnet for tourists and locals, broadening the Gaslamp Quarter’s appeal and changing the landscape of downtown.
Modeled after the Third Street Promenade in Santa Monica and public squares across Europe, the plaza would be dubbed the “Gaslamp Promenade” and feature street furniture, public art, trees, painted murals and possibly outdoor entertainment venues.
The heightened appeal of the area would also decrease vacancies along Fifth Avenue and nearby streets, supporters say, potentially boosting property values and sparking a flurry of renovations to the Gaslamp’s older buildings.
“The Gaslamp has always been a destination, but we want to make sure we’re improving on the seeds that are already there,” said Councilman Chris Ward, whose district includes downtown. “This will enhance the experience by activating the space and providing more opportunity for the public to gather.”
Many details still must be worked out before the plaza can be constructed, including how to handle deliveries to Fifth Avenue businesses, finding money for the roughly $40 million project and securing support from the City Council.
Ward has scheduled a Nov. 8 meeting so those issues can be discussed by city economic development officials, the Downtown San Diego Partnership and the Gaslamp Quarter Association, which is spearheading the pedestrian plaza efforts.
“We’re at the early stages of the conversation,” Ward said. “We need to map out some potential alternatives and feasibilities.”
The Gaslamp Quarter Association has hired local architecture firm Carrier Johnson and engineering consultants Kimley-Horn to analyze many of the issues that must be worked out, said Michael Trimble, the association’s executive director.
“The team we’ve got is a top-notch group of professionals that is putting together an amazing vision,” Trimble said. “We’re trying to look at the whole big picture so we present the best plan to the city and get them to be excited and help support us.”
Trimble said he hopes to get all of the money needed for the project by securing grants from the state, the federal government and the county’s regional planning agency – the San Diego Association of Governments.
“Our goal is to provide a plan where we raise the money so that we won’t be looking to tap into city resources,” he said.
A key hurdle is how to facilitate deliveries and trash pick-ups at the businesses on Fifth Avenue, which must take place through the front of such businesses because there are no alleys downtown.
One proposal would be to use removable bollards to keep traffic off Fifth Avenue during afternoon and nighttime hours, but then open the street to cars and trucks from 3 a.m. to 11 a.m., Trimble said.
Such an approach would require street furniture and other features of the pedestrian plaza to be carefully located so they wouldn’t block traffic during the hours when cars are allowed.
“We’d have to strategically plan where street furniture would go, where possible kiosks might go and where art might be placed,” Trimble said.
Another hurdle is gaining consensus from merchants and property owners, who could be concerned that businesses on corner lots would gain an advantage because the plaza’s cross streets would remain open to traffic.
Those businesses would be more accessible to customers using ride-booking services like Uber and Lyft to get to the Gaslamp, and those merchants would have an easier time with deliveries and trash pick-ups.
“There’s a lot of complications and a lot of moving parts,” Trimble said. “You have a lot of stakeholders on Fifth Avenue.”
Trimble said the plaza likely wouldn’t be constructed for three to five years based on the time needed to gather funding and secure approvals, giving merchants and food delivery companies plenty of time to create solutions.
And he said the delivery companies and trash haulers typically make Gaslamp customers a priority.
“I don’t think anyone is truly worried about this,” he said. “The suppliers will have to adapt.”
Ward agreed that dissension among merchants could be a problem, but he expressed confidence any issues can be worked out.
“It’s going to take broad outreach and that’s why I’m so pleased that it’s the vision of the Gaslamp Quarter Association because these are their members,” he said. “This is something that will undoubtedly boost activity in the Gaslamp and the number of people spending time there. It will have a positive economic impact on all of the businesses along the length of this potential promenade.”
The proposal is unlikely to face opposition from downtown’s residential population, which continues to grow with each new high-rise project that gets built.
“Pedestrian promenades are always better for residents,” said Gary Smith, president of the Downtown San Diego Residents Group. “It will make the area safer, there will be less jaywalking and, hopefully, scooters will be banned there.”
On that issue, Ward said he’d like to see a special lane for bicycles and scooters if that’s financially and logistically feasible. Scooters have been a highly controversial issue along San Diego’s waterfront the last two years.
Ward also said he would be open to building the plaza in phases if there are financing hurdles.
Circulate San Diego, a nonprofit that advocates for pedestrians and cyclists, praised the pedestrian promenade idea.
“It’s exciting to see San Diego considering opening up streets to get more people out there frequenting local businesses,” said Maya Rosas, Circulate’s policy director. “I think this could really show that we can make our city thrive when we make it more welcoming for people walking and biking and rolling.”
She noted that the rest of downtown would still be dominated by cars. Fifth Avenue is not a main arterial in downtown, where the major streets are Ash, A, First, Front, Market, Pacific Highway, Broadway and 10th and 11th avenues.
Rosas said the recent success of a one-block pedestrian plaza in Little Italy shows that the idea has merit and potential. The city is planning another pedestrian promenade on Normal Street in Hillcrest.
Such projects aim to help the city meet the goals of its climate action plan, which would reduce greenhouse gas emissions by having many San Diegans give up commuting by car in favor of cycling, walking and using mass transit.
Mayor Kevin Faulconer on Tuesday declined to comment on the proposed Gaslamp pedestrian plaza.
Trimble said the mayor has expressed interest.
“The mayor’s office has been supportive and trying to help, but they won’t officially support it until they see it’s financed and everything has been handled properly,” he said.
The City Council three years ago agreed to ban vehicle parking on Fifth Avenue on Friday and Saturday nights. Ward said that move could be viewed as a precursor to making the street a pedestrian plaza.
Ward said the Little Italy project, the Piazza della Famiglia on Date Street between India and Columbia streets, should be considered a model for such changes.
“It’s been a wild success in Little Italy and that’s something we can point to when we look at re-thinking our public spaces,” he said.