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But is SOHO doing anything?

“The California Theatre is on our Most Endangered list. Ownership recently transferred to an out-of-town investment firm after the previous owner, another investment company, went bankrupt. We’re trying to find someone to buy the building, to restore it as a performing-arts center…the Balboa is a big success. You would think that once people saw that they’d go, ‘Oh. All right.’”

She says the California is San Diego’s most ornate Spanish revival treasure. It leaves the beautifully restored Balboa, two blocks down at Fourth and E, in the dust. The California is more ornately decorated, and big (originally, there were 2200 seats). It could be the largest movie space in town, twice as interesting as the Balboa. And that’s saying something. For a moment I imagine it revived to its former glory, pilasters and sculptures and clamshell fountain niches….

“Bruce had the best idea,” Alana says. “He thinks the city should buy it and turn it into City Hall. It’s large enough, it’s a showpiece of San Diego culture, and it would send an outstanding preservation message across the country.”

We go looking for Bruce among the gathered families and the flowerbeds of giant hydrangeas, magnificent in shades of pink. He’s standing on the porch of a little old house behind the main brick Whaley structure. This one is part timber, part…adobe? “It’s a prefab,” Bruce says, “built in New England and brought around the Horn in 1850.” Stories fall from Bruce’s lips at the slightest prompting. “William Heath Davis and his partners, including Juan Bandini, bought a bunch of these to create the first part of New Town [down by the Bay]. Then the New Town venture collapsed in 1852, and it became a ghost town.” This house was moved up here to Old Town. “Then Bandini built the adobe section, which was the Chinese cooks’ house. Let me show you something.”

He hauls me over to where a portion of a door has been scraped to bare wood. Here they’ve found carved Chinese characters. “We just discovered this. It says something like ‘Chinese man does good work.’ But we’re getting an expert to translate.”

We sit down in Bruce’s office in the adobe part of the old cookhouse, built onto the back of the 160-year-old New England prefab. “It’s coolest here in summer,” he says. This is the nerve center for a big operation these days. According to the Reader’s Don Bauder, in a June 2004 piece about the Coonses’ leadership, the budget went from $4000 to $500,000 in the four years Bruce had been running the show, and membership quadrupled. Today, maybe a half-dozen interns and others are busying themselves at desks and computers. A drawing Robert Miles Parker did of the California Theatre in better times hangs on one wall; an old kerosene wall lamp with an electric bulb inside its glass chute dangles dangerously; piles of paperwork and people’s bags and sunglasses clutter the desks. A shallow, wide-brimmed straw Chinese peasant’s hat keeps dust off a printer.

Coons has blue eyes and a fresh, ruddy complexion that makes him look young. But there’s also something of the eagle in his face. You wouldn’t want to cross him — he’d slay you with a devastating barrage of facts.

There’s no doubt that SOHO has done incredible work since Robert Miles Parker’s “Save Me!” sign. We owe for the survival of icons now taken for granted, like the Santa Fe Depot, the Western Metal Supply building (which gives Petco Park such character), and Heritage Park near Old Town, where old houses have gone not to die but to become a living museum. Parker’s Sherman-Gilbert House is one of these. It belonged to John Sherman, cousin of General William Tecumseh Sherman. Arthur Rubinstein and Yehudi Menuhin have given recitals there. And it’s clear it has rarely been easy, taking on City Hall, or “big money.” Saving the Balboa Theatre took decades (and SOHO was by no means alone in that fight).

Not all fights are won. An attempt to save the T.M. Cobb building, home of the First and Last Chance Saloon, at the bottom of Fifth — across from the Spaghetti Factory — almost bankrupted SOHO, Coons says. They failed against a team of lawyers for the owners of the Empire State Building, who wanted the land. The Cobb building was demolished right under the arch that reads “Gaslamp Historic District.”

Then, in 1997 — and this seems unbelievable — the Hotel Del Coronado was about to disappear behind four-story additions on all sides that would have blocked it from everything, including the sea, and destroyed its 1888 ancillary buildings, including the old steam laundry with its iconic chimney stack. Bruce, Alana, and the whole SOHO gang pulled out all the stops, going door to door to warn unbelieving Coronadans, telling them what the new owner, Travelers Insurance, was about to do to “their” Del. Coons still considers that victory their greatest ever.

Perhaps more significant was how they managed to bend the Padres’ ownership and the city to their will on the warehouse district. Including a Victorian industrial building like Western Metal into the design of a brand-new ballpark, along with saving 11 of 12 historic warehouses in the area slated for demolition, sent shock waves through the planning and architectural and sports worlds. The discovery that incorporating the past enhances big developments provided a watershed moment for designers, especially coming from a “new” city like San Diego. It’s the Western Metal building that sets our ballpark apart, even more than the design by its world-famous architect, Antoine Predock.

But what to make of the setbacks? Has SOHO been too genteel in its protests? Too used to persuasion and the legal route, rather than direct action? The famed Green Dragon Colony of La Jolla was an important early loss. And those two oldest cottages in La Jolla, Red Rest and Red Roost, remain empty, still deteriorating structurally after 35 years of struggle. Lawyers for the owners are now offering them for sale for $10 million each. At least they’re still up. SOHO has managed to get its hands on civic pioneer George Marston’s house at the edge of Balboa Park, and that’s prospering, but the equally important Villa Montezuma languishes in a dangerous state of decay, just beyond their reach. In its early years, SOHO helped save this brilliantly colorful, weirdly wonderful 1887 Queen Anne mansion, while the City and the San Diego Historical Society juggled its management. (Recently a cash-strapped Historical Society passed it back to the cash-strapped City.) Bruce, who claims SOHO isn’t cash-strapped, would love to gain control of Villa Montezuma before it’s beyond saving. “I think we’ve shown with the Whaley House and the Marston House that we can handle this sort of thing,” he says. (In five years SOHO turned the Whaley House into the most successful house museum in the county, with seven thousand visitors during the period. It was granted management control of the Marston House after February 2009, when the Historical Society had to give it up due to financial difficulties. Yet SOHO still can’t get its hands on the equally important Villa Montezuma.)

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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


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!


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


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.


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.



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.


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

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


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.


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.


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"


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.


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

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


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?


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.


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.


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???


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?


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


dwbat March 17, 2016 @ 4:25 p.m.

The whining and moaning to "save" the California Theatre continues, even though (1) it's not needed and (2) it is a lost cause. It is NEVER going to be restored, even if someone were to raise the $50 million to do it. After 25 years being vacant, It's time to let this eyesore-crap be demolished, and let a developer put up a unique building that will be a jewel in the downtown areas. The people who yell the loudest probably don't regularly patronize the many theaters we already have in San Diego, like the Balboa, Spreckels, Liceum at Horton Plaza, Civic, La Jolla Playhouse, Globe, etc. Why aren't the California Theatre cheerleaders instead out raising money for the constantly-used buildings in Balboa Park that need updating?


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