San Diego Does Bill Clinton's favorite hostelry, the Hotel del Coronado, need saving? By all appearances, the 109-year-old, 692-room historic landmark is doing fine. Depending on whether you talk to the town's mayor or the hotel's manager, it's had between $50 million and $100 million of refurbishing over the last decade.
No one worried too much last year after owner Larry Lawrence died and his widow sold the Del to the $60 billionPrich Travelers Group, a New York financial services company, which had held most of the tabs anyway.
But then you start reading the pink flier circulating through Coronado. "North, south, east, and west views to be blocked! Pioneering historic electric power plant, original and subsequent brick laundries, garage/stables, original Kate Sessions plantings and prehistoric archaeological sites to be destroyed!!!" Word had been trickling out ever since Lawrence's death that the hotel's new owners were itching to develop the entire beachfront site. Plans include a conference center, parking structures, and 40-foot-high stacks of new guest rooms - options so extensive they'd surround the famous hotel. According to local critics, you wouldn't be able to see in or out: the 1888 Queen Anne Victorian palace would all but disappear from sight behind pseudo "Bahama Cays" architecture.
Last February 13, Travelers sent the Coronado City Council a "revised proposed Specific Plan," which confirmed preservationists' worst fears. The "footprints" of the proposed ring of buildings were there for all to see.
"To show your support," begged the flier, "post this in your windows!"
Downtown Coronado didn't need to be told. Eight thousand of the "preservation alert" posters have already been distributed. Merchants and residents are asking for a second printing. The shocking-pink signs assault your eyes from half the storefront windows up and down Orange Avenue. Even from l'Armoire, the conservative dress shop for ladies of a certain age. Even the old-money mansions of Alameda Boulevard.
"They're going to ruin it," says Fran Brown, the 85-year-old owner of M.J. Brown's on the corner of 10th and Orange. "It's the new owners. What do they care? But this is Coronado. They don't realize what kind of a fight they're taking on."
"To have them trash such a place!" says Carol Cahill, longtime activist and a vocal opponent of the development, "that's why we're all brokenhearted; because it's going to turn what was such a lovely, elegant, friendly place into something quite hostile."
Why the new owners' urge to surround the Del with development? Dipping property values have left Travelers with a money loser in the Del. In 1987, Lawrence, who had bought the hotel in 1963 for a reported $7 million, refinanced it through Primerica Corporation, which later acquired Travelers and took its name. The value of the refinancing is not public, but most observers say the loan, which was made at the peak of the '80s real estate boom, topped the hotel's 1996 assessed value of $150 million. County records indicate only $2.9 million changed hands on the day of sale, September 12, 1996. From a financial point of view, development seemed the only way out.
That's not likely the way Coronado sees it. Forget the Alamo. Coronado's cry is "Remember the Bridge! Remember the Shores!" The sneak attack that created the shoreside Miami-style condos south of the Del taught islanders not to trust big corporations. The combined power of Caltrans and Governor Pat Brown, which forced the bridge upon Coronado in 1969 - despite a resounding "No!" vote by locals - taught islanders not to trust politicians either.
"This is the biggest campaign we've ever done," says Bruce Coons, who wrote the flier and who is the point man for soho's (Save Our Heritage Organisation) "Save the Del" campaign. I agree to meet Coons at the Del and let him give me the tour. The light is fading when I spot him, Travelers' development plans in hand, at the Hotel Del's beachfront Ocean Terrace cafe.
It's a spectacular evening. The bop of tennis games below us competes with a navy S-3 aircraft coming in low on its approach to North Island. Then both sounds fade, leaving us in the twilight quiet, with just the smell of salt breezes and coffee. The sun reddens over the kelp beds off Point Loma. A silhouetted navy cruiser cuts its way through the narrows, ocean-bound.
"Look well, my friend," says Coons. "If Travelers wins, you'll be looking at one giant blob of bedrooms between us and the sea. This will be a 50-foot-wide alley between two buildings." He opens Travelers' proposal to "Planning Area 5. Southwest." It shows the area of the present tennis courts (currently between us and the beach) shaded. "Buildable area, up to 80 guest rooms, recreational facilities and accessory use."
"And in the front of the document," says Coons, "they're asking for [permission to build this structure up to] 40 feet high with 60-foot features for this entire area. That would block all views of the ocean to the top of the fourth floor of the old building." Jody (not her real name) comes and serves us coffee. "Oh sure. The new owners really, really want to build on the courts, but the City of Coronado's fighting them on that."
"That's not 100 percent certain," says Coons. "The hotel pays the City maybe $4 million a year in taxes. It swings a lot of weight." Warning letters have been sent to the Coronado City Council and to Travelers. The National Park Service voiced "concern" about overbuilding. The National Trust for Historic Preservation people "sincerely hope" preservation would be the "guiding principle" in any development. The Department of Historic Preservation in the Department of Parks and Recreation urged Coronado to "consider the effect of this project on the integrity of this important landmark." The California Preservation Foundation worried that "schematics...show new buildings and parking structures ringing the old hotel."
However, the San Diego Historical Society and the Coronado Historical Association, which both get financial support from the Hotel Del, have so far been remarkably silent on the issue.