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Old Theaters in Limbo as Their Fate Is Debated

TIMES STAFF WRITER

They are, to those who love them, four symbols of the city’s past. They evoke a memory and a mood and offer hope for the future.

To those who don’t, they’re nothing less than eyesores, blocking the path to lucrative redevelopment.

Historical preservationists say all four theaters are worth saving and restoring--the California, the Balboa, the North Park and the Spreckels.

Their competition--developers and investors--ask why three of the four have lain dormant for months, or in some cases, years.

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Preservationists counter by asking why, in the case of the California, a 32-story office tower is better, when the city has anywhere from a 17% to 35% vacancy rate for commercial space and several new structures coming on line.

The tug of war has raged for years, but nowhere is the jousting more evident than in the battle developers and preservationists have fought--and continue to fight--over San Diego’s aging and largely dormant theaters.

The 64-year-old California Theatre at the corner of 4th Avenue and C Street has been the focal point of recent debate and action. Last month, the City Council downgraded its historical significance, clearing the biggest hurdle to demolition.

Spearheading the plan was Councilman Bob Filner, whose district includes downtown. Filner announced a plan, worked out with the property owners, whereby a trust would be established for preserving historic buildings--but only after the California is demolished.

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One preservationist joked that this was reminiscent of Vietnam, saying, “We need to destroy the village in order to save it.”

After a long period of dormancy, the Spreckels is now booked more frequently, with acts as diverse as Bob Weir of the Grateful Dead and a celebrated women’s choir from Bulgaria. There are no immediate plans to restore the Spreckels, although many regard it as potentially the city’s finest. No one has any plans to demolish it.

The North Park Theatre Foundation is raising money for an engineering study, before what it hopes will be renovation and full-time operation of the 62-year-old theater on University Avenue.

And the Balboa Theatre, which may the most expensive to refurbish--as much as $11 million--awaits a benefactor and a blueprint for the future. It, more than any of the others, symbolizes their status in limbo.

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Conceivably, the Spreckels, the Balboa and the North Park could benefit from Filner’s trust fund. Although preservationists would love to save the California, many regard its future as hopeless and believe it will soon be crushed by the wrecking ball.

Even Craig Noel, executive producer of the Old Globe Theatre and a long-time San Diegan, has argued on behalf of saving and restoring the Balboa and Spreckels but not the California. He says the Balboa and Spreckels could be vital downtown “spaces” in a city that promises to be a national leader in regional theater well into the next century.

Filner says that San Diego is now left with several old theaters, none of which a financially restive city has the money to restore, much less operate.

“In an ideal world,” he said, “it would be wonderful to save each and every one.”

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Preservationists say “win-win” for both sides could still be the outcome, if only the city would explore it. But they don’t hold out much hope.

The San Diego Community Foundation, which gives money to a variety of local charities, has no interest, its leaders say, in keeping the California as part of an office structure, a la Symphony Hall, which preservationists call the model of win-win scenarios.

The 4th and C Corp., which owns the theater as the umbrella encompassing Coggleshall’s beneficiaries, must now prepare an environmental impact report. The EIR will then go back to the City Council, and after that, a demolition permit could be granted.

Kathryn Willetts, head of the city’s Historical Site Board, says only two scenarios can save the theater--the council’s action could be contested in court (not likely) or preservationists could win assurances that the building won’t be demolished before redevelopment is assured.

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Willetts said it has happened in the past where buildings have been demolished and then the replacement project fell through. City planner Ron Buckley says the historic Klauber house at the corner of 6th Avenue and Redwood Street was one such example.

Preservationists say the California was, at one time, home to vaudeville, organ recitals, movies, live theater and most recently rock concerts booked by Avalon Attractions. The California was staging events as recently as June, when Cowboy Junkies’ lead singer Margo Timmins closed the theater with “Blue Moon.”

“The California was working,” said city planner Buckley, who favors saving it. “Acts were being booked there. It was open and alive and operating. Why do we have to sacrifice an historic resource for something like this (the 32-story office tower) when X amount of other blocks could be redeveloped instead?”

Kraig Kristofferson, associate vice president of Coldwell Banker’s commercial real estate division, said the California should come down for the simple reason that “it’s an eyesore. I hate looking at it. It does not represent, in my opinion, any architectural signature of any kind on the city’s skyline.”

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Kristofferson argues that the Spreckels and Balboa are much more important architecturally and ought to be saved, even at the expense of the California.

Willetts and Buckley and a recent Chamber of Commerce survey say the city’s vacancy rate for commercial space is hovering near 35%, with several new projects coming on line. Kristofferson disputes that, saying the figure is closer to 17 1/2%.

“A lot of people are under this misconception that there’s this glut of office space downtown,” Kristofferson said. “What they don’t take into consideration is that, from the time a building is conceived, it takes a year to get your plans completed and another 18 to 24 months to build the building.”

He said that, after the Great American Plaza building is completed near the Santa Fe Depot in December, “there will be no other new buildings under construction, so we’ll have a three-year supply of office space. But we’ll have no new buildings for three years, so there could well be a tightening downtown as space is absorbed.”

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Still, even Kristofferson acknowledges that the vision by Pittsburgh-based Hillman Properties for replacing the California is “a good project but a little big” for San Diego.

“They’re proposing 600,000 square feet (of office space),” he said. “The Koll Center, on Broadway, for instance, is much smaller. And most of the city’s new buildings are in the Koll range--about 360,000 square feet.”

David Swarens, president of the Save Our Heritage Organisation, or SOHO, said the city “should not be too sanctimonious about theaters being dark,” noting that both the Balboa and the North Park “had economically viable uses” at the time they were condemned--and thus rendered dormant--by the city.

By condemning the buildings, the city fostered a situation in which each theater must now conform to code, Swarens said, meaning they need “earthquake-proofing” and other structural enhancements.

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City estimates for fixing the Balboa have been as high as $11 million and as astronomical as $17 million for repairing the California. Preservationists say such estimates are artificially inflated, so as to make renovation so exorbitant that it paves the way for developers.

Swarens said the city is “hardly consistent.” He said the hollow clay tile structure of the old Navy Hospital in Balboa Park, now being converted to city use, is much more in need of repair than the reinforced concrete of the North Park Theatre, “but then it’s not a political issue in that case, is it?”

Martin Gregg, president of the North Park Theatre Foundation, said that, shortly after condemning the University Avenue theater in 1987, the city estimated that it would take $1.4 million to bring that building to code.

Gregg’s group recently hired noted theater architect Richard McCann of Pasadena to evaluate the building; McCann concluded that it could be done for about $500,000. Gregg said the foundation is now raising the money for a $12,000 engineering survey, which will show how much is needed to repair--and re-open--the theater.

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Gregg envisions the North Park as being a mecca for the performing arts and for “ethnic groups--blacks, Hispanics, Vietnamese, the gay community. . . . We also hope to show movies in there. We could become one of the few remaining single-screen movie houses in the city.”

Gregg said the North Park intends to take Filner at his word--it wants a piece of the trust fund being established “to save old theaters.”

The North Park has a plan, the one thing that seems to be missing from the Balboa and the California. So far, the Balboa Theatre Foundation has been unable to raise anything close to the $11 million the city says is needed to bring it to code or to develop a plan for how it’s run once that’s accomplished.

Willetts of the Historical Site Board said it’s imperative that the city try to save all three of its downtown landmark theaters--the Balboa, the California and the Spreckels--because the country’s sixth-largest city is at the forefront of regional theater in America and simply needs such buildings.

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“We’ll need them even more in the future,” she said.


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