• Story alerts
  • Letter to Editor
  • Pin it

When La Jolla architect Jeffrey Shorn met with San Diego Gas & Electric Co., officials in downtown's East Village in early 1997 to discuss becoming a consultant, he was impressed by the utility's decades-old offices, brick warehouses, 1920s power poles, and other structures. The "most handsome" building, in Shorn's opinion, Station A, at the corner of Imperial and Ninth Avenues, was the one SDG&E planned to demolish to more easily clean as much as 75,000 tons of contaminated soil underneath.

His preservationist tendencies, Shorn speculated, probably nixed his chances of being hired by the utility, which is a bit ironic. SDG&E prides itself for helping protect its architectural treasures, such as Stations B and C, elsewhere downtown. But in the East Village, the utility needed to raze several buildings it deemed historically insignificant as part of a massive environmental cleanup started in 1995. By clearing and cleaning the 11.5 acres it had acquired over a century in East Village, SDG&E could better market its largely unused properties.

Shorn was disappointed to learn, later in 1997, that SDG&E persuaded San Diego city council members to rescind the historic designation of Station A's north and west walls. As a compromise to the city's Historical Site Board, the utility carefully dismantled and set aside those two façades' 32,000 bricks, doors, arched windows, lintels, and other design elements.

Little did Shorn know Station A stood next to the proposed site for the Padres' baseball stadium. Nor did he know the buildings he evaluated would form a battle zone for team officials and history buffs. SDG&E executives, including Mark Nelson, local government affairs director for parent company Sempra Energy, say they didn't know either -- that they didn't start negotiating a real estate sale with the Padres until early this year. The city had planned to convert the industrial East Village into a residential neighborhood since 1992, but talk of a sports complex circulated too. "SDG&E just wanted everything leveled so they could sell their property. They didn't save two walls of Station A. They saved two piles of bricks," Shorn declared.

Now stacked in a nearby shed, those bricks represent a cornerstone in a deal recently struck by the Padres, the City of San Diego, the National Trust for Historic Preservation, and Save Our Heritage Organisation (SOHO). Under a settlement agreement designed to prevent local and national preservationists from suing the city and the Padres for destroying historic buildings to make way for a stadium, Station A's two walls might be reassembled -- most likely as adornments to parking garages for baseball fans.

Officers of the National Trust and Save Our Heritage joined Padres executives and city bureaucrats in lauding the agreement as a way to save East Village landmarks. "This agreement enables us to preserve some of the character of the area," said Padres president Larry Lucchino. "This project has always been more than a ballpark." Development director Greg Shannon described the "adaptive reuse" and preservation of 11 buildings and announced plans to create a permanent display of the neighborhood's history.

Stripped of its public relations façade, however, the agreement reveals a shaky foundation. The product of secret negotiations spanning three months, the 33-page document fails to guarantee that any buildings will be saved. Assuming they are, some will be radically altered -- in a few cases moved -- without provisions for maintenance or continued preservation. What's more, the city council has not approved the deal, though various city officials have signed the papers. Critics say the National Trust and Save Our Heritage caved in by empowering the Padres to tear away so much of the neighborhood's historic fabric and unusual ambiance.

National Trust and Save Our Heritage officers term the agreement "the best achievable alternative for preserving historic resources." Several months ago, both nonprofit groups supported another alternative, planting the stadium's footprint two blocks east and leaving the buildings intact and untouched, under the ParkBayDiagonal Collaborative's urban design plan. They advocated moving the ballpark in June, during a press conference announcing the Trust's addition of San Diego's Arts and Warehouse District to its list of "America's most endangered historic places." To dramatize the destruction the ballpark would wreak, preservationists spoke outside the Showley Brothers Candy Factory, a historic landmark at 305 Eighth Street scheduled for demolition.

Despite their anger and embarrassment from the national publicity, Padres executives made it clear they would not budge the stadium one inch and excluded ParkBayDiagonal Collaborative members from negotiations. Consequently, the Candy Factory must move under the settlement agreement, which constrains preservationists while giving the Padres great latitude in modifying historic buildings and dropping the agreement entirely. Key provisions include:

-- Barring the National Trust and Save Our Heritage from suing the Padres or the city for destroying historic resources.

-- Requiring Richard Moe, the Trust's president, to prepare a radio broadcast promoting historic preservation features of the ballpark.

-- Allowing the Padres to suspend their obligations if the stadium is challenged by a lawsuit or referendum but holding preservationists to their public relations duties.

-- Ensuring demolition of one historic landmark, the "Spanish eclectic" SDG&E office at 114 Tenth Avenue.

-- Setting a cost limit on moving the Candy Factory, which, if exceeded, could result in demolition.

-- Encasing the five-story Western Metal Supply Co. building at 215 Seventh Avenue within the stadium and adapting it to provide skyboxes, a ticket office, and souvenir store.

Bruce Henderson, a former city councilman who works as a lawyer in Pacific Beach, said he is most disturbed by the agreement's clauses forbidding individual employees and officials of the National Trust and Save Our Heritage from challenging the stadium. "I can't imagine being an employee of an organization and being told that my rights as a citizen are being taken away from me," Henderson said. "This deals with an important public issue, and the agreement prevents people from talking. It's a violation of public policy. You have an agreement full of holes and a radio announcement about how wonderful it is."

  • Story alerts
  • Letter to Editor
  • Pin it


Sign in to comment

Win a $25 Gift Card to
The Broken Yolk Cafe

Join our newsletter list

Each newsletter subscription means another chance to win!