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The graffiti wraps the California Theatre in a ten-foot-tall necklace of yellow and black and silver, squished-together letters shaped like half-inflated airbags. The odd thing is whoever did it also surrounded it with a new chain-link fence. I suddenly realize: The fence is there not to protect the theater but to protect the graffiti…from…more graffiti.

We’re talking, after all, about the venerable California Theatre, grande dame of the 1920s, the “cathedral of the motion picture,” whose five-story-high auditorium, the largest in town, looks like a Spanish church inside. Over its 83 years it has hosted everything from silent movies to teen-scream event-openings like the Beatles’ Hard Day’s Night and Elvis’s Fun in Acapulco.

The second thought is: Where’s mighty SOHO when you need it? This is precisely what San Diego’s own Save Our Heritage Organisation (that’s how they spell it) is for, isn’t it? Can anything be more “our heritage” than this? Where’s the human chain surrounding the place, shouting, “Hell no! We won’t go!”

SOHO stumbled into existence when an artist named Robert Miles Parker came across an old house — the 1887 Sherman-Gilbert house — about to be ripped down. On a whim he pasted up a small paper sign that said, “SAVE THIS HOUSE, 239-8324.” It was his phone number. He was inundated with calls. That was 1969. As a result of his and his fellow outraged citizens’ efforts, the house was saved and SOHO was born. Forty-one years on, thanks to SOHO, hundreds of houses have been preserved and dozens of public buildings saved. Ones you’d recognize, like the Hotel Del Coronado, and ones you mightn’t, like the Verna House, a beautiful little frou-frou French cottage transplanted to Old Town, set up next to the Whaley House to become SOHO’s retail shop.

But, 41 years on, maybe we also need to take a critical look, because it hasn’t all been glorious victories. Look at this theater, for instance. Look at the rubble across Broadway: famous architect Harrison Albright’s Hotel San Diego (he also designed the U.S. Grant hotel and the Coronado Library). Apart from its place in the architectural and social history of this town, in the years prior to its 2001 closure, it housed 11 percent of downtown’s homeless population. But, in April 2006, it went down in a cloud of dust. The U.S. government wanted the space for a federal courthouse annex (that’s just what’s needed to brighten up Broadway, right?), and neither SOHO nor the city could fight the feds, or so they said. One way or another, they let it slip away. Or how about that 35-year, still-unresolved drama of the two oldest cottages in La Jolla, Red Roost and Red Rest, where lawyers seemed to turn SOHO and other objectors into nominees for the lifetime sucker award. Or the collapsing adobe at Warner’s Ranch. Or the 1937 art deco streamline moderne Ford dealership at 1015 Park Boulevard, a building designed by renowned architect Frank Hope. Or, dare we mention, the still-kind-of-empty-feeling plaza of a once-vibrant Old Town, where SOHO invested its passion for historical accuracy — a more Anglo accuracy — that many say ripped the joyful heart out of the place?

And mention SOHO to certain go-go developer types and they’ll raise their eyes to heaven and rage on about how SOHO can be painfully anal retentive, Luddite almost, slowing progress just to be a pain in the you-know-what, objecting, holding up new building projects by reflex action. This kind of obstructionism, they’ll imply, is just plain un–San Diegan. We’re all here in America’s Finest for the future, right? To shuck off the past and then use that freedom to experiment, bulldoze, build, rebuild, start again. Unencumbered. Easy come, easy go. Ain’t that our pride and joy?

Add to this complaints that saving and refurbishing historic homes is a money-making tax-dodge for wealthy elitists, and you’ve reduced the likes of SOHO to enablers, helping the rich get richer with a clear conscience.

SOHO’s executive director Bruce Coons and his wife Alana, the organization’s events and education director, also have their critics, who say the couple plays hardball politics with colleagues who disagree with their priorities and can be too ready to cut deals with developers.

So, after 41 years, 10 under the Coonses’ tutelage, you have to wonder: Has SOHO gone soft? Does SOHO need saving — from itself?

∗ ∗ ∗

It’s lunchtime on a sunny, breezy Friday — July 16, 2010 — on the lawn beside the Whaley House. And that means: Happy 241st birthday, Jamestown! (That’s us, Saint James — San Diego.) SOHO’s been trying to revive a civic celebration of this anniversary. This is its third year, and maybe a hundred folks are in attendance today, most buzzing around the old California pepper tree on the lawn next to the Whaley House, now SOHO’s headquarters, the spot where some say the ghost of Anna Whaley — or is it Violet Whaley, who reputedly shot herself in the privy out back? — hangs around, dancing, perhaps. There’s a microphone and speakers and a portable lectern, and the place is alive with crinoline dresses and bowler hats, schoolkids in red T-shirts running around the pepper tree, docents in long wire-hooped gowns, dignitaries getting up to speak about the significance of the day, rows of chairs on the grass, and behind those, outside the New Orleans Creole Café, tables laid out with cake and soda. There’s even music, dancing, “and much camaraderie,” as the poster advertising the event confidently predicted.

Actually, it’s a double birthday with a nice symmetry about it. Because while the town’s turning 241, SOHO is exactly 200 years younger — 41 this year.

I nab Alana. She’s an attractive, vital woman who radiates enthusiasm and a sense of humor but also determination. I ask about the graffiti and why the California Theatre looks as if it’s on its last legs.

“Blame the Museum of Contemporary Art!” she says. “They sponsored that graffiti. Part of their big exhibition of street art. Public art. On buildings. That’s fine, but the first building they did is the California Theatre. They had permission from the owner — the owner, by the way, who wants nothing more than to demolish this building. I can hardly believe they did it. It is giant graffiti. Ugly, ugly giant graffiti, as if someone did major tags. I don’t care how many times they want to call it cool, contemporary, public art that only sophisticated people could possibly understand, it’s bullshit. It’s crap. Even if it were good art, to paint it right on the building, over the windows, over the wood on the building? It’s supposed to be temporary, it can be washed off, but everyone says, ‘How can it be temporary?’ And washed off? Where does that silver paint go? To feed the dolphins? We just hope that when people see the theater, and the disgusting thing they did to it, maybe they’ll wake up and realize you really do have to help us save these things. SOHO can’t do it all.”

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Comments

SaraiJohnson Sept. 29, 2010 @ 1:19 p.m.

Bill Manson, are you a part of the solution or part of the problem?

Preserving our culture and important sites is our civic duty. What will our city look like in a thousand years if people just sit around and complain, let's get busy and work together.

Respectfully, Sarai Johnson

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archtours Sept. 29, 2010 @ 2:35 p.m.

So let me get this straight, SOHO has done a great job and they are one of the only groups fighting for preservation in the county, but you are attacking them for not winning every fight? And the only people you could find to criticize them are a former board member who was kicked out and a developer from South Africa?

The Reader's muckraking isn't what it used to be.

Long live SOHO!

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mromano18 Sept. 29, 2010 @ 3:28 p.m.

Wow, ok. In reading this article the thought occurred to me that there may be a secret alliance of history-hating developers paying off this guy. Or that once he was exploring a beautiful Queen Anne Victorian over in Golden Hill and a termite-eaten beam hit him in the head. Maybe both.

First of all, San Diego is damn lucky to even have an org like SOHO that wields any kind of influence. Many historic cities and towns in CA have been completely obliterated into seas of sprawl, malls and highrises, with only a kitschy downtown preserved as an afterthought (nearby Temecula is a good example, without the highrises).

Obviously the Mills act doesn't contribute to gentrification. Look at OH, EVERY GENTRIFIED NEIGHBORHOOD IN SAN DIEGO (East village [really depressing nowadays], North Park, Hillcrest, La Jolla [especially sad here with the multi-storeys obstructing the waterfront])- all "improved" by obliterating old buildings and installing massive, incongruous new ones. Property values are kept depressed by historic designations, because you can't turn a 3-bedroom Craftsman into a 400-unit condo complex when you can't tear it down... EXACTLY LIKE MILLS SAID.

The "Anglo" argument about Old Town in ludicrous. One could also argue that the banally reconstructed 60s simulacrum of a "Mexican" Old Town is far more "anglo" because it represented what the white tourists wanted to see. I'm frankly shocked that this didn't occur to Ortiz or the writer. Stripping it of modern constructs is exactly the point of SOHO managing the project.

In the end, Mills is right. SD development is just about money and not about charm, authenticity, or art/architecture and its inherent cultural value. Moving to SF, bye

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David Dodd Sept. 29, 2010 @ 3:35 p.m.

SOHO has outlived its usefulness. The few buildings that should be saved are saved. You don't want to save everything, sometimes you take a lot of photographs and call in the bulldozers. It isn't progress you fight when you try to preserve all of this, it's economics. Save some of the buildings and allow creative destruction to run its will on the rest.

So far as Old Town, you're talking about archaeology now. How far deep down do you want to dig? Does it really need to represent the "DNA" of the region? Then, erect some teepees and serve buffalo meat and sell American Indian jewelry.

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Rabid_Koala Sept. 29, 2010 @ 4:21 p.m.

I'd just like to point out my disgust at the term "Barrio Logan". Folks, the area is properly called Logan Heights. Please use the actual correct term and not the politically correct one.

Thanks.

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HonestGovernment Sept. 29, 2010 @ 6:14 p.m.

Great article: I have a good example of SOHO's phony positioning, in order to promote one of their friend's political goals. Will post it tomorrow or soon, when I get the time.

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mrtboner Sept. 29, 2010 @ 7:37 p.m.

Nice article but San Diego is named for saint didacus, not saint James.

1

Fred Williams Sept. 29, 2010 @ 9:46 p.m.

I'm mostly a fan of SOHO.

Bill Manson wrote a very good article. It is broadly sympathetic to SOHO while describing some of its accomplishments and failures. It's far from a hit piece.

So the comments attacking his character are unwarranted. He's a writer, not a publicist. Sarai, by writing about SOHO he's drawing attention to the issue as well as the organization, which is the only way solutions are found.

As to the portrait of the Coons, the author seemed complimentary. "You wouldn’t want to cross him — he’d slay you with a devastating barrage of facts." I wouldn't mind being described like that, especially if I'm forced to operate in the cesspool of San Diego politics.

Jim Mills doesn't get quoted enough today, though we should all be listening to him more. I appreciate the author taking the time to get his frank views on our "for sale or for rent" elected officials.

The effort to preserve noteworthy structures from our past is worth it. SOHO, warts and all, has done quite a lot of good...making mistakes and deals along the way, no doubt.

On balance, I'm glad SOHO exists and that this dedicated band of mostly volunteers takes on the hard work to preserve San Diego's history where they can.

After all, compared to the stadiums, ballparks, convention centers, "luxury" condo boxes, and hosting golf and political party nominations, the public costs (or lost opportunity costs) of historical preservation are miniscule.

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luxem Sept. 29, 2010 @ 11:13 p.m.

Bill Munson:

What a horribly confusing and muddled piece you've written.

You ask "Where’s the human chain surrounding the place, shouting, “Hell no! We won’t go!”' You should tell us just who does that sort of thing any more. Name one credible preservationist group in this country who stages stunts like that. The answer is no one. It doesn't work and likely has never saved a building from going down.

Tell us what option was left unexplored other than chaining humans to bulldozers to save the San Diego Hotel? You didn't mention the city wide opposition--including CCDC--to this demolition. Homeland Security ruled that building was going down, and that was it. The same card was pulled out for the destructive Boarder Fence project. Yet you say more could have been done? Where were you to volunteer YOURSELF as a strap-on to a bulldozer--and to face the Bush Administration as a potential "terrorist?" SOHO went to the Supreme Court with the border fence issue.

About your misinformation on Warner's Ranch. SOHO has done a lot for Warner's Ranch and it is being saved and restored right now. What school of journalism teaches "make it up" if all else fails?

Honestly, all this spaghetti you've tossed on the wall is very hard to sort through. You've buried a number of SOHO's achievements so deep in the article, just so you could make these sensational statements about your wish to see your "human chain" for a headline

Would you like to point even one historical landmark in San Diego where SOHO or its members weren't involved with saving?

Again, a very sloppy, misguided--and cynical presentation. In fact there are so many errors along with pure fiction here, a retraction should be offered.

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HonestGovernment Sept. 30, 2010 @ 7:28 a.m.

Re the Mills Act and taxes ["a significant and growing loss of tax revenue to the city via the Mills Act property tax reassessments (20%-70% per parcel)]": everyone should go back a few years and read the March 2008 Grand Jury Report findings:

"Our investigation revealed that the main reasons for individual property owners to seek historic designation for their property are: 1. Large houses that are out of scale for the neighborhood. 2. Nostalgia for a relative’s family house. 3. A real interest in history. 4. For speculative purposes. (After reassessment the owner can sell the property at a significant profit due to a lowered property tax assessment.) 5. To save on taxes. The fourth reason given above seems to be the most prevalent: a significant number of the properties that the HRB investigates have been recently purchased. While the first reason might have its own logic, we fail to see what it has to do with history. Family estates may hold lots of fond memories for the immediate family, but how much history does it contain for San Diego? According to figures provided by the San Diego County Tax Assessors Office, with respect to the number of properties designated as historic, the City of San Diego compares with some other cities in the state of California as follows:

San Diego 676 Los Angeles 265 Glendale 20 San Francisco 2 Coronado 27"

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HonestGovernment Sept. 30, 2010 @ 9:12 a.m.

Fred, I agree that SOHO is a valuable organization. But as usual in San Diego, even the good things are tainted by self-serving people. SOHO has members from Greater Golden Hill who are also on the board of, or are members of, the GGH Community Development Corp. Thus SOHO published an article (author unnamed, but pretty sure it was one of the CDC people) that had incorrect historical info, to further a particular goal of the CDC. The GGHCDC people had long wanted to "restore" the remains of an old fountain that was installed in Golden Hill park in 1907/1908. They obtained grant money for the fountain from San Diego Foundation in 1998, but no one seems to know where that money went, and the fountain wasn't restored. In 2007, the GGHCDC got a maintenance assessment district imposed on 3500 property owners in GGH (~488K/year), and published their plan to use some of those assessment funds to restore the fountain. That was not legal, of course, being that the fountain is on City-owned property and outside of the assessment district.

Nevertheless, the PR campaign was full speed ahead, employing Ken Kramer (who reported that it would require over $100K to restore the fountain)and SOHO. The SOHO article (http://sohosandiego.org/endangered/mel2009/fountain.htm) incorrectly stated that the fountain was on the National Register. It is not. The article incorrectly attributes the fountain (a 4-foot-diameter non-native rock pit down in a ravine) "site" to architect Henry Lord Gay, but there is no proof of that. It says the "native stone and concrete stairs are decomposing" but they are not: they are as solid and ugly as they always were. And laughably, the article complains that the "view from the road is blocked by random, rogue bushes." Well, that's because the whole thing was originally constructed in a ravine. When SOHO allows itself to be used for propaganda, and publishes historically incorrect PR puff pieces, to benefit groups who want tax dollars to pay for some project, they destroy their credibility as a true historic preservation group.

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HonestGovernment Sept. 30, 2010 @ 9:28 a.m.

The saddest loss in San Diego was the 1899 Carnegie Library:

https://www.sandiegohistory.org/timeline/images/fep102.jpg

Andrew Carnegie donated $60,000 to build San Diego Public Library, the first of his libraries west of the Mississippi. It opened in 1902 at Eighth and E. It was demolished in 1952, to build our current downtown library. Unbelievable. We could have retained it and built a new, larger library. Anyone know why that didn't happen that way?

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Hardcover Sept. 30, 2010 @ 1:34 p.m.

The Carnegie library was removed for several reasons: there were no historic preservation groups then. Even if there were, people would have said "it's only 50 years old, it's not like it's Mount Vernon or something". Also the City owned the land free and clear in what was a fairly built out area. And people wanted a new building.

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luxem Sept. 30, 2010 @ 2:52 p.m.

The March 2008 Grand Jury report was paid for, one way or another, by developers. It was nothing but a propaganda piece to promote their agenda of destroying our historic neighborhoods and doing infill with tall condo towers. The Mills Act is Mr. McNamara's boogie man. He's not an economics professor, but seems to think he is.

0

uuhclem Sept. 30, 2010 @ 4:11 p.m.

I picked up a copy of the Reader today...I quote from a FaceBook post from The Reader:

"This week's cover is about the classic naked ladies of balboa park", but, alas, nary a mention of said ladies in the article. What a shame. I thought I would read about some insight as to their origin, current public thoughts and reactions, and their future... In fact there was no mention of the buildings in Balboa Park at all. Was it edited out? ...so just who IS looking out for these Ladies??? Do I make an assumption that it is SOHO???

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historidora Oct. 1, 2010 @ 9:21 a.m.

If SOHO would once exhibit humility in their claims of saving 'everything' they might not be so vilified. In their zeal to become all things (perceivably) to all people (read megalomania), they have lost sight of other important resources that are not to their liking. If they were truly honest they would admit their failings, and reasons for same, and generously give credit where credit is due. Preservation is not a 'business', its a genuine non-profit commitment. Maybe an audit is the offing?

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HonestGovernment Oct. 1, 2010 @ 10:27 a.m.

16, Just about everything in San Diego is paid for, one way or another, by developers...including SOHO. The Grand Jury, however, is not an arm of the developer community, even if some developer was on the GJ. Get honest about your claims.

Among SOHO's members are many, many builders, architects, and developers, all of whom make a living by remodeling, building, and developing. Some of what is done is great, and much appreciated. But the abuse of the Mills Act in San Diego by these same people, courtesy of their friends in the City, is unprecedented and harmful. These SOHO-loyal Mills Act tax-break recipients have a network of developer/realtor friends who make a living "researching" properties and obtaining the necessary info at the ridiculously low bar-level set by the City to get the tax break. They blatantly advertise the great deal that can be had due to this tax break in the real estate ads. Even "Mills Act eligible!" is proffered as a justification for exorbitant pricing for-sale properties. Almost every one of the tax-break recipients can well afford to enhance their properties without the tax break. One of them whom I personally know receives over $7000/year in tax break, and still has plenty of money to vacation several times a year - the Galapagos, Japan, and Hawaii, just this year. They could and should pay their tax share, too.

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Hardcover Oct. 1, 2010 @ 1:27 p.m.

In case you don't know, SOHO has fought against the worst abuses of the Mills Act, such as the big house in Coronado which shall not be named due to this site's rules. But please C. You don't have to take every non-profit in town down just becase you are annoyed at paying $60 to the Golden Hill MAD.

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Hardcover Oct. 1, 2010 @ 1:37 p.m.

And, by the way, anybody can join SOHO. I hope you are not suggesting that they ban realtors, developers, or historic home owners who might want to sell their house from joining. Because that's where your comments are headed.

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HonestGovernment Oct. 1, 2010 @ 7:25 p.m.

HC: I think our respective eponymous creations say it all. You are worlds apart from what I believe is good or what I deem worthy of much attention. Coyness will get you a nest of raccoons.

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Erik Oct. 2, 2010 @ 4:39 a.m.

I don't know how you can be "worlds apart" from old books and still be a literate human over 30, because that is the obvious origin of my name. And I call BS on your conspiracy theory and a retraction from you would be in order. I wrote most of what you or anyone has read about the GH fountain, including the "rogue bushes" line. I've been at it (including getting it on a SOHO home tour) since before the MAD was a twinkle in anyone's eye. Please disassociate that fountain's history with your politics. And I have never once been to a GHCDC meeting, could not say with confidence who a single board member or staffer there is, have never been to their offices since they moved from B'way, and have never been a member. I knew who you were right away, because you are the only person in the world has had a bad thing to say about that fountain. Everybody else (who has seen it) thinks its cool. I'm sorry your "world fell apart" because you had to pay $60 per year. And you must be mighty annoyed with your failure to turn GH into tea-bag-central. And if you are truly a fan of honest government, SOHO's legal fund is always taking contributions, because that is what the current lawsuit is about.

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luxem Oct. 4, 2010 @ 6:11 p.m.

Mr. McNamara, get over it. You lost the Mills Act debate. This is 2010; nearly 2011--not 2008. Move on to new issues.

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Gregory May Oct. 14, 2010 @ 9:24 a.m.

"Preservation" depends on all of us who care about our town. If you see something amiss, say something... do something! REPORT IT! Bitching and blaming about one organization who is here to help us in this area is not a solution. If you think "SOHO is soft", then, join SOHO. Take action. Do YOUR part.

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