“The vote was 5 to 1 in favor of [historic] designation. It needed all 6 votes to pass.”
  • “The vote was 5 to 1 in favor of [historic] designation. It needed all 6 votes to pass.”
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On June 23, the City of San Diego's Historic Resources Board met to decide the fate of three painted murals on downtown’s historic California Theatre at 1122 Fourth Avenue.

Bruce Coons, executive director of Save Our Heritage Organisation, attended the hearing and said that the murals just missed getting the six votes needed for historic designation.

“The vote was 5 to 1 in favor of designation. It needed all 6 votes to pass,” said Coons. “The board is supposed to have 11 members but only has 8 members now. One member not there most likely would have voted for designation; he’s normally the chair. And another recused themselves because their firm had a financial interest in the development.”

The murals, c. early '60s

image courtesy of Vintage San Diego

The mural getting the most attention is the Caliente sign on the west façade of the theater. The community attended the April board meeting to share their stories of what the mural meant to them. While no historic designation was voted on at that time, Coons said that everyone on the board indicated that the mural was historic. “The meeting in April had the best testimony,” said Coons, “the one last week was more of a technical meeting with a much lower community attendance.”

“Tom Larimer was the boardmember that voted against designation. His reason was that Alessio was a criminal and that we can’t glorify criminals.”

Larimer’s smoking gun was a bit misleading, said Coons. Alessio was a major figure in San Diego and Tijuana, with Mister A's and the revitalization of Caliente. Coons explained that Alessio was convicted of not paying U.S. taxes on the money he made in Mexico and left in Mexico.

“The job of each historic board member when determining designation is one thing only, to decide if a site is historic or not, and nothing else,” said Coons. “Larimer is completely unqualified. And Mayor Faulconer wants to reappoint him even though there have been complaints levied against Larimer. He has derailed quite a few historic buildings in his tenure. His colleagues on the board were pleading with him on Thursday [June 23] about why he was voting against designation.

“Historic board members must have a demonstrated interest in historic preservation. The majority of the mayor’s list of appointees don’t have this. The mayor has put forward a list of mainly developers. He’s put two members of the Building Industry Association on the list and others that have no qualifications to be on the board. The local AIA [American Institute of Architects] and SOHO [Save Our Heritage Organisation] have complained about the list along with others. A letter was sent to the mayor but he has been stonewalling us.”

"The Overture" will take the place of the California Theatre

image courtesy of Cyrus Sanandaji

When asked about plans to appeal, Coons said, “The community is not allowed to appeal the non-designation decision, but the property owner could have appealed a historic designation decision if it had gone that way.”

After the decision on June 23, Cyrus Sanandaji, principal with the ownership of the theater, said, “We are pleased with the decision of the Historic Resources Board and we look forward to continuing the environmental review process to obtain our site development permit.”

Sanandaji’s plans include the demolition of the California Theatre and the construction of a new mixed-use development called The Overture by 2018. He said it will pay homage to the past by replicating historic external features as well as having a community space where artifacts from the theater's past will be displayed.

Of the 282 units, 22 are planned for affordable housing.

image courtesy of Cyrus Sanandaji

When asked about the possibility of preserving the painted signs in some way, Sanandaji said, “The signs are located on load-bearing walls and the Caliente sign in particular has very large dimensions. It is not physically practical to cut that amount of material out of the building to relocate elsewhere.”

As far as the homeless people that sleep around the theater, Sanandaji said he intends to work with local outreach organizations to relocate and assist them. Sanandaji also said that 22 of the nearly 300 residential units will be set aside for affordable housing.

I attempted to contact the mayor, the city’s communications department, and Historic Resources Board for comment but as of publication they had not returned calls.

A petition is circulating with more than 1500 signatures that will be sent to Civic San Diego and to councilmember Todd Gloria’s office when 2500 signatures are reached.

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dwbat June 28, 2016 @ 11:51 a.m.

There's a question that remains unanswered: Of the people protesting and signing the petition, how many of them buy tickets regularly at the many fine theaters we already have in SD: Balboa, Spreckels, Lyceum, Civic, Old Globe, La Jolla Playhouse, etc. Spending many $millions to renovate the California Theatre makes no sense at all, financially or from a preservation standpoint. It's a rotting pile of junk. The petition circulator, Dawn N. Griffin, has an ulterior motive. She wants to open up "Davenports Supper Club & VIP Cigar Lounge" if the California Theatre is renovated (highly unlikely at this point). So there's no other building in SD where she could operate such a business?


Hardcover June 28, 2016 @ 12:43 p.m.

Speaking for myself, I have attended each of the theatres you list many times. As well as the California itself. Ironically, two of the theatres you mention have mounted productions at the California, perhaps they know something you don't. The lady from Davenports is one of five groups that have made market-rate offers on the building, she is just the most outspoken one. Why don't you let the pros that would actually be restoring the theatre with their own money or financing be the judge of what is restorable? Obviously, you have an even bigger conflict that you are not discussing. Nobody gets to be that much of an anti-preservationist without one.


dwbat June 28, 2016 @ 1:43 p.m.

Nope, no conflict. Simply put: Not every old building in a city needs preserving. This is one that doesn't. The theater is NOT needed. Stop kicking a dead horse; it's past time to bury it.


dwbat June 28, 2016 @ 3:08 p.m.

Exactly, aardvark. I'm NOT an "anti-preservationist" as Hardcover stated. But as they say, one has to pick one's battles carefully. If developers wanted to demolish Spreckels Theatre or Spreckels Organ Pavilion, I'd be marching with others in the protest. Some preservation extremists might think the old Pac Bell building at Texas St. and Howard Ave. should be preserved. Thank goodness it's now in the process of demolition. It's been an awful eyesore in North Park for years.


dwbat June 30, 2016 @ 5:41 p.m.

It's amusing that many preservationists think California Theatre is the "crown jewel" of San Diego theaters. But it's NOT. That description belongs to the ornate Spreckels Theatre, which cost about three times what the California cost. John Spreckels built classy, expensive structures, including his beautiful office building at 625 Broadway (which will soon become upscale apartments).


Julie Stalmer April 4, 2017 @ 4:51 p.m.

The city council approved of the developers project today.


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