Retail travels

San Diego - Explorer

By Karl McKeever | 14.09.18


New south state development, spurred by the popularity of San Francisco – one of the US’s most expensive cities – has been good news for San Diego. Investment has leapfrogged the dense, sprawling and ageing Los Angeles and landed firmly in the city.

And it’s a city in transition. California continues to be the state of choice to work, live and raise a family. San Francisco Bay is now so expensive it’s displacing people in search of somewhere similar, but more affordable. With its year-round warm climate and socially liberal attitudes, San Diego is where Millennial Americans are increasingly choosing to live.

During my recent visit, it was interesting to see how this development is starting to take shape. Rich in cultural diversity, it stands at a crossroads with Mexico, just a short hop to the border. The downtown area and waterfront is small scale, quick and easy to get around with lots of good resort hotels, a convention centre and a compact cultural/entertainment quarter.

The Manchester Waterfront is the focus of much of the investment. This massive new development will be a multi-million dollar leisure, retail and hotel destination, with a prestige position overlooking the Pacific bay.

Downtown is a pretty soulless place

But the investment money has not yet found its way downtown – the one thing the area really lacks is good-quality modern shopping. In fact, its main area, Westfield Horton Place is a crumbling relic and looks fit to be condemned! It’s a pretty sad state of affairs. Most stores have closed, and of the few left standing Banana Republic and Victoria’s Secrets are the biggest names. But even these look faded and aged and I’m certain have agreed to remain open rent free by a landlord keen to keep some tenants there…

This is a Spanish-styled hacienda. Open air and multi-levelled it may be, but being levelled would be the best thing for it. Thankfully, that’s exactly what is planned: it was announced earlier this year that the mall will be demolished and redeveloped as an office and entertainments complex. This will serve many new workers and raise many millions of dollars annually in rental, and in my opinion it can’t come soon enough.

If I’m being honest, Downtown is a pretty soulless place, with the exception of the resort-focused Embarcardo or historic Gaslamp Entertainment District. Unusually, there’s no special area revealing a hidden cache of indie shops and upscale designer stores. It’s a depressing mix of ‘ghetto’ blocks, where homeless and unemployed people gather, and faceless corporate buildings closed at the weekend.

But – and it’s a very welcome but – change is in the air. Whole blocks and areas are being redeveloped. The butterfly is emerging from the chrysalis.

One thing I can categorically say about San Diego is the transportation is nothing short of excellent. Built on the Californian grid system – making it easy to understand – the roads are teeming with Uber, lyft and EV motorcycles and scooters. Visitors can also use the overground light rail system, and the international airport is less than 10 minutes away from downtown.

The Westfield UTC Mall offers an upscale experience

Moving out of the city, you’ll find Fashion Valley Mall, operated by the very experienced Simon Malls. Stores include Abercrombie & Fitch, Emporio Armani, Bloomingdales, Macy’s and JC Penny (and what a sight this is! Easily wins the prize for the worst store there). Lifestyle brands in the Mall include Lush, Coach, Gap, Apple, Banana Republic and Sunglasses Hut.

Meanwhile, the Westfield UTC Mall offers an upscale experience, with eateries, a cinema and ice rink accompanying the shops. Here you’ll find Nordstrom, Macy’s, Apple, Zara, H&M, Sundance and American Eagle, amongst others. The centre is big on home stores, with modern, well-executed brands from all the usual suspects (think Pottery Barn, Pottery Barn Kids, Williams Sonoma, Crate & Barrel, Room & Board and Restoration Hardware).

There’s definitely a sense of anticipation in San Diego. With its reputation as the new San Francisco, development opportunities and big investments are springing up apace. I’ll be watching its transformation with keen interest.


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