Seaport Village, recently renovated, tries virtual entertainment to remain relevant during shutdown

A contractor paints the door outside of a store in Seaport Village on Nov. 26, 2019 as part of a recent renovation project.
(Sam Hodgson/The San Diego Union-Tribune)

The tourist-centric shopping mall has struggled with vacancies in recent years, and the pandemic-driven shutdown has not helped


Local shopping malls have transformed into retail ghost towns during the pandemic, and tourism hotspot Seaport Village could be worse hit than most.

The shopping center relies heavily on foot traffic from vacationing visitors and conference attendees, two groups whose numbers have deteriorated in the weeks since COVID-19’s initial spread.

And yet Seaport Village is making a concerted effort to remain relevant during the shutdown. The retail center launched a long lineup of virtual events, from live-streamed local concerts and comedian performances to story times and magic shows for children. The virtual events began at the end of March and have scheduled programming through the end of May.

Upcoming online shows include a circus performance from entertainer Nathaniel Allenby and a concert by singer-songwriter Courtney Preis.

Seaport Village uses these virtual events to advertise for the local business tenants of the mall and funnel traffic to the retailers’ websites.

“These are unprecedented and difficult times for small businesses in Seaport Village, many of whom have been here for a couple of decades,” said Stacey Pennington, who runs SLP Urban Planning, a firm responsible for dreaming up educational and entertaining events for Seaport Village. “As families and children become more connected to virtual programming, we want to have a place in their home and to keep Seaport Village top of mind.”

Owned by the Port of San Diego, Seaport Village has been around since 1980 but has recently been plagued with empty storefronts. There are 58 tenants currently, down from 61 in November. In all, there are 11 retail vacancies.

Most of the deserted spaces are concentrated in one area, creating a vacuum in the eastern village now referred to as the Lighthouse District.

Before the pandemic took hold, Seaport Village was aiming for new life thanks to a tweaked business plan. SLP brought in live events throughout the village, boosting foot traffic and sales for local tenants. And as part of a $2.2 million effort to revitalize the mall, the shopping center removed shrubs and walls blocking ocean views, set up Adirondack chairs, and repainted much of the shops’ exteriors.

Part of Pennington’s task has been activating vacant spots in the village through partnerships with local arts and culture centers, such as The New Children’s Museum and the Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego. The shopping center also used previously vacant space to house a podcast studio for Seaport Village-related content.

The port recently signed leases with three noteworthy tenants: Mike Hess Brewing, Mr. Moto Pizza and Spill the Bean.

But the shutdown is taking its toll on all retailers, and Pennington said she hopes the virtual programming will keep Seaport Village in the minds of locals. She said it’s her goal to help transform Seaport Village into a spot for residents, rather than just tourists.

“Over the last 10 to 15 years there’s been explosive growth in downtown San Diego with an increase in residences and businesses moving back or expanding downtown,” Pennington said. “We want to update the people’s experience and connection with Seaport Village to not only be a nostalgic destination, but also to have an appeal and relevance to local San Diegans.”

For a full schedule of concerts, workshops, and children’s events available online, visit the Seaport Village website.