Downtown Arts/Entertainment Bid Stirs ‘Times Square’ Blight Concerns

By Gene Cubbison
|  Wednesday, May 22, 2013  |  Updated 8:58 PM PDT
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Downtown Entertainment District Plans Receive Encouragement

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Plan for Arts District Met With Criticism

A proposal to revitalize downtown San Diego north of Broadway with an Arts & Entertainment District ran into strong pushback at City Hall.

Downtown Entertainment District Plans Receive Encouragement

Plans to makeover downtown San Diego received high praise at City Hall on Wednesday afternoon. Gene Cubbison reports
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Plans for a downtown "Arts and Entertainment District" north of Broadway drew fire at City Hall during a council committee hearing Wednesday.

Critics warned it could create a garish ‘Times Square West’.

The concept’s backers insist it would be a low-keyed, far cry from the schlocky commercialism of New York's Times Square -- a money-maker needing no taxpayer dollars.

But opponents doubt what they see as a devil in the details can be exorcised.

"The city has made findings that billboards are a traffic hazard and an aesthetic harm,” says attorney Pamela Lawton Wilson, director of the civic preservation group Scenic San Diego. “So how can the city justify its sign ordinance everywhere else in the city, and yet somehow say ‘Here it's okay to have a traffic hazard and ugly signs’?"

Promoters of the arts and entertainment district are seeking a relaxation of restrictions in the city's sign ordinance to allow big-screen, LED displays and other commercial presentations along 65 blocks in downtown’s so-called “Core Area”, north of Broadway

"This area is definitely blighted; there's a homeless population,” says Janelle Riella, spokeswoman for the Downtown San Diego Partnership, which would be the proposed district’s nonprofit operator and disburse a share of proceeds to homeless causes.

“There's not a lot of people walking the streets … they don't activate the area, use the restaurants or shop at the retailers,” Riella explained in an interview Wednesday with NBC 7. “That's what we're trying to increase. Gaslamp was the same way several decades ago, and this is what we want to create for the area."

As an example of urban re-vitalization, district backers point to Denver's four-year-old Theater District, where they say retailers and restaurateurs have seen increased patronage.

"Ideally, it builds up the tax base,” says David Ehrlich, executor director of the Denver Theater District, who’s advancing the proposal along with San Diego public relations consultant Jeff Marston. “What we're looking at is a true public-private partnership where private entities -- media companies -- are taking on the expense, but they're sharing the revenue for the opportunity to participate."

But Scenic San Diego and other civic preservationists here in San Diego fear it'll bring excessive visual blight, undermine the sign ordinance in other areas, and not deliver economic benefits 'as advertised'.

"Their own sign plan identifies at least 78 locations for these signs -- some 14 stories tall, entire city blocks,” Wilson noted in an NBC 7 interview Wednesday. “How does putting up advertising create economic activity except for outdoor advertisers and the property owners that have signs on them? To me, it's like saying if you add more commercials, more people will watch TV."

After hearing presentations and public testimony for nearly two hours Wednesday afternoon, the City Council's Land Use & Housing Committee members had more questions and concerns than the district's proponents had answers.

They recommended that the plans be run past the city attorney's office and community groups, refined, and brought back later.

Says Marston, who plans a more extensive campaign of community outreach and education: “What we’re hearing in the push-back is a lot of misinformation. And we clear that up and people go, ‘Oh’. And that’s going to be our goal in the coming months.”

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