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Old Town park to be expanded

Written by Michael Gardner
6/12/13 - San Diego Union Tribune - Original article

The San Diego district headquarters for Caltrans was occupied in Old Town from 1951 to 1964 and replaced by the present building on Taylor Street in 2006. - State of California

SACRAMENTO - A treasure trove of San Diego history may finally be unearthed after years of delay.

State lawmakers in the coming days are expected to pass a new budget that assures Old Town San Diego State Historic Park will become the owner of an adjacent building that served as the local Caltrans headquarters until 2006.

The budget deal is also expected to include a provision that guarantees $436,000 in bond money to demolish the old Caltrans building and carry out excavations.

The abandoned 115,735 sq. ft. Caltrans building sits on top of an old Kumeyaay village that dates back to AD 500 and a once thriving Mexican settlement. The Fitch store, the first such retail business in San Diego that was owned by Henry Delano Fitch, a sea captain, is also buried underneath the property at the southwest corner of Juan and Taylor Streets.

Also hidden underground are the banks of the original San Diego River, before its course was diverted on the way to the bay.

As a result, Old Town was never able to fully and accurately depict some of the city's history.

"We have never done as good a job as we would like in portraying why Old Town is where it is," explained Clay Phillips, parks superintendent of the San Diego Coast District.

The state has been eyeing acquisition for some time.

"This action preserves a site rich with our heritage and removes an eyesore from the historic center of our city," Assemblywoman Toni Atkins, D-San Diego.

Sen. Marty Block, D-San Diego, also touted the new steps, saying "retaining the site in public ownership has statewide significance because of its historic, archaeological and interpretive significance."

Parks officials say they cannot wait to start excavating. But they almost never got the chance.

Caltrans vacated the 2.4 acre property seven years ago, moving its San Diego headquarters into a new office nearby. The state agency, after saying an agreement could not be reached with the parks department, moved ahead with plans to auction the old building to the highest bidder. Caltrans, which at the time attached a $10.7 million price tag, said its annual maintenance and security bills came to $50,000.

Frustrated state parks officials and historic preservation groups, among others, enlisted the aid of lawmakers to work out a deal with Caltrans. Money to pay for the razing and excavation was eventually set aside in a previous bond, but spending authorization was due to expire June 30 this year unless the Legislature acts as part of the budget deal.

Lawmakers stress that the state will not be paying Caltrans for the property.

"We're pretty excited about it. It's one of the greatest additions to a park in San Diego we've seen," said Bruce Coons, executive director of the Save Our Heritage Organisation.

In addition to the Fitch store, Coons said old drawings and photograph's hint of at a buried history, including at least four Spanish-era adobes and other artifacts from the Native Americans who used the river.

"This is the Plymouth Rock of the West Coast," Coons said.

Coons said he would like to see the old riverbed restored with its native plants, including the sycamores, willows and oaks that once dotted the banks.

"There it will actually look like a park," he said.

State parks spokesman Roy Stearns said the department is drafting a plan to use the property and wants to work with the community before making any final decisions.



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