Old Balboa's Fate Still in Flux : Art Center Unveils Altered Design for Its Museum

San Diego County Arts Writer

The City of San Diego took possession of the historic Balboa Theater on Monday with condemnation action, but that hasn't stopped both sides in a growing Balboa Theater-San Diego Art Center controversy from continuing efforts to bolster their plans for the building.

The San Diego Art Center, which has worked with the Centre City Development Corp. for two years on plans to gut the Balboa and turn it into a modern-art museum, unveiled a radically altered version of plans for the building on Tuesday. Architect Richard Weinstein said the new plan provides for "reversibility" in adapting the building. The interior will not be gutted, making a future restoration of the theater possible. Instead, existing walls will be covered with other interior walls.

Meanwhile, the Save Our Heritage Organisation has entered the fray, endorsing a plan announced last week by developer Terry Nash that would use the theater for stage productions. Sue Skala, president of the preservationist group, said, "We are not opponents of the Art Center. The Balboa Theater is simply not appropriate as a museum."

Asked if the city's existing contract with Chris Mortenson, who will convert the Balboa for the Art Center, didn't make moot any action to save the theater, Skala said, "We think we can change the City Council's mind."

Steve Karo, founder of the Save Our Balboa group, said the battle is not over: "Many historic theaters were saved at the very last minute."

Karo and those who would like to see the 61-year-old theater used for stage productions are backing Nash's plan, in which the San Diego Civic Light Opera Assn. and the Nederlander Organization--one of the nation's largest theatrical producers--would be the key users of the theater, which would be available to other dance, music and theatrical groups. Nash would provide $3 million to renovate the building, which is about half the cost estimated by the developer for its conversion to a museum facility.

The Art Center's new plan calls for constructing three, rather than four, floors in the theater space. (Most of the building is taken up by a large auditorium.) Under the previous plan, two of the four floors were to be used for retail purposes. Now only part of one floor will be used for retail.

The plan includes a ground-floor restaurant and a 250- to 350-seat auditorium, with main entry from the plaza level of the adjacent Horton Plaza shopping center.

The altered plans will be presented Friday at CCDC's board meeting. The design change will save about $500,000 in construction costs, according to Fred Colby, director of administration for the Art Center.

Existing financing plans call for the Art Center to pay for the building's $2.5-million purchase price over 10 years. The conversion costs, which are estimated at $4.5 million, would be have been paid for by museum revenues and rental income from the two floors of commercial retail space, Colby said.

With the retail space reduced to 3,500 square feet in the altered plan, a new source of revenue must be created. "We have to figure out how the reduced retail affects the income," Colby said.

Art Center President Danah Fayman said that the Art Center board would have a rough idea of new financing arrangements in a few months.

Weinstein said the new plan contains a maximum of 25,000 square feet of exhibit space. That ranks favorably when compared with other local museums. The La Jolla Musuem of Contemporary Art has 10,000 square feet for exhibits, and the San Diego Museum of Art has 50,000 square feet for inside and outside exhibits.

Art Center trustees signed personal notes guaranteeing the annual purchase payments of $250,000 for the first three years, plus an additional sum, an amount equal to $1 million, Colby said.

The theater, now being operated as a movie house, does not meet current seismic codes.

"We have found, after exhaustive testing, that the structure is unsafe," Weinstein said. " . . . To leave this building unbraced would be to leave it as a public safety hazard. This is an unstable building. It should not be left standing as it is."

As a result, Weinstein's new design would bring the building up to code by placing a "rigid box" within the existing building, attached to the older building's shell.

In a related matter, City Councilman Mike Gotch forwarded a memo to the city manager requesting that city building inspectors evaluate the merits of using the building as a museum and as a legitimate theater. CCDC is expected to consider bringing in an outside engineering consultant to do the same kind of evaluation at its Friday meeting.

Meanwhile, Karo says of the new design for the building: "We're getting closer. They're saving more of the interior. But if you listened, there was no indication whatsoever of financing on this project. I disagree that the building is unsafe. Historic theaters are operated all over California and, if need be, they can be seismically strengthened very cost-effectively."

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