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Time's about up for California Theatre

“There is significant downtown interest and support for demolishing this blighted site."

Front of California Theatre, Fourth Avenue
Front of California Theatre, Fourth Avenue

The crumbling and leaky California Theatre building, at 1122 Fourth Avenue (at C St.), built in 1927 at a cost of $340,000, has sat vacant since 1990. SOHO (Save Our Heritage Organisation) is fighting to preserve the historic property. But property owner/venture capital firm Sloan Capital Partners, LLC, of Beverly Hills, wants the structure removed to allow construction of a 40-story, 282-unit residential building.

Brad Richter, assistant vice president for planning at Civic San Diego, said, “There is an application for a residential tower with ground-floor retail, which proposes to demolish the California Theatre building.” The applicant declares the project will “promote social, civic and economic vitality along a blighted area of the C Street corridor.”

C Street side of California Theatre

The Spanish Colonial Revival building, designed by John Paxton Perrine, was added to the list of San Diego's Register of Designated Historical Resources in 1990. The resolution described “the area specifically designated being the exterior of the building, and the lobby and interior of the theater.”

“Because the theater building has been determined to have potential state and national historical significance,” Richter said, “a supplemental environmental impact report is required, which is under preparation. The draft [report] is required to have a 45-day public review period, after which the final [report] is prepared before any public hearings.”

Bruce Coons, executive director of SOHO, said the building can't be demolished due to its local historic designation. The Downtown Community Plan requires a “mitigation measure” if a historical resource would be demolished. That measure, agreed to by the applicant, requires a document program to include “photo documentation and measured drawings” to the Historical Resources Board for approval.

Cyrus Sanandaji, principal with Sloan Capital, said that “our proposed revitalization program is the one and only financially feasible plan for this property — both from a development standpoint and from a community benefits standpoint.” Sanandaji added: “There is significant downtown interest and support for demolishing this blighted site. The Downtown San Diego Partnership, the Greater San Diego Chamber of Commerce, and many owners within a two-block area of the project and along the C Street corridor have indicated strong support for the proposed project.”

Coons said the site is not zoned for residential use. Yet, there are 28 loft apartments above the Ross store, right across Fourth Avenue. Also, the “site development permit findings,” prepared by attorney Marie Burke Lia in 2014, assert that the Downtown Community Plan allows this neighborhood to have mixed-use (residential and non-residential) projects that “contain active ground floor uses.”

Another group wants California Theatre saved from the wrecking ball. An online petition was launched nine months ago on change.org by Dawn N. Griffin, CEO of Davenports Supper Club & VIP Cigar Lounge, LLC. It's received 1341 signatures, with a goal of 1500.

In explaining her opposition, Griffin said, “The petition is to give the people interested a voice, and show the government factors we prefer an arts venue to another faceless glass box.” Griffin also negotiated a while back with Sloan Capital to buy the property.

“When my agent and their attorney had almost reached an acceptable agreement, their rep stepped in and placed ridiculous conditions on it nobody with common sense would agree to,” said Griffin. The asking price was $11.5 million, but Griffin's group offered $9.5 million. Negotiations ended with no sale.

Mayor Kevin Faulconer declined to comment. “The mayor’s office doesn’t typically comment on private projects going through the Development Services process,” emailed Craig Gustafson, director of media relations.

Grand opening poster

Third district councilmember Todd Gloria said: “It is always preferable to restore an historic structure when feasible. It wouldn't be appropriate to comment on a hypothetical as each project has to be considered on its merits, and there is a possibility that the council may be asked to weigh in on the matter in an appeal hearing.”

Going forward, said Richter, “the project and amendments will be considered at future undetermined meetings before the downtown community planning council, the CivicSD board, the Historical Resources Board, the planning commission, with the final decision by the city council.” Regarding those procedures, Sanandaji stated: “We are working with an experienced local consultant to help navigate the process.”

A 1990 report, "The California Theatre - An Architectural Appraisal,” by Thomas R. Vreeland FAIA, did not speak well of the theater's design. Vreeland wrote in part: “The opening of the California Theatre in 1927 was not an architectural event. A comparison with the 1912 Spreckels Theatre only a few blocks away quickly establishes the California as the inferior. The California Theatre is the work of a minor theater architect, and even as such, is not his best work. It is architecturally maladroit.”

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California Theatre, 2016

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Front of California Theatre, Fourth Avenue
Front of California Theatre, Fourth Avenue

The crumbling and leaky California Theatre building, at 1122 Fourth Avenue (at C St.), built in 1927 at a cost of $340,000, has sat vacant since 1990. SOHO (Save Our Heritage Organisation) is fighting to preserve the historic property. But property owner/venture capital firm Sloan Capital Partners, LLC, of Beverly Hills, wants the structure removed to allow construction of a 40-story, 282-unit residential building.

Brad Richter, assistant vice president for planning at Civic San Diego, said, “There is an application for a residential tower with ground-floor retail, which proposes to demolish the California Theatre building.” The applicant declares the project will “promote social, civic and economic vitality along a blighted area of the C Street corridor.”

C Street side of California Theatre

The Spanish Colonial Revival building, designed by John Paxton Perrine, was added to the list of San Diego's Register of Designated Historical Resources in 1990. The resolution described “the area specifically designated being the exterior of the building, and the lobby and interior of the theater.”

“Because the theater building has been determined to have potential state and national historical significance,” Richter said, “a supplemental environmental impact report is required, which is under preparation. The draft [report] is required to have a 45-day public review period, after which the final [report] is prepared before any public hearings.”

Bruce Coons, executive director of SOHO, said the building can't be demolished due to its local historic designation. The Downtown Community Plan requires a “mitigation measure” if a historical resource would be demolished. That measure, agreed to by the applicant, requires a document program to include “photo documentation and measured drawings” to the Historical Resources Board for approval.

Cyrus Sanandaji, principal with Sloan Capital, said that “our proposed revitalization program is the one and only financially feasible plan for this property — both from a development standpoint and from a community benefits standpoint.” Sanandaji added: “There is significant downtown interest and support for demolishing this blighted site. The Downtown San Diego Partnership, the Greater San Diego Chamber of Commerce, and many owners within a two-block area of the project and along the C Street corridor have indicated strong support for the proposed project.”

Coons said the site is not zoned for residential use. Yet, there are 28 loft apartments above the Ross store, right across Fourth Avenue. Also, the “site development permit findings,” prepared by attorney Marie Burke Lia in 2014, assert that the Downtown Community Plan allows this neighborhood to have mixed-use (residential and non-residential) projects that “contain active ground floor uses.”

Another group wants California Theatre saved from the wrecking ball. An online petition was launched nine months ago on change.org by Dawn N. Griffin, CEO of Davenports Supper Club & VIP Cigar Lounge, LLC. It's received 1341 signatures, with a goal of 1500.

In explaining her opposition, Griffin said, “The petition is to give the people interested a voice, and show the government factors we prefer an arts venue to another faceless glass box.” Griffin also negotiated a while back with Sloan Capital to buy the property.

“When my agent and their attorney had almost reached an acceptable agreement, their rep stepped in and placed ridiculous conditions on it nobody with common sense would agree to,” said Griffin. The asking price was $11.5 million, but Griffin's group offered $9.5 million. Negotiations ended with no sale.

Mayor Kevin Faulconer declined to comment. “The mayor’s office doesn’t typically comment on private projects going through the Development Services process,” emailed Craig Gustafson, director of media relations.

Grand opening poster

Third district councilmember Todd Gloria said: “It is always preferable to restore an historic structure when feasible. It wouldn't be appropriate to comment on a hypothetical as each project has to be considered on its merits, and there is a possibility that the council may be asked to weigh in on the matter in an appeal hearing.”

Going forward, said Richter, “the project and amendments will be considered at future undetermined meetings before the downtown community planning council, the CivicSD board, the Historical Resources Board, the planning commission, with the final decision by the city council.” Regarding those procedures, Sanandaji stated: “We are working with an experienced local consultant to help navigate the process.”

A 1990 report, "The California Theatre - An Architectural Appraisal,” by Thomas R. Vreeland FAIA, did not speak well of the theater's design. Vreeland wrote in part: “The opening of the California Theatre in 1927 was not an architectural event. A comparison with the 1912 Spreckels Theatre only a few blocks away quickly establishes the California as the inferior. The California Theatre is the work of a minor theater architect, and even as such, is not his best work. It is architecturally maladroit.”

Video:

California Theatre, 2016

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Comments
30

Saw Wayne's last movie THE SHOOTIST there in 1976. A disappointing Todd Rundgren concert sometime in the 80's.

March 30, 2016

But did you see this Patti Smith concert in 1978?

March 30, 2016

Y'know, instead of dumping a ton of cash into yet another unneeded sports venue, why doesn't the City spend the money to restore the California to it's original single-screen glory? It could be a concert/movie venue to put the unimaginative schmekels who book Spreckels to shame. Hell, make it an IMAX! The place is big enough to house two!

March 30, 2016

Scott, my article was getting "filled up" so I wasn't able to include this from Cyrus Sanandaji: "San Diego economist, Gary London, was hired to study the cost implications of restoring the theatre and analyze the resulting return on investment. His conclusion is that preservation or restoration is not economically feasible under any circumstance. There are several prominent examples of failed and/or failing theaters in the area, which further substantiate this point." He is referring to the Balboa Theatre which reopened in 2008, at a cost of $26 million to restore. It received city Redevelopment Agency money, which is no longer available. From what I've heard, the Balboa operates at a loss. So the chance of the City restoring the California is as likely as Todd Gloria becoming a Republican!

March 30, 2016

To Mark Ames on Facebook: The Spreckels Theatre, completed in 1912, cost $1,000,000. The California Theatre cost only $340,000 by comparison. There's some terrific information at: www.spreckels.net/history.html. Some of the info: It was the first poured concrete theatre and office structure west of the Mississippi River. It was inaugurated with rave reviews for its beauty, architectural design, stage mechanics and as a perfect setting for the shows that played its large stage. At the time of its premiere, a national theatre magazine called the Spreckels Theatre "one of the most beautiful theatres in the world." On August 4, 1972, the Spreckels Theatre Building was designated a National Historic Site.

March 30, 2016

The California Theatre's an eyesore. Get rid of it. While you're at it, get rid of "the C Street corridor" too -- another creepy place. It's all maladroitsville. Forget about it. Let's just face facts, fellow citizens, schmekels run this town -- not restorers or preservationists or environmentalists or aesthetes or cineastes. Schmekels have been calling the shots in San Diego forever. And Democrats are as flip-floppy/strategic as Republicans: witness clowncilmembers Todd Gloria and Sherri Lightner and Mabel Cole. Note with dismay where the new architect-designed Central Library was jammed in -- over in Moorestown, hard by expensive Petco Park. And JMI Realty's head schmeckel John Moores is back on the scene, planning more sports venues and convention center stuff with schmelectricity deregulator Steve Peace and newest schmeckel on the block, self-styled savior of groped women, lawyer Cory Briggs.

March 30, 2016

There are successful renovations of old buildings in downtown San Diego. One is the Courtyard by Marriott, which was formerly San Diego Trust & Savings Bank. If one has never seen this hotel, it's worth walking inside (even if you aren't staying there). The old bank vault is still there.

None

None

April 4, 2016

I've been, thanks to a guide who believes in historic preservation. It's nice, but the place lacked guests lounging by the vault. Homeless denizens of our finest city drift on the street outside, perhaps diminishing patrons' wish to linger and chat over drinks in the lobby. Actually, I don't remember seeing any such lounge-like amenities.

April 4, 2016

Well, the vault is something many of the guests don't even see. Or the old telephone booth area. The last time I was in there, sometime back, there was a pool table room on the main floor with some photos of the old bank, and a bar/cafe. Hopefully the homeless will eventually move on to another area, as Broadway continues its upscale change. [A huge apt. complex will rise on the whole block, between 7th & 8th and Broadway & C St.].

April 4, 2016

To Melissa on Facebook: I haven't been able to find out what happened to the old marquee, which had "California" on it. It was removed sometime back due to safety issues.

March 31, 2016

My understanding is the marquee and the original canopy were stashed in the lobby after they were removed.

April 3, 2016

Another historic building that will undergo adaptive reuse is the former exquisite Spreckels office building at 6th and Broadway (not to be confused with the Spreckels Theatre building a few blocks away). Built in 1926 by John D. Spreckels, it formerly housed Bank of America. Renamed the Torbati Building in 2002, it was sold in 2014 and will become luxury apartments. Check out the lobby sometime!

April 4, 2016

To Jim Ahab Boydston on Facebook: What (and where) are the "MOSTLY VACANT apartment buildings" downtown that you mentioned? Do you have addresses for them? Are you sure they're vacant? Also, remember that the historic Balboa Theatre would never have been restored without those huge San Diego Redevelopment Agency funds. It most likely wouldn't happen today.

April 4, 2016

To Glenn Stokes on Facebook: The King Theatre restoration in Brooklyn cost about $93 million, funded by the City of New York, a city that has a much larger operating budget than SD. Has that theater been used regularly since it opened in 2014? How much is it costing to keep it going? Maybe there were no other large theater buildings in Brooklyn, so there was support for it. SD has theater venues downtown that are often "dark" because they aren't being rented. So how would the California serve a need? Here's a question I haven't seen answered anywhere: How many of those who want the California Theatre restored for theatrical use regularly attend shows at Balboa Theatre and Spreckels Theatre? And how much do they spend per year to see those shows?

April 4, 2016

To Ken Eckert-Neal on Facebook: Does anyone else care if the California Theatre once had a "John Roberts [sic] modeling school" inside? [The name of that franchised "school" is actually John Robert Powers.] Most modeling schools are scams, and employ high-pressure tactics and exaggerated claims. The California Theater also reportedly had shops inside, but those are weak reasons for preservation.

April 5, 2016

To Daniel Vitkus on Facebook: How can the City "step in" to fund another preservation project when it can't even fix all the terrible streets and sidewalks, and replace old iron water mains? If the City spends any money on building projects, it will do so to build a new city hall skyscraper (even though the County Grand Jury stated the City doesn't need it).

April 5, 2016

The U-T picked up the story, and included illustrations of the new residential tower: http://www.sandiegouniontribune.com/news/2016/apr/06/california-theatre-residential-tower-proposed/

April 9, 2016

It's ugly, and the blue zigzag needs to go.

July 28, 2016

Actually, I think it's quite attractive, and it pays homage to the old California Theatre. What's not to like? Critics hated the Eiffel Tower when it was built; boy we THEY wrong! Once this is built, the adjacent area will improve 100 percent, too.

Aug. 9, 2016

August 9 update: The draft supplemental environmental impact report (SEIR) has now been released. Go to: http://www.civicsd.com/planning/environmental-documents.html It's available for review and comments through Sept. 22. It's a LONG document, so expect to spend some time reading it.

Aug. 9, 2016

Here's a look at the total plans [pdf document] for the new skyscraper: http://civicsd.us1.list-manage2.com/track/click?u=fbb0538c3d8da04633811904b&id=bc1381008a&e=c50e177407

It's 10 times better than what is there now!

Dec. 22, 2016

1/10/2017 update: The oversized "posters" on the outside now help hide some of this eyesore when you walk by.

None

Jan. 10, 2017

There will be a public hearing on the project by the Planning Commission on Feb. 23, starting at 9 a.m. Location: City Admin. Bldg., 202 C Street, Council Chambers, 12th floor.

Feb. 8, 2017

March 16 update: The SD Planning Commission voted unanimously today to approve the project. It now goes to the City Council for final decision.

March 16, 2017

The City Council is scheduled to make the final decision at its meeting April 4, starting at 2 p.m.

March 28, 2017

April 4, 2017 update: The City Council approved the project this afternoon unanimously.

April 4, 2017

A few years from now many people will be enjoying a wonderful new C Street neighborhood. Some of those people may well be alive because the dangerous old California Theater, made of hollow clay blocks and loaded with asbestos and lead, has been demolished before it collapsed in an earthquake. I'm from St. Louis, home of the Fabulous FOX Theater, one of the very best ever built. Thank you for referencing Mr. Vreeland's analysis, as it is clear that it was a third-rate and cheaply-built building when new. For example, the asbestos-covered pipes crossing the lobby are in a concrete chase with no access unless the concrete is broken, a clear indication they were not thinking of maintenance when it was built.

— F. Stephen Masek

April 5, 2017

Well-stated, Mr. Masek. The preservationists, in this particular case, picked the wrong battle. As you stated, the building is a huge pile of toxic junk, and the sooner it's razed, the better. In the meantime, I urge all San Diegans to patronize the best and most beautiful theaters in town: the Balboa and Spreckels.

June 28, 2017

Another update, from 1/31/2020: The California Theatre property has been sold to another developer, Caydon Property Group, which is headquartered in Houston.

Jan. 31, 2020

The far superior Spreckels Theatre has just been put up for sale. It makes the old California Theatre look like a Greyhound bus terminal! The Spreckels was not built on the cheap, like the California; it's a real architectural treasure.

Feb. 15, 2020

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