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Hotel San Diego Awaits Wrecking Ball

By Paul Hudson
Reprinted courtesy of The Espresso

Hotel San DiegoThe Feds have spoken, the engineers have conceded, the low income residents have been booted, and the demolition crews are warming up their bulldozers. The historic Hotel San Diego on Broadway and Union Street is about to become just a memory. Despite the pleas from preservationists and affordable housing advocates, on May 23rd the San Diego City Council approved demolition of the Hotel San Diego without a second thought.

Why are they tearing the hotel down? For several years, the General Services Administration (GSA) of the U.S. Government has had the hotel in their crosshairs because its removal would give the GSA plenty of room to build a new $180 million addition to the adjacent Federal Courthouse. The personality-deficient, rust-red eyesore of a courthouse they currently occupy on Front Street is apparently too small and not ugly enough.

Why is the hotel so important? The Hotel San Diego was built in 1914 by developer and millionaire John D. Spreckels (yes, the Spreckels Theater and Organ Pavilion guy). The hotel was completed in 1914, just in time for the opening of the 1915 Panama-California International Exposition in Balboa Park. The hotel was one of three new buildings constructed by Spreckels on 'D' Street, which was later re-named "Broadway" at the suggestion of Spreckels. The other two buildings were the Union Building and the Spreckels Theater building, which were completed between 1908 and 1914, creating a row of stately buildings along San Diego's most prominent street. The Union Building was demolished years ago when the current Federal courthouse was built. The loss of the Hotel San Diego would be another huge blow to the Spreckels legacy.

In 1983, the Hotel San Diego was listed as San Diego Historical Site Number 175. The hotel was also deemed eligible for listing on the National Register of Historic Places. According to the historical material, the six-story Hotel San Diego is significant not only for its architecture and size, but is culturally important because of "its part in establishing the urban fabric of a growing city." For a city with as few important buildings as San Diego, how can we afford to lose another one?

How can these guys demolish such a notable historic building? Easy. Just get a structural engineer to call it "unsafe" and bingo, the local officials will exclaim with glee, "knock that deathtrap down!" Mayor Dick Murphy, who once worked at auxiliary courtrooms inside the hotel, parroted the "experts" by telling the City Council, "The place has serious structural problems." San Diego Redevelopment officials, who usually view old buildings as nuisances, joined the wrecking ball chorus and urged the GSA to demolish the building as soon as possible because the empty hotel "will be an eyesore." All this urging despite the fact that the GSA won't be ready to start construction on the new courthouse until 2004 or 2005! It seems that an empty dirt lot on Broadway with a fence around it will be much more attractive.

Isn't there someone out there who can stop this? Apparently not. The San Diego Historical Resources Board (HRB) is supposed to advise the City Council on matters related to historic buildings, but they have been unceremoniously ignored by the Council and Mayor. In a letter to Mayor Murphy dated June 18, 2001, the Resources Board wrote that they "had not been informed regarding the hearing nor the action by the Council" and had "deep concerns" about the proposed demolition of the Hotel San Diego. In the letter, the Resources Board asked, "If the seismic safety of the building is so precarious, why has our Board not been appraised of this fact?"

The letter went on to state that the Historic Resources Board had previous discussions with the GSA, as far back as 1995, asking that the building be spared, but the "GSA does not intend to honor their agreement and instead is intent on demolishing the Hotel San Diego without further discussion." In conclusion, the letter asked that the Council action and demolition "be postponed until the Historic Resources Board and other interested parties have been afforded the opportunity to respond to the [GSA's] current project proposal, in accordance with federal law." San Diego City Hall wouldn't dare circumvent the law just to knock down an old building - would they?

Hotel San Diego

Is the Hotel San Diego really unsafe? Not according to well-respected architect Wayne Donaldson, who told the Union-Tribune that a 1999 report by another structural engineer called the reinforced concrete building structurally sound. The Hotel San Diego is listed on the Save Our Heritage Organisation (SOHO) Most Endangered Buildings List. SOHO spokesman Bruce Coons said, "Labeling the hotel as unsafe is ridiculous and contradicts a structural report they commissioned earlier. The GSA obviously looked for a engineer who would tell them what they wanted to hear."

Can't the hotel be repaired or reinforced? Sure it can, just like hundreds of other buildings in the city that were much more at risk of failing in a large earthquake. The Hotel San Diego is not even built with brick (i.e. unreinforced masonry). It is built with reinforced concrete and has stood the test of time with little or no indication that it can't last another 87 years. The GSA claims that it'll take $6 million to strengthen the hotel to current seismic codes. When a faceless new federal courthouse is estimated to cost $180 million, it's hard not to justify spending another 3 percent to save a historic landmark and its 400 units of affordable housing.

Another local preservationist had this to say: "It's unfortunate that the Federal government cares so little about San Diego's historic treasures. They've railroaded their huge courthouse project through with little regard for what stands in their way. History be damned."

Start writing the obituary. The Hotel San Diego will likely be gone by this time next year. Yet another erasure from our history books. To paraphrase Clint Eastwood from the movie Unforgiven: "Hell of a thing, demolishing a building. You take away all it's been and all it's ever gonna be."

What will be demolished next? Time for the City to find another victim for the Endangered List. I hear some of those yucky Spanish buildings in Balboa Park are more than 15 years old! I'll bet the City can find an engineer to say that the buildings will fall over the next time the wind blows. Warm up the dozers!

2001 - Volume 32, Issue 3

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