photo by Molly McLain (from San Diego Journal of History, Vol. 54, #2
The North Chapel
The Corky McMillin Company’s quiet plan to turn the historic North Chapel at the Naval Training Center into a “restaurant space” is meeting with growing community resistance ranging from the congregations that pray there to the historical and architecture communities.
Chapel marker installed by McMillin
At the end of February, Milford Wayne Donaldson, the architect of record for the restoration of the Naval Training Center, sent a letter to mayor Kevin Faulconer urging the city and the mayor to oppose any change in how the chapel is used.
“The North Chapel is one of those unique buildings, constructed immediately after the bombing of Pearl Harbor, to honor those men and women of the U.S. Navy. Although Liberty Station contains many old barracks buildings, now used for retail of which I participated and proud of the results, the uses of both the North Chapel as well as the Command Center (Building 200) are unique public spaces and their historical uses are an important public policy consideration,” Donaldson’s letter says.
Another local architect, speaking on condition of anonymity, applauded Donaldson’s stand, saying that going against McMillin is a career-endangering move that took great courage.
Donaldson’s voice joins the more than 1000 people who have signed an online petition created by Arlene Paraiso, who is the coordinator for one of the two congregations that hold services in the chapel every Sunday. Both Our Lady of Fatima and St. John Bosco Mission hold masses; Our Lady at 11 a.m. and John Bosco at 4 p.m. They received notice last fall that their access to the chapel would end at the end of June.
“My dad’s funeral was held in the chapel, and my cousin’s wedding was here,” Paraiso said. “Our church has worked with young military couples who want to marry in the chapel because it was built to honor the sacrifices made by people in the military at Pearl Harbor.”
The McMillin Company and its commercial realtor declined to answer questions about the proposal. The company released a statement through its public relations company that says:
"Currently, the North Chapel building is significantly underutilized throughout the week. We are seeking a solution, and we're open to the possibilities of exploring the Chapel as a multi-purpose facility. The building is a historic property, and any future use will comply with adopted guidelines to protect this resource.”
The city handed over 361 acres of the 504-acre former training center to the McMillin Company in 2000. According to KPBS, McMillin paid nothing but promised to split profits with the city and make a new community out of the NTC.
In a 2010 KPBS interview John Warren notes that public access to spaces was part of the deal — which many believe turned out to be a lousy deal for the city. "The wording was little or no cost, number one. $3200 a day is not little or no cost in terms of making the facility available," Warren said.
The South Chapel was demolished in 2010, Paraiso says, using the explanation that it was under-utilized. That same explanation is being offered as justification to convert the North Chapel to a restaurant space with the restored stained-glass windows left in place, along with as many other historic features as possible.
Paraiso says that it can cost between $1000 and $3000 to have an event at the chapel — costs she says are too high, for example, for many military couples who want to marry there. Paraiso believes that McMillin agreed to let people use the space for a nominal fee.
(In March 2017, Voice of San Diego reported that high rents are driving artists out of the more than 20 acres set aside for the arts and cultural district.)
Capital Growth Properties is vetting potential tenants for the chapel and there are interested parties. Other spaces at NTC on the company website go for between $27 and $39 per square foot per year.
A commercial broker who is familiar with Capital Growth Properties said that it’s not unusual for a lease to involve sharing profits with the landlord and he would expect to see that at NTC restaurants. A deal like that keeps the landlord involved and invested in tenants’ successes, he said.
Capital Growth Properties declined to comment, referring reporter interest to McMillin’s PR people.
"There are lots of restaurants at NTC," Paraiso said. "It seems like preserving this historic space and public use should be just as important."
McMillin marker on Building 208:
“Completed in 1942, The North Chapel Building featured leaded glass windows representing the 41 different training schools on site and one window representing the recruit. As the recruits at the Naval Training Center practiced many different religions, different services for all religions were offered. There was a Priest, a Rabbi, a Baptist Minister and so on that would conduct the services. Weddings for senior officers were held in the chapel as well. The Corky McMillin Companies is proud to preserve the history of NTC”