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Quake Study Ordered for Balboa Theater

Times Staff Writer

The controversy surrounding the future of the historic Balboa Theater in downtown San Diego took another twist Friday when a reluctant Centre City Development Corp. approved a $12,500 earthquake study on the 61-year-old building.

Initial indications are that the theater is unsafe and could collapse in a major quake, possibly causing death or injury to patrons at the 1,500-seat facility, located adjacent to Horton Plaza on 4th Avenue.

The CCDC’s action was in part a response to recent statements by theater preservationists that a proposal is forthcoming to turn the Balboa, now a movie house, back into a legitimate theater for plays.

Such a proposal would run head-on into the City Council’s approval last April of a contract to gut the theater and renovate the building into an art museum and retail complex. The new complex, called the San Diego Art Center, would meet current earthquake safety codes.

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Adding to the potential legal quagmire is the fact the city has instituted condemnation proceedings against the owners of the Balboa and is scheduled to take possession of the structure on Nov. 11.

“This issue is never going to die,” said CCDC Executive Vice President Gerald Trimble of the on-again, off-again proposals to keep the theater open.

Trimble said the agency, at the indirect urging of the City Council, wants to find out once and for all what kind of shape the Balboa Theater is in and how much it would cost to make the building earthquake-safe were it to be used as a theater.

According to the developer of the proposed Art Center, Chris Mortenson, the dangerous structural status of the Balboa is “old news.”

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“We know the building, seismically, is inferior,” Mortenson said in an interview. “We know what deficiencies the building has and what it is structurally.”

Earlier this year, Mortenson’s company, Lincoln Investment Corp., hired the firm of Englekirk & Hart Consulting Engineers Inc. to conduct a structural analysis of the Balboa, assuming its use would be as an art center.

In a letter to Mortenson dated three days ago, Gary Hart, president of the engineering company, stated that “if a major earthquake of the typical 150- to 200-year intensity level were to occur, I would expect a major loss of life to occur in the existing building.”

Another structural analysis of the theater in 1974 by a different engineering company concluded that the “nature of earthquake forces . . . was ignored in the design” of the Balboa.

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While neither of the studies estimated the cost of making the Balboa earthquake-safe, work already done by Englekirk & Hart indicates the structure can be strengthened to meet the city’s seismic requirements by following a plan proposed by Mortenson for the Art Center.

That plan calls for gutting the theater and building four floors inside the structure. The entire building would then “respond as a unit,” in Hart’s words, and withstand a temblor.

It is that very plan--calling for two floors for retail stores and two floors for an art museum--that has angered preservationists and supporters of legitimate theater.

Adding to preservationists’ concerns is that the engineering company selected by CCDC to do the $12,500 study is Englekirk & Hart, which preservationists claim is predisposed to the Art Center plan.

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In response, Trimble says the engineering firm has experience with the Balboa and is regarded as one of the best structural engineering companies in California.

“I would like to see someone who is a third party, someone who is acceptable to all parties, do the study,” said Steve Karo, chairman of Save Our Balboa, a group working to keep the facility open as a theater. “I think there is now a viable, logical and beneficial alternative to the destruction of the building. I’m concerned about the objectivity” of Englekirk & Hart doing the structural analysis, he said.

The alternative to which Karo refers is a proposal by developer Terry Nash, the San Diego Civic Light Opera Assn. and the Nederlander Organization--one of the nation’s largest commercial theatrical producers--to save the Balboa by using it for legitimate theater.

The proposal, however, has not been formally presented to either CCDC or the City Council, and Stan Seiden, head of Nederlander’s West Coast operations, said earlier this week that publicity about the plan was “premature.”

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Nash was unavailable for comment Friday, but earlier in the week he told the Times that once the proposal is finalized with Nederlander, he will present it to the City Council. Nash said his proposal would cost a maximum of $3 million, as compared to the Art Center’s cost of as much as $6.5 million.

But Nash’s plans are being criticized as coming too late. The City Council signed a development contract with Mortenson and the San Diego Art Center back in April. And in July, the city started condemnation proceedings against owners of the Balboa, which is only feet away from two new legitimate theaters being built in Horton Plaza.

Leon Drew, general manager of the Civic Light Opera, which has agreed to perform at the theater for 13 weeks a year, said “we moved as quickly as we could” with the theater proposal. “I think the important question to ask is, ‘What is the best for San Diego?’ ”

Terry Hughes, director of planning for the San Diego Art Center, said his group is “confident” the new study commissioned by CCDC will show that the engineering plans for the Art Center are valid and that it is the best use of the facility for the price.

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