Hotel San Diego Closes After More Asbestos Is Found : Health: Temporary courtrooms at the hotel had already been vacated. County is now searching for new space.


The Hotel San Diego, where nine temporary county courtrooms were shut down earlier this week because of asbestos fears, is closing entirely and indefinitely because traces of the cancer-causing substance turned up elsewhere around the hotel, officials said Thursday.

Officials at the six-story, 219-room downtown hotel said they decided to close late Wednesday after tests, which had been ordered following discovery earlier this month of asbestos in the courtrooms, revealed more asbestos in other areas.

It remained unclear Thursday how many rooms or common areas were tainted or how many nightly guests, monthly tenants, hotel employees, jurors, witnesses, attorneys, police officers or members of the public may have been exposed to asbestos--or what levels, or length, of exposure there may have been.


John Gender, general manager of the hotel at 339 W. Broadway, also disclosed Thursday that the hotel had been cited by both county pollution and health officials for improperly disposing of asbestos found in one of the courtrooms. Bags of asbestos-laced material scraped off a ceiling were inadvertently tossed in a waste bin in back of the hotel without wetting or labeling the sacks, Gender said.

Meanwhile, Gender said, the hotel was closing, employees were being laid off without pay, nightly guests had been moved to other hotels by Thursday morning and the last 12 monthly tenants have been told to move. He said it was uncertain if the hotel, which has been in bankruptcy since last year, would close for good--or when it might reopen.

Commercial tenants on the ground floor of the building greeted word of the hotel’s closure with wariness. Most said they did not have enough information to know how it would effect them.

Court administrators said it appeared probable that the county essentially has been evicted from the hotel, which provided courtrooms for seven Superior courts and two Municipal courts, because the hotel’s financial condition is precarious. Clearing the courtrooms alone of asbestos will cost $80,000, county spokesman Bob Lerner added.

County planners, scheduled to meet today to search for new court space, said Thursday that a number of buildings downtown--and, in a new twist, in Mission Valley--are under consideration as new homes for the courts.

For two years, the county has leased the hotel rooms to alleviate the severe crowding across Broadway in the main courthouse. That building has been plagued in recent years by sewage spills, funny-colored water, bugs and rats. Earlier this year, a proposal to build nine courtrooms at the El Cortez Hotel Convention Center, a few blocks away, fell through.

Court administrators said Thursday that they planned to try to get by in the next couple of weeks by using the few empty courtrooms made available by judges on vacation or temporary assignment. The Superior Court is also considering space in Chula Vista, El Cajon and Ramona, said Superior Court Executive Officer Ken Martone.

“This is a continuation of an ongoing nightmare,” Martone said. Added D. Kent Pedersen, administrator of the San Diego Municipal Court, “This is a disaster in many respects.”

Asbestos was once widely used to fireproof, insulate and soundproof buildings and was outlawed in the 1970s. The material is commonly found in walls, ceilings and support beams of older buildings, like the aging hotel.

Scientists say that asbestos is safe when contained. But when displaced or torn from walls or ceilings and inhaled, it can lead to cancer.

At 5:30 p.m. on Aug. 13, Gender said, a 2-inch thick, 1-by-2-foot chunk of ceiling in courtroom H-7, on the ground level of the hotel, fell to the carpeted floor. That section of the ceiling had been weakened by a persistent but undetected water leak, he said.

Not knowing that the chunk contained asbestos, hotel workers scraped the ceiling clean and, on Aug. 15, tossed the cottage cheese-like ceiling substance--and the white dust it produced when scraped--in the trash bin, Gender said.

“It was an unfortunate accident but not criminal nor irresponsible,” Gender said. “We just plainly didn’t know. I assure you we would not have dumped that if we had known.”

Teresa Morris, chief of the enforcement division of the county’s Air Pollution Control District, said Thursday that the hotel was cited Aug. 23. Most violations are pursued to “some type of penalty,” though it’s not yet clear whether the case will result in criminal or civil action, she said.

The county’s hazardous materials management department also cited the hotel, Gender said. Officials at the department did not return phone calls Thursday.

A statement released by the county said people who were in courtrooms H-7 and H-6 on Aug. 15 had a “brief elevated exposure.” Otherwise, the exposure was “minimal,” it said.

Attorney Stephen Burchett, who represents the owner of the hotel, Western Sun Hotels-Hotel San Diego Ltd., said earlier this week that the asbestos was tracked to other courtrooms by a vacuum cleaner that was used only for the courtrooms. He did not return repeated phone calls Thursday.

County officials said the first round of tests found asbestos in the carpeting and other surfaces in all the courtrooms, in the hotel’s basement and mezzanine, and on floors 2, 4 and 5.

Though the ceiling fell Aug. 13, the courtrooms were not ordered closed until Monday. County spokesman Lerner said the delay occurred because it took a week before anybody began asking about the white dust found on the carpet and other surfaces in the courtrooms.

Subsequently, hotel officials hired a private firm to test the rest of the hotel as well. The firm then notified the county that each of the two samples tested on each floor tested positive for asbestos, county Environment Health Services officials said Thursday.

Ralph Szaras, whose firm, The Szaras Cos., performed the tests, declined to comment.

When the results came back positive, Gender said, hotel officials decided to close. It couldn’t have come at a worse time, he said, because the hotel, which normally has a 60% occupancy rate at $59 or $69 a night for a guest room, was booked full for the long Labor Day weekend.

“The important thing is that we are acting in an extremely responsible manner, voluntarily closing the hotel to protect the public and our employees,” Gender said. “I know that sounds like BS, but it’s true. Financially, it’s not doing us any good.”

The hotel’s 30 employees will not be paid while laid off, Gender said. Because of the bankruptcy proceedings, the hotel payroll depends on operating revenue, and since that revenue was halted Wednesday, there’s no incoming cash to pay salaries, he said.

All the hotel’s guests, Gender said, were moved to other hotels Wednesday evening and Thursday, many to the Kingston Hotel downtown. Several of the 12 remaining monthly tenants do not want to move but have been told to clear out, he said.