Council to Reconsider Issue : Mystery Over Plan to Buy Vauclain Point Cleared

Times Staff Writer

The mysterious donor who offered to buy Vauclain Point in Hillcrest for $3 million and turn it into a hospice--and whose strict demands for anonymity so frustrated city officials during negotiations that they rejected the project--is the Joan B. Kroc Foundation.

Hospice officials Friday announced the identity, putting to rest one of the more bizarre whodunits around San Diego City Hall that months ago began as a fairy tale about a reclusive, good-hearted philanthropist determined to make sure the terminally ill could spend their final days in comfort and beauty overlooking Mission Valley.

In October, the City Council wrote a sad ending to the tale--or so it seemed--when it voted 6-2 to reject the project because of frustration over negotiating with a donor it couldn't see. During debate, then-Mayor Roger Hedgecock complained, "I don't like the Howard Hughes bit."

But now the project is coming before the council for reconsideration Monday, and hospice officials are trying to make sure the secrecy will no longer be an issue.

"We're trying to answer as many questions that were raised last time as we can," Rich Edwards, vice president of the San Diego Hospice Corp., said after revealing the identity. "We're also trying to give this thing the best possibility to succeed."

Edwards stressed the donor is the foundation, and not San Diego Padres owner Joan Kroc herself. Kroc is president of the foundation.

Elizabeth Benes, attorney for the foundation, declined to answer repeated telephone calls to her office by The Times Friday. People answering the telephone at other foundation offices declined to discuss the gift, referring calls to spokesman Michael Sund, who was out of town. Kroc could not be reached for comment.

Edwards said he was given permission by the foundation Friday to reveal its identity as the donor because "a lot of people have guessed and we pretty much thought it was an open secret . . . . There are just not enough people in town who can make that kind of gift."

Meanwhile, Mercy Hospital has expressed interest in buying Vauclain Point for a large "continuing care" facility for the elderly, a proposal that last month won the explicit backing of a Vauclain Point citizens advisory group. Monday's council hearing has the potential of pitting the two proposals against each other.

The fate of Vauclain Point, once the home of the county receiving hospital, has been at issue since late 1984, when the County of San Diego, which owns the 12-acre promontory off 3rd Avenue, expressed interest in selling the land to a private developer.

Residents in Hillcrest and nearby Mission Hills hoped to convince county officials to turn the point into a public park, because it is considered one of the most scenic outlooks in the city.

When that plan failed, they turned to city officials for help. Meanwhile, in December, 1984, the fairy tale began for San Diego Hospice officials.

San Diego Hospice has no building of its own but cares for about 110 patients at any one time in their homes. The Kroc Foundation offered to change that when it approached hospice officials and offered to buy the point for $3 million and pay millions more for a new 24-bed building and furnishings. San Diego Hospice would receive the gift, but the source of the money had to remain confidential.

With the offer in hand, hospice officials appealed to the city for help. City officials, meanwhile, saw a way to make everyone happy and suggested that part of the point be preserved as a public park. The donor--through hospice officials--seemed to be amenable to the suggestion and the deal was on.

But in August, it unraveled when Edwards told members of the advisory committee that the donor insisted that the public would not be permitted on Vauclain Point. The idea was to make sure the terminally ill patients wouldn't be on display, Edwards said Friday.

Unable to bridge that problem, the City Council voted against the plan in October. A hospice on Vauclain Point seemed lost, but the mystery remained. Edwards steadfastly refused to reveal the donor.

But the mystery haunted Councilman Bill Cleator, whose district includes the promontory.

He was interested in trying one more time to reconcile community demands for a park with plans for the hospice, and his interest was piqued during council discussion on the project when it was mentioned that the donor was someone Cleator knew.

Cleator said Friday he narrowed the list to five people able to afford the estimated $10 million for the hospice.

"I contacted either a relative or the individuals directly, and I finally hit on a relative of the donor," he said. "I wrote a long letter to him, and finally the donor, and I was told to contact this attorney."

The attorney turned out to be Benes from the Kroc Foundation, Cleator said.

Cleator said he also contacted another friend, a landscape architect, who figured a way to permit public access to some of the property. The final plan, which will be forwarded to the City Council, contemplates a pedestrian trail on the slopes of the point leading to a view of Mission Valley.

Edwards said Friday the trail, which would be built and landscaped at public expense, would satisfy the demands of the Kroc Foundation for privacy for the hospice. Terminally ill patients on the mesa of the promontory would not be able to see nature-lovers walking on the slopes, he said.

But whether the trail is enough to satisfy residents is still uncertain.

Joy Higganbotham, chairman of the advisory committee, said Friday, "It's going to take a goat to be able to climb" the path up the canyon slope. She added that it may take considerable "frivolous" public money to construct the trail because one gully would require a bridge.

She said the committee voted Dec. 23 to endorse a plan by Mercy Hospital to build a 60-bed, 240-room continuing care facility for the elderly on Vauclain Point.

The Mercy plan would dedicate 61% of the point, including a fifth of the mesa area, for a public park--considerably more than would be offered by the hospice proposal. But the facility--sort of a combination retirement and nursing home, with a barbershop, beauty parlor and convenience store--could mean traffic congestion for the narrow street leading into the point.

Mercy officials said they don't intend to compete with the hospice proposal, which they thought was moot after the October council vote. The city manager's office has endorsed the Mercy proposal, which also will be discussed Monday at City Council.

"I think everyone is in an awkward position," said Vicki Williams, Mercy's director of marketing. "Both projects have substantial public merit . . . ."

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