City Council Approves Overture Project Ending the California Theater History

April 24, 2017 (San Diego) The San Diego City Council voted anonymously to approve the demolition of the historic California theater, to be replaced by a new mixed-use building. This is on the corner of 4th and C downtown and it is hoped this project will help to revitalize the area. There were several items that were brought to the fore. First by the opponents of the project, including Save Our Heritage Organization (SOHO), and then by the proponents of the project.

Kiley  Wallace, an architectural historian gave an overview of the history of the building. The building was designed in 1926. It was designed by John Paston Perrine. He also was behind other theaters up and down the west coast during the golden age of California theaters. It was done in the Spanish revival style common to the time. In San Diego, according to Wallace, “it was called the Cathedral of Motion Pictures.”

The theater was a mixed-use facility, with retail, a theater, and offices. So it will be replaced by a mixed used facility as well. Offices will be replaced by apartments, as well as retail. 

The theater opened on April 22, 1927, and like many theaters of the time, it had gold leave decorations on the ceilings. It also had an organ. This is the era before there was sound in movies, so the soundtrack had an actual musician playing the score. It was a very different era from our IMAX experience.

According to Wallace this was one of the earliest reinforced concrete structures on the West Coast and did take into account the seismic risk that exists in San Diego. The structure was renovated in the 1940s and 1960s. This theater hosted performances until the 1990s and was only closed when a group of investors bought the property. According to Wallace, that group wanted to demolish it and replace it with a parking lot. This is when the theater was closed.

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He also pointed out to the Caliente Mural. This is painted on the C street side of the property and speaks about the cross-border nature of the city. That track in Tijuana is also gone. According to Wallace, “despite multiple purchase offers, for many times the price that they paid,   the building has been held hostage by this Beverly Hills venture capital consortium which is bent on its demolition and destruction.”

Wallace also said that the reports did not cover all the alternatives that could have been done to rehabilitate the building. 

However, the applicant made some interesting points.

The first is that they will recreate the facade of the building on the side of 4th Street. This will be recreated using similar materials. They cannot use the same materials since it contains asbestos and lead. This asbestos and lead contamination will make it impossible to use that. They promise to maintain the aesthetics of it.

The new structure will be green certified and will contain 22 affordable units. This is short of the 10 percent that should be, which would be 29. They will also be a mixed-used facility, with housing units, retail and even some performance at the bottom. They hope the building, dubbed the Overture project, will lead to the revival of the C-Street corridor.

They also denied some of the accusations from SOHO, including the charge that they let the building degrade to the point we are at. The owners pointed out that they are not the original investment group. Also that they downtown community is behind this project.

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Council-member Georgette Gomez asked city staff about housing requirements, though she is happy that this building will have them onsite. The builder could have chosen to pay the fee to Civic San Diego and not have any of those units. However, the affordable units will be all rentals, while the rest will be for sale.

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Council-member Chris Ward, this building is in his district, asked about how close to the original would the new facade be? The applicant said that “We are planning on doing a one to one replica of that office tower with every detail recreated. Unequivocally it will look as it did on the day it was built.”

The applicant pointed out that the materials that were used at the time “are not modern construction materials. They are hollow plate tile that have extensive asbestos contamination. The entire stucco wrapped of the building currently is contaminated.” While they are not going to use the material on the building, it will look aesthetically like the current tower does.

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