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.
Along with May, Aliotti, and other veteran community activists, percussionist Stephen P. Karo Jr. feels strongly the Balboa should remain under public ownership. The city has spent an estimated $5 million over the years to acquire and maintain the building. Many people point to Karo as the sole reason the theater remains standing and intact. As founder of Save Our Balboa and its successor organization, the Balboa Theatre Foundation, Karo grew so frustrated and exhausted from battling inappropriate plans improvised by developers and Centre City Development Corp., he took a break.
But, after 13 years of protest, Karo couldn't quite forget the Balboa. While playing drums for Madison Square Garden's 1998-1999 tour of The Wizard of Oz, Karo found himself in more than a dozen historic theaters nationwide. He spent his time off researching old vaudeville palaces and movie theaters, learning many are owned by their respective cities for the benefit of arts organizations. For example, the City of Phoenix bought the Orpheum from a developer to create a community forum, Karo noted. "Here, in San Diego, it's the opposite situation. CCDC is dumping it on a developer. If a commercial developer has to restore the building, he has to get profit out of it. Sooner or later, the developer is going to start losing money, and he'll look for other ways to use it. That's in direct conflict with using it for the arts," Karo said. "These types of projects need government involvement and committed arts donors. It's not going to work as a commercial project."
Under the current proposal, there would be limits as to which local nonprofit arts groups could use the Balboa Theatre when. Although the Balboa Theatre Arts & Education Fund would own 49 percent of the building, it would have access one-third of the time. The fund's 120 performance nights a year would represent its $4.5 million contribution, or roughly one-third of the cost of renovating the building. That time would be divided among six nonprofit organizations making up the fund: California Ballet, Christian Community Theater, San Diego Chamber Orchestra, San Diego Comic Opera, and the San Diego Men's and Women's Choruses. Mayleas and other fund officials would not identify the sixth group, a mystery performer lurking in the wings. Should the fund have difficulty raising $4.5 million, its ownership of the Balboa would shrink, but its members would still have access to the stage.
"It's very much a private club," said Javier Velasco, director of San Diego Ballet. "There was never an open forum for the arts groups to get together to talk about the Balboa. If these six organizations get a little home for themselves, great, that's wonderful, more power to them." Velasco himself was party to a similar private club several years ago, when a few nonprofit performance groups tried to form a partnership with the for-profit Abbott Brothers Development Inc. to reopen the Balboa. That proposal eventually disintegrated as participants tried to develop a fair arrangement, and Velasco struggled with such mathematical formulas as, "If my organization raises $5000 and yours raises $50,000, how do we split the time? Will an arts organization that raises money have more clout than one that doesn't? What if a new organization is created several years from now, and they want to use the theater? It seemed a little bit of a too unwieldy octopus to me."
Mayleas acknowledged that "bickering and squabbling" are likely to erupt as the organizations schedule performance dates. "It's inevitable, but everyone will get an equal break over time. They'll do Nutcracker [ballet] one year and Messiah [concert] the next year."
The fund's six members would have 120 days at a reduced rate of roughly $1500 a day. Other local nonprofit groups that help raise money for the Balboa would be allowed to share in those days at the same price. Nonprofit groups that don't participate in fundraising could rent the theater the remaining 245 days at commercial rates. If they can't afford the higher cost, they could seek a subsidy to cover the amount exceeding $1500. The Balboa Theatre Arts & Education Fund plans to create a $3 million scholarship reserve for that purpose. "If we rented the Balboa for $1500 a day all year, the theater would go broke," Mayleas explained. The plan also calls for a third party, the San Diego Convention Center, to manage the Balboa and book performances, thereby reducing arguments among nonprofits.
Despite potential for conflict, Jan Hicks Manos is optimistic. "This is the closest we've ever gotten to including nonprofits in a plan for restoring the Balboa." Yet the San Diego actress has more reason than anyone to be pessimistic. Many decades ago Manos's grandfather, Robert Ernest Hicks, built several theaters, including the Balboa, to create a performing-arts district downtown. During the 1980s, the city destroyed much of Hicks's life's work, including the Plaza and Cabrillo theaters, to make way for Horton Plaza shopping center. Other historic theaters downtown, including the Fisher Opera House, Orpheum, Savoy, and the old Lyceum toppled under the wrecking ball for redevelopment. "We lost so many," Manos said. "They just mowed them over. I wasn't downtown for a long while because it hurt so bad to see it."
Inspired by the outcry of other activists, Manos joined Balboa Theatre Foundation in 1990 and became its president in 1994. "I was like a gadfly at CCDC [Centre City Development Corp.] about that roof," she said. The city finally replaced the Balboa's roof last year, but water still seeps in where the theater connects to Horton Plaza. "Restoration is necessary to save the building," Manos said. "The two proposals were almost mirror images of each other. It made good sense to marry them. It's going to be a harmonious mix. All the people are simpatico." Assuming the players remain in agreement, the foundation would change its mission from saving the building to operating a museum within the Balboa dedicated to the memory of San Diego's existing and former theaters.
La Jolla architect Jeffrey Shorn said he is enthused about the plans, but he isn't holding his breath. Many proposals have tried and failed, Shorn said, because it is so difficult to unify the disparate interests of preservationists who tend to be purists, artists, and profit-driven real estate developers. With little or no financial backing from the city, many inappropriate uses, ranging from an IMAX theater to a cabaret, have been suggested for the Balboa.
Shorn himself debuted in the comedy of errors in 1986, when he helped design an art museum that would have removed seats, flattened the raked floor, added three or four levels of galleries, and changed the theater's use. "Our proposal became very controversial. We were maligned and ridiculed," Shorn recalled. "The good thing about that job was it did bring out the preservationists and arts people to save the theater. Everyone came out of the woodwork." Lack of city involvement has often compromised San Diego's historic buildings, Shorn said. "Centre City Development Corp. can find all the money in the world -- hundreds of millions of dollars -- to do a baseball stadium, but they can't come up with a penny, or a measly $12 million, to restore a historically important theater. That tells you the priorities of San Diego."