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SOHO sues Caltrans over planned sale of old HQ
By THOR KAMBAN BIBERMAN, The Daily Transcript
Monday, January 30, 2012

Save Our Heritage Organisation has filed a lawsuit in a Sacramento Superior Court to try and stop the old Caltrans office complex in Old Town from being sold to a private developer.

The 2.5-acre property is occupied by a 115,735-square-foot, three-building, red brick complex at Juan and Taylor streets on the edge of the Old Town State Park.

SOHO, which filed the lawsuit on Jan. 18, alleges Caltrans, in its environmental impact report, failed to comply with the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) when it decided to sell its old district office. SOHO also alleges the CEQA was violated because Caltrans failed to provide any alternatives to the public auction scheduled to take place on Feb. 23.

Bruce Coons, SOHO executive director; Fred Grand, Old Town Chamber of Commerce president; and Chuck Ross, president of the Old Town Family Hospitality Group that runs Fiesta de Reyes; each said they felt blindsided by the decision by Caltrans to sell the site to the highest bidder.

"The Old Town community was promised that after the new facility was completed (in 2006) the old building would transfer to the state park," Coons said.

Ross said not only was it assumed that the building would be transferred to the state park system, but about $7.5 million has been allocated for cleanup.

Grand said not only does the building contain asbestos and lead paint, it is reportedly subject to possible liquefaction due to its proximity to the river and has other seismic issues as well. In addition, a petroleum plume is also beneath the buildings. Under the newest plan, this cleanup would be paid for by the new developer.

"I don't even know if there is a developer who would want to build on this site," Ross said.

Coons suggested the state wouldn't have agreed to bankroll the cleanup if the intent were just to sell to a private developer all along.

"The state has money put aside for this, I don't understand their unwillingness to work out a deal," Coons adds.

Caltrans officials declined comment because of the litigation. Susan Brandt-Hawley of the Brandt-Hawley Law Group is representing SOHO.

Dealy Development president Perry Dealy, who has eyed the old Caltrans site for decades, said the lawsuit "could have a chilling impact on the auction," but conceded that making such a site pencil out during a dubious economic time would be a challenge.

Dealy said if a project could make sense financially, it would most likely be a mixed-use development with housing, retail and perhaps a boutique hotel. Dealy said he also envisions the development as something that would link to the state park.

Coons Ross and Grand said this is essential.

"We're going to demolish these buildings, but we would like to see something special for the most visited state park in California," Grand said.

Other things could happen. There is the chance the 1950s and 1960s buildings themselves -- which many consider to be an eyesore -- could be subject to some sort of historic preservation.

"That's something that's going to have to be evaluated," said Coons.

Coons, who said the property had once been part of a Native American village, said something acknowledging that history and the importance of the San Diego River there, might be suitable along with some sort of green space that would directly link the property to the rest of Old Town.

Ross said the fact that Old Town State Park welcomes nearly 6 million visitors a year means it is deserving of a grand entrance.

Grand also said the property could serve as a gateway to Old Town State Park that would serve as a welcoming transition.

"And you could create more parking in the interim," Grand said.

"The community has worked for years to assure that this site was handled with care, as the site lies on the banks of the historic riverbed of the San Diego River, and was a critical factor in the building of the city of San Diego," Coons said. "The importance of the economic, cultural, environmental, and educational benefits to the people of San Diego and to the State of California cannot be overstated."

Coons added that the acquisition of the Caltrans property by the state would provide an opportunity to develop more fully Old Town San Diego's history during the Mexican period. Several historic adobes, including Henry Fitch's two-story trading outpost, existed on this site during the 1830s and 1840s.

The proposed auction meanwhile, which has a $4.5 million minimum bid, is scheduled to take place in the new Caltrans offices at 4050 Taylor St. Feb 23 unless SOHO is successful in gaining a court injunction to stop the sale. A $200,000 registration fee is required, which is applicable toward 10 percent of the winning bid following the auction.



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