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Preservationists & Local Government Join Forces to Save the Hotel San Diego

Despite Efforts, Historic Hotel is Still Threatened by the
Fed's Wrecking Ball

By Paul Hudson

The San Diego Hotel on Broadway, built by John D. Spreckels


About ten months ago, SOHO updated its members on the status of the threatened Hotel San Diego. The Hotel San Diego is currently number 2 on SOHO's 11 Most Endangered List. In the last year there has been unprecedented unity among preservation groups and local agencies in a last ditch effort to keep the General Services Administration (GSA) of the U.S. Government from leveling our cherished hotel. For more than ten years, the GSA has wanted to crunch the landmark Hotel San Diego to make room for a new $185 million addition to the adjacent Federal courthouse. Unfortunately, the desperate cries for a stay of execution have fallen upon the deaf ears of the Feds. The clock is ticking and the outlook has never been more bleak.

No one can recall such a unified front in an attempt to save a San Diego building. Joining forces with the Save Our Heritage Organisation (SOHO) is the City of San Diego Centre City Development Corporation CCDC), the City of San Diego Historical Resources Board (HRB), the San Diego Housing Commission, and the National Trust for Historic Preservation. This powerful group of organizations is allied against a single common foe: The United States Federal Government, led by the GSA. Now the scary part - the Feds are about to win and the Hotel San Diego is closer than ever to becoming landfill.

Why bother with saving this old hotel? The Hotel San Diego was built in 1914 by developer and millionaire John D. Spreckels and was completed for the opening of the 1915 Panama California Exposition. The six-story hotel was one of three new buildings constructed by Spreckels on 'D' Street, creating a row of stately buildings along San Diego's most prominent thoroughfare. At the suggestion of Spreckels, 'D' Street was bestowed its current name, "Broadway." The Hotel San Diego is significant not only for its architecture and its association with Spreckels, but it is culturally important for its part in helping establish the urban fabric of a growing city. The loss of the Hotel San Diego would be a huge blow to San Diego's history, and would reduce John D. Spreckels' legacy to a single orphaned building on Broadway.

Because of the significance of the Hotel San Diego the GSA was forced by the National Historic Preservation Act (NHPA) to follow what is known as the Section 106 process. Section 106 requires federal agencies to consult in good faith with local agencies, preservation groups, and interested parties in an effort to avoid the unnecessary demolition of historical resources. Both SOHO Executive Director Bruce Coons and the National Trust for Historic Preservation have written that there hasn't been a good faith effort to work with concerned parties to develop a non-demolition scenario that can result in a win-win solution. According to the National Trust, the GSA seems only interested in a process "aimed at justifying demolition." Recent successes in negotiations, involving the Hotel Del Coronado and the Padres Ballpark related to historic buildings that were being threatened with new development, showed what true cooperation and fair play could accomplish.

Ironically, the General Services Administration is even at odds with their own "Center of Historic Buildings National Office" who released a simulation study and elaborate computer animation that skillfully showed how well an adaptive reuse of the hotel could work with a courthouse tower behind it. Obviously the people at the Center of Historic Buildings didn't get their memo from the GSA's head office asking them to adapt their findings to reach the predetermined demolition conclusion. The GSA was faced with having to dismiss THEIR OWN REPORT by saying that it was incomplete and only looked at the "aesthetic feasibility" of reusing the hotel. There's little doubt that the simulation study would have been tossed into the circular file before it ever saw the light of day had the head office known how reasonable and feasible its own reuse conclusions were. Reminds one of the Wizard of Oz's desperate plea, "Pay no attention to that man behind the curtain."

The bottom line is that the General Services Administration has never seriously considered a solution that keeps the Hotel San Diego. When the GSA selected the Hotel San Diego site for their new Federal Courthouse expansion they did so with little or no regard for the hotel's civic importance. The entire process has been, in the words of Bruce Coons, "a shell game of straw men" with self-imposed "fatal flaws" intended to reach the GSA's predetermined plan to demolish the hotel. At no time does it appear that the GSA has seriously looked into a non-demolition scenario. In their June 2002 report, the GSA states "we do not believe that preservation of the Hotel San Diego is feasible."

The Section 106 process has resulted in a mountain of paperwork and a series of letters and GSA responses. The most recent GSA counter punch was the report titled "Hotel San Diego Adaptive Reuse Options & Section 106 Comments & Responses of the Consulting Parties for the New United States Courthouse" dated June 2002. The report contains many misleading statements, oversimplifications, disjointed reasoning and what many consider outright lies. Below are the "Top Seven Most Blatant Misrepresentations in the GSA's Latest Report."

  1. The GSA claims that the Hotel San Diego is an immediate life/safety risk due to the "severely deteriorated condition of the hotel structure." In truth, the hotel is not built with brick or any other unreinforced masonry, which is considered to be the most at-risk material in an earthquake. The Hotel San Diego is built with steel reinforced concrete and has stood the test of time with little or no indication that it can't last another 88 years. When you track down the fine print in the GSA report, the "structural deficiencies" in the hotel are confined to a single column with rusty reinforcing and some exterior ornamentation that is cracked. A single damaged column, out of 107 columns, is far from the "severely deteriorated structure" that the GSA is trying to peddle.
  2. Another contradiction that the GSA has tried to quell is the far different conclusions of two different structural engineering firms that they hired. A 1999 GSA-commissioned report by a well-respected structural engineer called the reinforced concrete building structurally sound. To dismiss that account the GSA stated that the engineers "did not have access to the building," making their conclusions incomplete. I spoke with one of the professionals who authored that report and he said that his team spent many hours INSIDE the hotel while gathering information for their report. Would the GSA tell bald-faced lies to help benefit their cause? What do you think?
  3. In a related structural issue, a GSA project timeline states that a contractor was hired to mitigate "life safety hazards due to deteriorated concrete falling from the roof level ornamentation onto pedestrians walking below." Oh my God! Was anyone hurt? Well, if you read further in the same document you'll see that NOTHING has actually fallen and the "hazard" is based on the "POTENTIAL" of ornamentation falling. Such slippery language is a GSA specialty.
  4. It is always easier to demolish a vacant building, so the GSA successfully chased out 400 low-income residents in July of 2001 based on a finding of "abnormal fungal amplification" -- also known as mold. The mold in question was primarily found in the abandoned basement and not in the residential portions of the hotel. But it sure scares a lot of local officials when you use hideous phrases like "abnormal fungal amplification!"
  5. Even before the September 11th terrorist attacks, the GSA was calling the Hotel San Diego a menace to society because it was not sufficiently "blast-resistant" to meet Federal Government requirements. What they don't bother to mention is that the current Federal Building on the adjacent block doesn't come close to meeting those same requirements - even after $200 million is spent for the courthouse addition. This is just one more example of the GSA fabricating a list of "problems" that are supposed to be limited to the Hotel San Diego, when, in fact, they are neither unique nor insurmountable. A favorite trick of the GSA has been to create a scenario with its own inherent problems, and then use the problems THEY CREATED to prove their point. The best example is when the GSA introduced a "sky bridge" between the hotel and the courthouse addition and then complained that the bridge would be a terrorist target. One on the adjacent block doesn't come close to meeting those same requirements - even after $200 million is spent for the courthouse addition.
  6. One of the GSA's most repeated complaints concerns the supposed "funding limitations" that they must deal with. The GSA claims that there is an "extreme differential in cost" between retaining and reusing the Hotel San Diego versus its demolition. They quote the most extreme ends of the scale to reach the conclusion that reusing the hotel would increase costs over $78 million. But if you look at the GSA's own numbers in the body of the report, retaining and reusing the hotel could be done for only $20 million more. And if a non-Federal use was utilized for the hotel they could eliminate $11.4 million needed to create a "blast-resistant" facade and the Hotel San Diego could be saved for less than $10 million dollars more. Since when is a 5% increase in costs an "extreme differential?"
  7. The GSA also contradicts itself regarding square footage needs. In one section of the June 2002 report the GSA says that saving the Hotel San Diego would "preclude future expansion," but later in the same report they state that "the additional square footage added by [keeping the building] is not authorized... since it exceeds the requirements of the Courts." Okay GSA, if you don't need the Hotel San Diego sell it back to the city for rehabilitation so it can once again be used for desperately needed low-income housing.

We are fast approaching zero hour. You have seen what many consider to be some of the numerous falsehoods and scare tactics employed by the General Services Administration in an effort to reduce our city's namesake hotel into rubble. Please help SOHO stop this unnecessary erasure from our history books and take an active role in saving this important national landmark.

2002 - Volume 33, Issue 2

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