Between Indifference & Hope Print

20170628(San Diego Reader June 28, 2017)

It’s decision day in the City Council chambers, Two Broke Girls vs. Billions. Call it a classic smackdown between local architectural preservationists who want to save any Spanish Colonial Revival building (and think someone should pay) vs. the downtown developers who can’t wait to erect residential towers (and have investors ready and willing to foot the bill). It’s early April, and the horseshoe room is packed, its 53-year-old semi-gloss teakwood a kind of paean to the past. Backrow perched, I think of Pete Wilson’s wily quip from 1975: “The future of San Diego should have as much of the past in it as possible.”

I think as well that each city-adjudicated, skyline alteration rehashes our city’s core ideological battle—the geraniums of George Marston (guard the green) and the smokestacks of Louis Wilde (grow the gray), nearly a century ago. The way the pro-housing, pro-job, pro-business “special interest” typically wins is to outspend, out-own, and out-promise opponents, one 40-story, 282-unit glass spire at a time.

Why all the fuss today? The revitalization of C Street is at stake. The semi-fabled “corridor” needs a proprietary boost: fewer homeless, more housing, whether glitzy or affordable, and touristy draws to attract conventioneers from the Gaslamp. C Street, alas, is not what it used to be. C’s there there is stunted by the clanging disturbance of trolleys coming and going every six minutes.

Should the city demolish the California Theater, a building crumbling in its own neglect, having sat empty for 27 years, wood-rotting, asbestos-blighted, lead-stained? It’s taken years to get this big question before the council. Sloan Capital Partners, a Beverly Hills investment group, bought the moldering structure at Fourth and C in 2008, a foreclosure deal, $12 million. In its place, Sloan wants to high-rise the luxury live/work/play Overture, the ne plus ultra of architectural solutions to urban problems.

By Jim Bartell’s count—his public relations firm has ridden herd on the project—the demolitionists have 112 people parked in the chamber. Many are from the San Diego Downtown Partnership, business cheerleaders whose Twitter tag is #ANewCStreet, printed—and worn—on stickers. Scattered throughout are blue-T-shirted unionists, the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers; their 20 percent unemployment brought them in (odd: laborers nested beside executives) to rally for jobs.

Arrayed against are the disheveled oracles of doom from Save Our Heritage Organization who are passionately nostalgic or scripturally historical in their demand: The California Theater, for 90 years a movie, vaudeville, and punk-rock palace, is (was) an epochal star in the San Diego night sky. Its West-facing rear wall, festooned with the iconic Caliente racetrack sign, recalls a Bing Crosbyish-past when Tijuana horse-wagering and Zona Norte iniquity ruled. The sign must also be razed. Sorry, Grandpa, but Old San Diego is a-vanishing fast.

Select testimony from Team Ragtag. “The Caliente sign speaks to the cross-cultural relationship more than any other resource in San Diego.” “A rehabilitated California Theater could include, not preclude, a major housing development.” “They say they are going to recreate the building, but it’s a fake building; it’s not an accurate recreation. With its parking garage, it’ll look like a bombed-out building.” “City staff concedes that the owner of this building has been issued a stack of code violations but no enforcement has ever taken place. It’s demolition by neglect.” “When the theater was first closed, it was a perfectly fine venue. Nothing that some regular maintenance couldn’t have taken care of. Speculators swooped in. They threw bricks through the windows to let the storm rain in, to let pigeons fly in, to let Mother Nature do the demolition for 25 years.” “San Diego suffers from historic amnesia.” Save it!

Select testimony from Team Corporate. “We have enormous support from petitions, Facebook, and social media, from the Downtown Community Planning Group, Civic San Diego, the Planning Commission, and the Downtown Partnership.” “Nothing’s been done to this building in 47 years.” “C Street’s been the ‘boulevard of broken dreams’ ever since the trolley came in.” “For 90 years, there’s been rhythm at Fourth and C, and we want to continue to promote that.” “When you put a historic valuation on a building it almost always lowers the value because it limits what you can do with it.” “That building is extraordinarily dangerous. It’s made of hollow-clay blocks. It’s filled with asbestos and lead. When the earthquake comes, it will kill people.” Downtown Third District councilmember Chris Ward sums up what the chamber feels abuzz with: “We’ve been waiting for something transformative to happen on C Street.” Replace it!

(Post-vote, I speak with Dawn Griffin, a feisty restorer of neglected local venues. Throughout the process of the site’s “in-the-bag” approval, she says the renovation plan from her Davenport Griffin Preservation Group never got a hearing. She tried to present an alternative to the Overture to the Centre City Development Corporation [renamed, Civic San Diego] five years ago—a blueprint to save the theater, its six-story building, the Caliente sign, and the whole block. “They still wouldn’t talk to me unless I was part of the ownership.” Embittered, she renamed the “Overture,” the “Requiem.” “History means nothing in this town,” she says, “and that’s the saddest thing I’ve ever seen.”)

“Clerk, please call the roll.” Bing! “That passes unanimously.” 9 to 0. Hip-hip, oh no!

The Tijuana Trolley

Cheers, jeers. It wasn’t always so. C Street once trundled with (and smelled of) horse-drawn streetcars; it eventually gave way to electric railcars. In 1949, the public conveyances were removed for angled parking in front of Marston’s Department Store. The street was soon packed with bulbous sedans frequenting the tobacconists, the theaters, and the millinery shops. By the early 1980s, city planners, as the Los Angeles Times put it, predicted a need “to facilitate transportation between burgeoning downtown San Diego and bustling Tijuana,” Block-stopping buses didn’t cut it. But stealthy light-rail might.

Covering downtown for the San Diego Union was architectural columnist James Britton II. He feared in 1978 that a trolley, while bi-nationally desirable, would overtake downtown with “literally millions of Tijuanans . . . for shopping, employment or mayhem, according to type.” He wagered blocks of fashionable stores would wither and a “Tijuana downtown” would flourish, which, when sailors heel-toed Broadway, was already afoot.

Still, via local/state funding and Mayor Pete Wilson’s gubernatorial aspirations, on July 16, 1981, the Tijuana trolley started running. Guy-wired overhead, the fire-engine-red cars wended their way from the Santa Fe Depot at India Street, east to Twelfth Avenue, right-turned south on a triangle of city-bought land, and, conscripting an old railroad track, surprised San Ysidro. Quickly. Quietly. Safely. Trolley-boosting tourism, as another Times reporter noted, has “proved to be San Diego’s salvation after World War Two, changing its image of a military-service and aircraft-production center the equal of any Mediterranean resort, with better beaches.”

Hope sprung then that the 16-mile, 42-minute trip, costing $6 million, would boost city-center businesses. Sure, the planners thought libertine San Diegans would head for the racetracks, bullfights, and sex shows in T.J. But the bigger prize hinged on Tijuanans patronizing Marston’s, the California Theater, and seafood spots on the bay, things absent down Mexico way. Rechristened the San Diego trolley, the decency league got its way.

Enter the far-flung Calvin Trillin, and his New Yorker column, “U.S Journal.” Trillin reported in 1981 that the trolley and its route—one of “unrelieved dreariness,” skirting “trailer parks of blue-collar suburbs”—was pure tourist pimping, tickling our railway “nostalgia” as “bright,” “cheerful,” and “fun.” The trolley, he writes, “is not based on the mass-transit needs of San Diego.” Instead, he cites Ernest Hahn’s rapacity with Horton Plaza, then in the works and which opened in 1985. “The potential for riders” was not commuters to the shipyards of South Bay or “green-carder maids” from Tijuana, “but customers.” What’s more, San Diegans, besieged by “leisure activities,” had no desire for Mexico’s lawlessness and souvenir shops. No trolley would change their preference for “California beaches or California desert or California mountains.” In short, sic transit no Gloria.

Trillin’s tripwire failed. By 1991, the trolley and its expanding lines had carried 90 million riders. Ridership boom! City planners cheered: the “doggle” had fallen off the “boon.” Thousands came downtown daily for service jobs, jury duty, court dates, jail visits, classes at City College, and shopping excursions. Families, especially working mothers, got discounts. At day’s end, most of those thousands went home.

Other factors arrived before and with the trolley. Cubicles in city, state, and federal offices grew. The Hall of Justice had opened in 1961; City Hall and the Community Concourse in 1964; the Convention Center in 1988; Petco and the Gaslamp in 2004. The city combined work and play: the Navy sailed, and the yuppies landed. The party set gorged on tequila shots and fish tacos. Sports bars supplanted the peep shows and pawn shops. Sailors rang up debts at Victoria’s Secret. The Gaslamp continues its renaissance, despite the perennially lousy Padres.

Like flotsam, the illicit stuff got pushed north and after dark. In the C corridor, a quartet of vices pestered all: drug deals, fights, vandalism, and homelessness. Eventually, the city rerouted cars off C, widening sidewalks and waiting platforms. More space to loiter and claim nighttime benches for the down-and-out. The trolley and its peripatetic environ spooked downtown. The mix of mayhem and mistrust pushed property values down and upped commercial vacancies.

Today, C Street’s 17 blocks from India to Twelfth keep ferrying the trains, Worn and torn, the avenue remains like its grade: average, undistinguished, caught between indifference and hope.

Manhattanish Housing

It’s not hard to see why the city wants the Overture: clean up a moribund block, beacon San Diego’s skyline for more investment, coffer taxes on upscale residences. And what about those looming towers like the Overture? How can we call 260 luxury apartments with bay views and million-dollar mortgages housing?

The distinction between that and affordable housing stirs the mild ire of San Diego Housing Commission executive vice-president for strategic operations, Debbie Ruane. What the commission faces, she tells me in her office overlooking the corridor, is a waiting list of 75,000 renters who are desperate to relocate and who qualify for Section 8, or, subsidized, housing. It’s entirely possible that many of the boarded-up blocks and parking lots and aging warehouses and mom-and-pop shops on C Street would be ideal for newly constructed, affordable housing.

The housing commission offices are part of the “smart corner” at C and Twelfth, fifth floor of the mossy-green, glass building where the trolley curves south. Ruane calls this location a “gateway” to downtown, an invitation to use the “tenacious rehabbers” who specialize in affordable residences. Not only a lack of funds blocks the way. Some projects require mammoth commitment. A site, she says, with “Nimbies, with soil contamination, with poor infrastructure” means “the affordable housing developer has to deal with all that. It’s difficult. If it were easy, it would have been done a long time ago.” She sees the “wave of development and redevelopment” on C moving “this way, to the east,” to Twelfth, the goal, “to lift up the neighborhood.”

Incentives for developers to work with the Housing Commission include tax credits, bond financing, and guaranteed loans. But projects that focus on single-room-occupancy, for example, won’t garner for its investors the mega-profit cash-flow the Overture will: a foreclosure buy with no upkeep, a $120 million erection price-tag, a near guaranteed market for multi-million-dollar apartments. Lack of (luxury) supply, of course, may activate even higher valuations. Even with the affordable demand, new housing permits are only 16 percent of what SANDAG says their projections for job growth here should be.

Still, the optimistic Ruane believes “the tide has turned.” Big employers are realizing they can’t get skilled and semi-skilled workers to relocate here if too many people are fighting for too few rentals, whether it’s the hard-pressed or the professional class. Still, she says, downtown is abuzz with housing construction. The inclusionary fees builders pay to the city, requiring any new building be 10-15 percent affordable, are rising dramatically.

The commission’s newest affordable jewel is three blocks away, on C between Eighth and Ninth avenues, an immaculate rehab, the Hotel Churchill. Reopened last year, the Churchill is a 72-unit single-room-occupancy residence with 56 units for former homeless veterans, 8 for transitional-age youth, and 8 for adults exiting the corrections system. Colin Miller shows me around the 103-year structure, emphasizing the renovation: lobby floor tiles, marble counters, fluid viscous dampers (earthquake shock absorbers), offices for social services, building-hugging chute for trash and recyclables, modest 321-square-foot rooms with full-service kitchen, private bathroom, and lead-pulley windows with sounding views of the trolley.

Despite how much Miller, whose pad is on Cortez Hill, sees the “overall neighborhood improving” because of the Churchill, he still thinks downtown is out-of-reach for nearly everyone. He knows of one new single-room-occupancy residence, with 450-square-foot studios (the rent 25 to 30 percent higher than Churchill’s), between $1800 and $2300 a month. “That’s a mortgage,” he says. New two- and three-bedroom apartments in East Village are going for $3300 to $4500. “That’s like a really nice house mortgage. What jobs can support the kinds of rent they’re charging?”

The Homeless Card

Last to cross my path is the former college ballplayer, Jimmy Langley, surfboard tall and stout, who owns “The Local,” one storefront away from Fourth and C, cattycorner to the California Theater. As a commercial realtor, the 36-year-old entered the trade at the most inauspicious time—at the onset of the Great Recession. Focusing on people, delaying profits, he has survived, buying, selling, and managing downtown properties. Four years ago, via some crafty negotiation, Langley became part owner of “The Local” and, with his brother-in-law, added Resident Brewery in the back, its silver vats producing 2000 kegs per year: “What an animal craft beer is,” Langley says. “A billion-dollar gross-domestic-product industry.” Alas, all this right as C Street was bottoming out.

Standing on the corner with him today, I get the sense from Langley that things have improved on C but confrontations with the homeless still rattle. Renovating “The Local” then for $2.6 million, “I could not believe what I saw out here. Drug-taking, criminal activity, every second, every day. Unbelievable. Fights. Guys throwing feces at you. Guys urinating on your door handle. Guys almost dying in front of you on spice,” synthetic marijuana. “Once a homeless woman walked in stark naked.” Cops patrolled but to “call them all the time was like crying wolf.”

Langley tells me a story about Bentley Motors, the luxury car manufacturer. A few years back, the president and his entourage, “some 50 Bentleys,” pulled up on Third Avenue, having booked a few nights at the U. S. Grant Hotel. According to Langley, who heard the tale from Doug Kurtz at the Grant, the Bentley chief saw a man pissing on the side of the building and said, “‘We’re out of here.’”

The Grant takes up the block between Third and Fourth and Broadway and C. Now owned by the Sycuan Indian band, there’s a boarded-up storage space, “a concrete bunker” facing C that Langley wants to “ground-lease for 50 years.” Working with HP Investors, who would manage the property per Langley’s “crazy idea”: a “tasting mecca—for craft beer, craft coffee, craft whiskey. Keep it local.” He’d have “multiple tasting rooms for tourists,” the top ten city breweries represented, all in one location, trolleying tourists from the Convention Center and the Gaslamp. “I do believe this would be a huge draw.”

As we walk C, the indefatigable deal-maker points to the Ross store and its residential units above. He turns to the old Marston building, which may be for sale soon. He doesn’t think C needs a Rite-Aid and a CVS, so he’s hoping to make an offer on the former. “A tasting room, perhaps.” Langley tried to make a deal for a corner spot at Fifth and C. “They chose someone else, unfortunately.” Crisscrossing C, I feel like Langley is in a Big Five with his tax refund.

Before we part company, hit up several times for “spare change,” Langley longingly eyes the boarded-up bland between Seventh and Eighth—C’s next boomlet, a 41-story tower, 498 condo units by Bosa Development, a Canadian outfit that owns, Langley opines, “tons of downtown.” (It’s no secret: very little of the core is owned by San Diegans.) “We are seeing C slowly change,” he says, “but you’ve got to have a lot of money to buy a plot and hold it and wait. If I was a big money guy with unlimited funds, I’d be buying every property on C Street and holding it. Knowing in ten years that I will more than quadruple my money.”

I ask once more about the homeless. He says that the best repellent is not housing but “activity. At ‘The Local,’ every day someone goes in at 6 a.m., and if you’re getting woken up and told to leave, after a while you don’t want to sleep there anymore. Only businesses and their activity will put constant pressure on and clean up homelessness.”

An Existential Reality

Several times, I stroll C Street’s lane of urban dissatisfaction. Near the western end, an agitated foreboding weighs heavily near the Central Jail and the overhead walkways connecting it to Superior Court on Broadway. I sense a tactical police team with armored vehicles is hidden behind every bulletproof door. Restaurant signs declare “No Public Restrooms.” Graffiti-attacked plywood buffers wall off barren offices. Accordion security gates block loading bays. One class-conscious contrast is the Rolex store opposite the blackened-windowed Bad Boys Bail Bonds.

Slipping by these ominous signs is the unwitting trolley, coming/going, coming/going—the flatulent blare of its horn, the grinding approach, the squeaking stop, the rattle of the doors, the disembodied announcers, the unlimber passengers, weary faces in the afternoon sun, the heave-ho surge of the train rumpling the street, the tracks gouging the pavement.

All told, the trolley embodies C Street’s existential condition. The train rolls on by, and the problems move on down the line with it. Once it’s quiet, the problems magically return. A paradox descends: C Street draws us and repels us. It manifests our vitality and gloom, the abandon/fear index of urban dwellers. Will business bustle propel the homeless elsewhere? Will the rare affordable rehab democratize the corridor? Will the Overture, a chromium citadel coming in 2020, make the neighborhood livable?

The one certain downside is that such development pushes the blight to someone else’s alleyway and front door, a set of businesses owners and apartment dwellers who’ll suffer what C Street will once have had—if everything goes as planned.