The Padres' Petco Park is at the heart of a sprawling 26-block redevelopment area adjacent to the city's well-known Gaslamp Quarter. Parts of the ballpark district were once roll-your-sleeves-up enterprises: produce warehouses, dry storage, light manufacturing. Working artists loved the huge spaces and cheap rents offered by old, drafty, long-empty buildings. And much was down-and-out: a lost-soul zone reminiscent of the 19th-century days when the adjacent Gaslamp was known as the Stingaree ― a place where hustlers stung you worse than any rays out at the beach.
After a contentious process that included a citywide vote in 1998, the ballpark got the go-ahead. Change happened at a frenetic pace. The curvaceous new Omni San Diego Hotel now towers over Petco Park, linked to the stadium by a skywalk bridge so guests can get to games without descending to street level. Across Harbor Drive, the new second tower of the Manchester Grand Hyatt San Diego looks like a mast of the cruise ship-size San Diego Convention Center and its sail-like roofs. And several new loft/condo developments have opened up in the vicinity and offer tours of model units.
As I walked the neighborhood one evening at dusk, I turned a corner to the north of the park and saw the red neon sign atop tiny Cafe Noir dueling with Petco's stadium lights. At this 118-year-old former house, where strong java pours freely, young proprietors Zoe Poore and Riff Tressan greet customers with a decidedly bohemian flair ― she in a Borsalino beret, he in a porkpie. "The stadium looks like the spaceship from Close Encounters of the Third Kind," chuckled Poore, who grew up in a nearby loft. "But don't get me wrong. We moved here because of the new park. I think it's great."
The blossoming East Village is not quite yet a destination on its own. But combined with the hugely popular Gaslamp Quarter only a few blocks west, where the sidewalks are literally jammed with restaurant- and club-hopping visitors at night, East Village shows promise ― even on a day when no baseball is in town.
"We did not want to build another great Eastern ballpark here in the Southwesternmost corner of the country," said the San Diego Padres' vice president of development, Erik Judson, as he stood at the park's main entrance and ushered me in. "Did we try and take great elements of other ballparks? Absolutely. But this is an aggregate of San Diego's own look and feel, from the sandstone of our ocean cliffs to the way our different 'neighborhoods' of seating sections mirror the diversity of the city."
Designed by architect Antoine Predock with HO+K Sport, the park merges old and new around an irregularly shaped field that will keep visiting outfielders guessing where the walls are. Fans on "The Beach" and in "The Park at the Park" behind center will have a unique, near-the-field viewing angle, as will those in the seats beneath (or atop) the bowl's aggressive cantilevers.
The stadium also encourages spectators to get out of their seats and wander. Large open-air restaurants, watering holes, and concourses vie with the action on the field. Left field even has a spacious standing-room-only section. In all, nine restaurants and lounges, from a Baja Bistro to a Friar Franks, pitch to the hungry.
Back in my favorite seat at the uppermost reaches of the stadium, I turned my head again to watch as the sun set over the waterfront and Point Loma to the west. With the entire city spread out below, the only thing missing was that old familiar cry, "Play ball!" Now that time, too, has come.