Historic Preservation and Development: The California Theater


April 3, 2017 (San Diego) the C Street Project is physically located at 1122 Fourth Avenue. It includes the California theater, which is considered a historic landmark, but has been closed and boarded up for many years. The project is described as such in documents submitted to the city.

“The proposed development includes the construction of a new 40-story high-rise tower residential building in the center of the project site, which would be 420 feet tall and would consist of 282 units, with street level retail, lobby, associated residential amenities, three levels of underground parking, and four levels of above grade parking. On the south and east sides of the property, the façade of the existing 9-story office building will be re-created, and will coincide with the proposed floor-by-floor program.

Specific project features include 22 affordable housing units, replication of the corner blade sign (“California”) and the entry marquee, open urban space terraces and green rooftop, a roof terrace on the north side of the tower includes a pool, spa, steam room, sauna, recreation rooms, and fitness center, and a sloped roof for photovoltaics. Three street level retail spaces would be made available along C Street and 4th Avenue. There would be a total of 325 parking spaces in both above grade and below grade levels of parking. The proposed development covers a total gross area of approximately 391,650 square feet with 309,569 square feet of above grade gross floor area and 70,000 square feet below grade (parking). The proposed project would require the demolition of all existing structures onsite, including the California Theatre and 9-story office building. Details of the project description are included in Chapter 3 of the FSEIR.”

There are questions raised by this project. They are not necessarily raised by the project itself, but the nature of historic preservation. The theater was built in 1927. At one point it was the center of the cultural life and vaudeville entertainment for the city. Its heyday passed long ago, and these days the structure is boarded up, and in decay. It is down the C Street corridor which has been blighted and is home to many of the city houseless who sleep in its shadow.

The building was designed by John Paston Perrine, in the Spanish Colonial revival style common in the 1920s and was designated as a historical resource in the 1990s. Meaning, in theory, the building cannot be demolished. In practice, in the supplemental environmental review submitted to the city by Sloan Capital Partners LLC, the mitigation will include exhaustive photographic documentation, to be given to libraries and other interested parties. They plan a small exhibit inside the new structure as well. It will tell the history of the California theater. They cannot make it work as it exists at present. The building is too far gone.

The questions raised are not just about the role of history, but what happens to a structure after it is designated as historic? What happened at the California theater is a textbook eample of what should not have happened. The property is boarded up and blighted. Therefore, its historic importance is not understood by any passer-by It is just one more decaying structure in an area of the city with other blighted structures.

There are ways to preserve historic sites. This starts with very basic building maintenance. Given we live in a seismic zone, that includes hardening against earthquakes with the latest engineering knowledge. This costs money. This was not done.

Why it matters? Historic memory is a link to where we came from. That link can be found in  documents or buildings. Knowing the past can help us understand the present, and prepare for the future. This is why many European and Latin American cities have extensive programs of historic preservation. In many cases, the inside of buildings is modernized, in some cases extensively redone. The facade however, looks like it did in the past. This is not done for the benefit of tourists, but for the sake of collective memory. It preserves historic downtowns, even when properties might change hands.

In San Diego we have many properties that have been designated as historic sites. This does not mean that these properties will remain in place as if by magic. The California theater is a perfect example. The building was allowed to deteriorate to the point that the best course for the new owners is to demolish a historic structure, and build a new one. 

There is a second question raised by the project. It will contain 22 affordable units. This is out of 282 units. The area downtown has a lot of expensive units, many have yet to be occupied. This is specifically the case in front of the Convention Center and down Pacific Highway. Given the number of affordable units the city actually needs to fulfill the needs in that part of the market, is 22 enough, or should the city ask for a higher number? One increasing reality is that young millennials  want to live in urban cores, near work and public transit. If they cannot afford to do this in San Diego, they will leave the city, perhaps the state.

The City Council will vote on this project on Tuesday during the afternoon session. We expect it to be approved.

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