It’s decision day in the city-council chambers, Two Broke Girls vs. Billions. Call it a classic smackdown between local architectural preservationists who want to save any Spanish Colonial Revival building (and think someone should pay) vs. the downtown developers who can’t wait to erect residential towers (and have investors ready and willing to foot the bill). It’s early April, and the horseshoe room is packed, its 53-year-old semi-gloss teakwood a kind of paean to the past. Backrow perched, I think of Pete Wilson’s wily quip from 1975: “The future of San Diego should have as much of the past in it as possible.”
I think as well that each city-adjudicated skyline alteration rehashes our city’s core ideological battle — the geraniums of George Marston and the smokestacks of Louis Wilde — nearly a century ago. The way the pro-housing, pro-job, pro-business special interest typically wins is to outspend, out-own, and out-promise opponents, one 40-story, 282-unit glass spire at a time.
Why all the fuss today? The revitalization of C Street is at stake. The semifabled corridor needs a proprietary boost: fewer homeless, more housing, whether glitzy or affordable, and touristy draws to attract conventioneers from the Gaslamp. C Street is not what it used to be. C’s stunted by the clanging disturbance of trolleys coming and going every six minutes.
Should the city demolish the California Theatre, a building crumbling in its own neglect, having sat empty for 27 years, wood-rotting, asbestos-blighted, lead-stained? It’s taken years to get this big question before the council. Sloan Capital Partners, a Beverly Hills investment group, bought the moldering structure at Fourth and C in 2008, a foreclosure deal, $12 million. In its place, Sloan wants to high-rise the luxury live/work/play Overture, the ne plus ultra of architectural solutions to urban problems.
By Jim Bartell’s count — his public relations firm has ridden herd on the project—the demolitionists have 112 people parked in the chamber. Many are from the San Diego Downtown Partnership, business cheerleaders whose Twitter tag is #ANewCStreet, printed — and worn — on stickers. Scattered throughout are blue-T-shirted unionists, the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers; their 20 percent unemployment brought them in (odd: laborers nested beside executives) to rally for jobs.
Arrayed against are the disheveled oracles of doom from Save Our Heritage Organisation who are passionately nostalgic or scripturally historical in their demand: the California Theatre, for 90 years a movie, vaudeville, and punk-rock palace, is (was) an epochal star in the San Diego night sky. Its west-facing rear wall, festooned with the Caliente racetrack sign, recalls a Bing Crosby-ish past when Tijuana horse-wagering and Zona Norte iniquity ruled. The sign must also be razed. Sorry, Grandpa Pete, but Old San Diego is vanishing fast.
Select testimony from Team Ragtag. “The Caliente sign speaks to the cross-cultural relationship more than any other resource in San Diego.” “A rehabilitated California Theatre could include, not preclude, a major housing development.” “They say they are going to recreate the building, but it’s a fake building; it’s not an accurate re-creation. With its parking garage, it’ll look like a bombed-out building.” “City staff concedes that the owner of this building has been issued a stack of code violations but no enforcement has ever taken place. It’s demolition by neglect.” “When the theater was first closed, it was a perfectly fine venue. Nothing that some regular maintenance couldn’t have taken care of. Speculators swooped in. They threw bricks through the windows to let the storm rain in, to let pigeons fly in, to let Mother Nature do the demolition for 25 years.” “San Diego suffers from historic amnesia.” Save it!
Select testimony from Team Corporate. “We have enormous support from petitions, Facebook, and social media, from the Downtown Community Planning Group, Civic San Diego, the Planning Commission, and the Downtown Partnership.” “Nothing’s been done to this building in 47 years.” “C Street’s been the ‘boulevard of broken dreams’ ever since the trolley came in.” “For 90 years, there’s been rhythm at Fourth and C, and we want to continue to promote that.” “When you put a historic valuation on a building it almost always lowers the value because it limits what you can do with it.” “That building is extraordinarily dangerous. It’s made of hollow-clay blocks. It’s filled with asbestos and lead. When the earthquake comes, it will kill people.” Downtown Third District councilmember Chris Ward sums up what the chamber feels abuzz with: “We’ve been waiting for something transformative to happen on C Street.” Replace it!
(Post-vote, I speak with Dawn Griffin, a feisty restorer of neglected local venues. Throughout the process of the site’s approval, she says the renovation plan from her Davenport Griffin Preservation Group never got a hearing. She tried to present an alternative to the Overture to the Centre City Development Corporation [renamed Civic San Diego] five years ago — a blueprint to save the theater, its six-story building, the Caliente sign, and the whole block. “They still wouldn’t talk to me unless I was part of the ownership.” Embittered, she renamed the “Overture,” the “Requiem.” “History means nothing in this town,” she says, “and that’s the saddest thing I’ve ever seen.”)
“Clerk, please call the roll.” Bing! “That passes unanimously.” 9 to 0. Hip-hip — oh, no!
Cheers, jeers. It wasn’t always so. C Street once trundled with (and smelled of) horse-drawn streetcars; it eventually gave way to electric railcars. In 1949, the public conveyances were removed for angled parking in front of Marston’s Department Store. The street was soon packed with bulbous sedans frequenting the tobacconists, the theaters, and the millinery shops. By the early 1980s, city planners, as the Los Angeles Timesnew put it, predicted a need “to facilitate transportation between burgeoning downtown San Diego and bustling Tijuana,” block-stopping buses didn’t cut it. But stealthy light-rail might.
Covering downtown for the San Diego Union was architectural columnist James Britton II. He feared in 1978 that a trolley, while binationally desirable, would overtake downtown with “literally millions of Tijuanans...for shopping, employment or mayhem, according to type.” He wagered blocks of fashionable stores would wither and a “Tijuana downtown” would flourish, which, when sailors heel-toed Broadway, was already afoot.