San Diego: new ball park neighborhood

The Padres' Petco Park is at the heart of a sprawling26-block redevelopment area adjacent to the city's well-knownGaslamp Quarter. Parts of the ballpark district were onceroll-your-sleeves-up enterprises: produce warehouses, dry storage,light manufacturing. Working artists loved the huge spaces andcheap rents offered by old, drafty, long-empty buildings. And muchwas down-and-out: a lost-soul zone reminiscent of the 19th-centurydays when the adjacent Gaslamp was known as the Stingaree ― aplace where hustlers stung you worse than any rays out at thebeach.

After a contentious process that included a citywide vote in1998, the ballpark got the go-ahead. Change happened at a freneticpace. The curvaceous new Omni San Diego Hotel now towers over PetcoPark, linked to the stadium by a skywalk bridge so guests can getto games without descending to street level. Across Harbor Drive,the new second tower of the Manchester Grand Hyatt San Diego lookslike a mast of the cruise ship-size San Diego Convention Center andits sail-like roofs. And several new loft/condo developments haveopened up in the vicinity and offer tours of model units.

As I walked the neighborhood one evening at dusk, I turned acorner to the north of the park and saw the red neon sign atop tinyCafe Noir dueling with Petco's stadium lights. At this 118-year-oldformer house, where strong java pours freely, young proprietors ZoePoore and Riff Tressan greet customers with a decidedly bohemianflair ― she in a Borsalino beret, he in a porkpie. "Thestadium looks like the spaceship from Close Encounters of the Third Kind," chuckled Poore, whogrew up in a nearby loft. "But don't get me wrong. We moved herebecause of the new park. I think it's great."

The blossoming East Village is not quite yet a destination onits own. But combined with the hugely popular Gaslamp Quarter onlya few blocks west, where the sidewalks are literally jammed withrestaurant- and club-hopping visitors at night, East Village showspromise ― even on a day when no baseball is in town.

Game day

"We did not want to build another great Eastern ballpark here inthe Southwesternmost corner of the country," said the San DiegoPadres' vice president of development, Erik Judson, as he stood atthe park's main entrance and ushered me in. "Did we try and takegreat elements of other ballparks? Absolutely. But this is anaggregate of San Diego's own look and feel, from the sandstone ofour ocean cliffs to the way our different 'neighborhoods' ofseating sections mirror the diversity of the city."

Designed by architect Antoine Predock with HO+K Sport, the parkmerges old and new around an irregularly shaped field that willkeep visiting outfielders guessing where the walls are. Fans on"The Beach" and in "The Park at the Park" behind center will have aunique, near-the-field viewing angle, as will those in the seatsbeneath (or atop) the bowl's aggressive cantilevers.

The stadium also encourages spectators to get out of their seatsand wander. Large open-air restaurants, watering holes, andconcourses vie with the action on the field. Left field even has aspacious standing-room-only section. In all, nine restaurants andlounges, from a Baja Bistro to a Friar Franks, pitch to thehungry.

Back in my favorite seat at the uppermost reaches of thestadium, I turned my head again to watch as the sun set over thewaterfront and Point Loma to the west. With the entire city spreadout below, the only thing missing was that old familiar cry, "Playball!" Now that time, too, has come.

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