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 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.”
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.
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.