When a new cast of characters auditions next week for the Centre City Development Corp., it aims to revive San Diego's longest-running empty stage. The Balboa Theatre, a national historic landmark in downtown San Diego, has slowly deteriorated since the city's redevelopment agency took control of the Spanish Renaissance building in 1985. Historians, architects, musicians, and other artists have joined forces over the years to prevent the city from allowing various developers to gut or mutilate the 1924 vaudeville house by converting it to offices, shops, or a multiscreen movie cinema.
"The Balboa is unique. The West Coast's major cities have larger theaters with 2500 and 3000 seats and much smaller theaters with 600 seats or less, but there are very few historic theaters this size," William M. Mayleas gushed recently, referring to the Balboa's capacity to accommodate audiences of 1300. "The hall is slightly narrower and slightly deeper, lending itself to superb acoustics."
Although he is a relatively new admirer of the theater's dome, interior waterfall fountains, and churrigueresque features, Mayleas may play a major role in bringing live performances to its stage again. As president of San Diego Comic Opera and the new Balboa Theatre Arts & Education Fund, Mayleas is helping orchestrate an ambitious and complex proposal to buy and renovate the vacant building at 868 Fourth Avenue.
Applause for Mayleas's efforts, however, is tempered by a bit of skepticism and confusion. As recently as six weeks ago, some members of the Balboa Theatre Foundation and Save Our Heritage Organisation -- both dedicated to historic preservation -- were under the impression there were two competing proposals to reopen the long-neglected theater.
The nonprofit Balboa Theatre Arts & Education Fund offered to raise $9.4 million to $12 million to create a venue for the city's dance companies, music ensembles, acting troupes, and other live-performance groups.
The for-profit Trimble-Shotts LLC, led by Kent Trimble, the son-in-law of mayoral candidate Ron Roberts, suggested using conventional loans and federal-tax credits for repairing historic buildings. Trimble, a civil engineer, teamed with Barry Shotts, a San Francisco lawyer, to work on redevelopment projects in San Diego. Trimble said he got interested in the Balboa while walking by it on the way to his office. Trimble envisions equipping the theater -- what he calls "the crowning piece of the Gaslamp" -- to host film festivals, webcasts, and satellite broadcasts as well as ballets, concerts, and plays.
In late April, Trimble and the nonprofit fund withdrew their respective proposals and submitted a joint plan that calls for $15 million in financing. The higher cost, Mayleas said, reflects some "extras," such as an orchestra pit with a hydraulic lift, a rooftop concession, and an outdoor screen that would broadcast rehearsals. The joint plan is stronger, Mayleas said, because it combines the financial expertise of Trimble-Shotts with the fund's philanthropic and educational goals. By joining Trimble-Shotts, the fund need raise only $4.5 million, Mayleas said, far less than the $9.4 million to $12 million if it were alone.
Some local preservationists and artists feel uneasy about the alliance between nonprofit and for-profit interests, but they acknowledge it currently represents the only chance of restoring the Balboa to its former splendor and original use.
"A lot of changes were made quickly toward the end, and now Wayne Donaldson is no longer involved," lamented Kristen Aliotti, a board member of Balboa Theatre Foundation. "Wayne is a trusted and respected architect whose specialty is historic preservation, and that gave us a security blanket." Donaldson, the San Diego architect hired by the nonprofit fund, is now replaced by Trimble-Shotts' architectural firm, van Dijk, Pace & Westlake, which is also noted for historic preservation. Van Dijk contributed to San Diego's Balboa Theatre Restoration Study in 1988 and recently restored the Orpheum Theatre in Phoenix.
Louise Torio, vice president of Balboa Theatre Foundation and secretary of Save Our Heritage Organisation, said she had expected to see more bids submitted because the Balboa is such an appealing project and there's a high demand for theater space. However, supporting the current proposal is important, Torio said, noting that interest rates are rising and money is getting tight. "We've been in a boom economy for several years now. We don't want to reach the tail end of that economy and not get the Balboa restored," she said. "There's a whole generation of San Diegans who haven't seen the Balboa Theatre."
Vonn Marie May, a local preservationist, said, "Our biggest fear is CCDC [Centre City Development Corp.] will sell the building for $1, and then the developer will turn around and sell it for market value. Everyone is putting their fears on hold because we wouldn't want to kill anything that would put this theater back in use. Hopefully, there's some longevity to this deal. Hopefully, no one will be getting out of the partnership in five years."
The alliance between Trimble-Shotts and the Balboa Theatre Arts & Education Fund is structured so that if one partner were to sell, the other would have first dibs to buy. If Trimble-Shotts were to sell its 51 percent stake, the nonprofit fund would need to raise millions of dollars or find a new partner. If the fund were to sell, the Balboa might become a purely commercial enterprise, further reducing chances of San Diego's nonprofit arts groups to perform there. Trimble-Shotts' dominant position in the partnership was necessary to qualify for federal-tax credits representing 20 percent of the project's cost, which are not available to nonprofit organizations. As part of the unusual and complicated profit-nonprofit joint venture, Chevron has tentatively agreed to buy the $3 million in tax credits, making it a potential investor, too, in the Balboa.
Eli Sanchez, senior project manager of Centre City Development Corp., would not comment specifically on this latest proposal nor compare it with the previous two plans. If the joint venture were accepted, Sanchez said, the agency would enter a 120-day negotiation period to hammer out such details as whether the city would sell or lease the Balboa. Mayleas said Trimble-Shotts and the fund would like to buy the theater for a nominal fee.