First, a bit of history, summarized: in the 1950's, car culture grabbed control of America. Retail commerce in San Diego, and all of the United States, started to shift from downtown districts to outlying areas where vast parking lots could be built. In San Diego, the May Company sought approval to rezone a large swath of Mission Valley -- then a rural residential/agricultural area -- to build a large shopping mall surrounded by parking. After the first mall was built, more followed. Retail shopping in San Diego changed forever as the trend of mega-malls serviced by cars took over.
The trend can be seen by following the history of one "big box" store in particular. In 1942, J.C. Penney opened a new store on University Avenue just east of 30th Street. As the malls opened in Mission Valley and streetcars disappeared, North Park suffered and became a seedy neighborhood. When Fashion Valley Mall opened in 1969, J.C. Penney was one of the original anchors as it left North Park behind. At the old J.C. Penney site in North Park, nothing good happened. Big Lots eventually moved in, but it closed in 2008. As part of the North Park redevelopment, the site was converted to a restaurant, but only when subsidized by massive loans from the City. That restaurant, Wang's, closed earlier this year. Many faulted the restaurant for being too massive, creating a cavernous area that was hard to fill. It doesn't seem the spot is well suited for a restaurant. So the question is, what should go into this spot that can improve the neighborhood?
As our city becomes more focused on lessening our reliance on cars and creating more urban neighborhoods, it's time to reverse the retail trend and move today's retail anchors into our urban neighborhoods. Given the rise of Amazon and online shopping, the old department stores are suffering and not drawing the traffic they used to. In their place, Apple Stores are the new anchors in malls, driving huge amounts of foot traffic and benefitting the other stores in malls.
I quipped on Twitter recently that a good test for the walkability of your city is to look where your Apple Store is: if it's in a mall, most likely you have no urban, walkable retail district. New York City, Seattle, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Portland, and Washington D.C. all have Apple Stores in urban locations. San Diego has Apple Stores in its malls; one at Fashion Valley, another at UTC. Hardly walkable, definitely not urban.
Apple markets itself as an environmentally-friendly company. Apple hired Lisa Jackson, former head of the EPA under President Obama, to lead its environmental initiatives. It works hard to power its operations with renewable energy, to package its products responsibly, and to avoid using hazardous materials in its products. On its webpage, Apple boldly states "We don't want to debate climate change. We want to stop it."
Apple, however, completely ignores the fact that it is propping up malls across America. Rather than placing its stores in walkable, transit-friendly areas, it lives inside malls that are primarily accessed by automobile. Imagine instead if Apple decided to leave Fashion Valley and its sea of parking lots for the J.C. Penney site in North Park. Without huge amounts of parking, it would lead to more walking and public transit access. It would also help drive huge increases of foot traffic to the area, benefitting adjacent businesses and making the entire neighborhood more lively. It's likely that an Apple Store would lead to other new businesses moving into the area, creating even more opportunities to shop locally. Demand for easy access would put more pressure on the City to build a streetcar to North Park, increasing accessibility in the urban areas of the City.
For all of these reasons and more, I think Apple should open a store at the shuttered Wang's spot in the old J.C. Penney building. Although I am sure there are plenty that would shout "Gentrification!," an influx of high-quality retail would transform North Park and help hasten the end of malls in San Diego. That can't happen soon enough.