Downtown San Diego’s Core and Columbia occupy the thin strip 2 blocks north and south of Broadway, the main thoroughfare through Downtown San Diego, from the waterfront in the west to 12th Avenue/Park Boulevard in the east. The Columbia district (from the waterfront to Columbia St) is the ‘tall business buildings district’ that houses many of Downtown’s most photogenic skyscrapers. Core district to the east is populated by government buildings and the theaters (and the hotels catering to them) are. Here’s a short-ish walking route that’ll let you see most of this area’s attractions. A slide show of area covered is available here .
We’re starting from Pantoja Park on G Street between State and Kettner in the Marina District. It is a moderate size park with well kept grassy lawn and a good view of the top of the towers of the Columbia District. There are some really good looking plane trees around (their branches held in formation by thin cables) that, if you look closely enough, houses many of the area’s song birds. It is a wonderful place to loiter in during the day listening to bird songs in this otherwise very quiet green space as the bustling concrete world around it rushes through its daily work routine.
Walking north from Pantoja Park along the walkway running along its east side and turning right with the path we emerge onto State Street at Columbia Tower Residential building. The reddish brown building complex with tinted black windows up ahead is the Edward Schwartz Federal Building that houses the immigration service, the US Marshall service, the FBI and the US Courthouse. We turn left here and walk north to Broadway, which, at this point, is dominated by the white marble and deep green glass hexagonal towers of the Emerald Plaza complex (home of the Westin Hotel) and the white art deco style Hall of Justice. To the left is the Columbia District, and to the right is the Core District.
We turn left here and admire some of Downtown’s most recognizable tall buildings (I’m reluctant to call them skyscrapers sometimes, since our building height limit is a low 500 ft due to the area’s proximity to the San Diego International Airport (Lindberg Field)). To the west of Emerald Plaza is the old YMCA Building and the Phillips screwdriver shaped (with pointy end up) One America Plaza, the tallest building in Downtown area. Looking west on Broadway toward the Embarcadero (across the railroad tracks) there is the slender and reddishly alluring Electra Tower (the tallest residential tower and the 2nd tallest over all after One America Plaza) at the corner of Broadway and Pacific Highway; with its art deco early 1900’s lower facade that used to be the San Diego Gas and Electric Station. Many of you will be very tempted to take off to explore the Embarcadero with its piers, waterfront restaurants and variety of ships. I’m turning right (north) at Kettner St to pay a visit to Santa Fe Depot, however.
Built in 1915 to accommodate the visitors arriving in town for the Panama-California Exposition, Santa Fe Depot is a classic Spanish Mission – Colonial Revival style building that serves as the major train and trolley station in Downtown San Diego. This is where you can catch the Amtrak or a Surfliner along the coast to Mexico in the south and to Los Angeles to the north… and beyond. The spacious waiting room is well insulated and furnished with long wooden benches and a few coffee/magazine stands. There is also a tree-covered cobblestoned front courtyard with a fountain that just invites you to sit down and breathe in the scenery. At the back of the Santa Fe Depot, in what used to be the baggage transfer facility, is the Joan & Irwin Jacobs Building that houses the San Diego’s Contemporary Arts Museum. If you are 25 yrs old or younger, do make it a point to go in as you won’t have to pay the usual $10 entry fee. The MCASD always has conceptually interesting artworks on exhibit to stir your imagination.
Walking back east along the trolley track across Kettner to One America Plaza’s trolley station, we run right into the Contemporary Arts Museum’s modern and abstract looking metal and glass building that houses its bookshop. We now continue east on C Street (along the left/north side of the trolley track) toward the Core District. Aside from some oases of seating corners like the one in front of Pacific Bank (with its little rock garden), C St is a rather drab looking area with a few cafes serving breakfast and lunch (usually closed on weekends). We pass behind the courthouses, through the Central Detention Center (jail), Public Law Library, and about a million bail bond businesses to find the Civic Center Concourse at C St and 1st Avenue. This complex houses the City Administration Building, City Hall, the Civic Center Plaza tower, its own parking garage, and the 2967 seat Civic Theater where the San Diego Opera calls home. Walking through the Civic Plaza, you can grab a sandwich or a burger at Downtown Johnny Brown’s and lunch leisurely there or on one of the many benches around the fountain or at the little tree-covered space between the Civic Theater’s box office and the Artists’ entrance while keeping an eye out for the mayor or the city counsel members or even a few opera stars!
Leaving the Civic Center from its 3rd Avenue entrance, we commence east on B Street through what is known locally as the ‘financial corridor’, home of tall bank buildings. The suit and tie (or business dress) people you pass are now carrying folio rather than dragging a pulley-ful of case files… At the southwest corner of B St and 5th Avenue (in front of Wells Fargo Bank building) is Sergio Benvenuti’s Fountain of Two Oceans; ‘a fountain with two figures on the front, a man and a woman, virtually resting on the element that gives life to them. That is the surface of the water of a fountain‘. (1) Looking further east on B Street you can spot the tall sandy tower of the Copley Symphony Hall where the San Diego Symphony Orchestra, now under the direction of Jahja Ling, performs most of its concerts. We are turning right/south here on 5th Avenue, instead, passing by the hip new superclub on the block; the House of Blues… the music venue where Britney Spear made her first come back appearance from the brink of insanity in last year.
Before you know it, we have popped up back on Broadway… and are likely severely tempted to continue south on 5th Avenue into historic Gaslamp Quarters and all its hip shops and restaurants. But I must insist on turning right/west onto Broadway instead. At Broadway and 4th Avenue are a few of the coolest buildings in town. To the left is the colorful Horton Plaza, Downtown’s main shopping venue with its remarkably foul smelling fountain park (I don’t know what sort of plant they’ve put in that garden, but it sure stinks!) and the tall tower of the NBC building where some camera-friendly folks like to keep gliding by hoping to be caught in the background of some news broadcast. In between them is a clear space where an ice skating rink is put up every year from November through January and where a farmers’ market is held every Thursday from 11AM-3PM from March to October.
To the right/north side of Broadway is the prestigious US Grant Hotel, built in 1910 by President Grant’s younger son, Ulysses S Grant, Jr. It is a grand luxury hotel that can boast of having hosted many presidential visitors to San Diego since its opening. The Grant Grill restaurant is also famous for being raided by 6 women in 1969 who decided that they weren’t going to put up with the hotel’s ‘male only until 5 PM’ policy. The Rosa Park-ish moment is now commemorated with a plaque inside the Grant Grill and women can now patronize the place as much as the men do.
Walking on, passing the Westgate Hotel to the corner of 1st Avenue and Broadway we spot the Sofia Hotel (formerly the rather dumpy Pickwick Hotel) with its face-lift job and complete redo of the interior, the 1928 building is now a seriously chic boutique hotel with its own spa, restaurants, and, of course, still housing Downtown San Diego’s Greyhound Bus Station on its first floor.
We turn left/south onto 1st Avenue at this point, passing by another Westin Hotel (this one in Horton Plaza), then turn right onto the little compacted sand walkway by a strip park just before F Street and walk west on it, passing again, the reddish brown complex of the Edward Schwartz Federal building. Turn left on State St, then right on G Street, and, voila! We’ve returned to our starting point at Pantoja Park in the Marina District with the license to another session of laying leisurely on the green grass listening to more song birds’ serenade after having logged roughly a mile of walking through Downtown San Diego’s Core and Columbia districts. May your afternoon be peaceful and may all bird poops miss their mark. Have a pleasant rest of the day!