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Wednesday, February 08, 2006 | The drawings of Pacific Pointe, a proposed development in the East Village neighborhood of downtown San Diego, look pretty spectacular. In the artist’s renderings, the building, 40 stories of blue glass, concrete and steel, thrusts its modernity proudly into the blue sky, dwarfing the modest structures below it.
But on the land where that edifice may eventually sit, there’s a problem.
A decrepit, filth-encrusted two-story wooden hotel is standing in the way of the 409-unit condo project that is worth hundreds of millions of dollars. The project is on hold while lawyers, architects and historians argue over what should be done about the squalid structure that has been designated a historical site by the city’s Historical Resources Board.
Similar stories are playing out across downtown as developers and preservationists walk the fine line between the development and destruction of downtown. Officials said at least six projects have been held up by the historical designation process, a process that some critics said has been a cumbersome hurdle for developers to pass.
This panel of 15 unelected experts, appointed by the mayor, assesses each building for its architectural or historical significance. Board members explained that they consider the aesthetics of a structure, who designed it, who lived there, and what role the building played in the city’s history when determining if it has historical worth.
“San Diego should be representative of every period of development, we shouldn’t have entire decades or generations that are no longer visible or relevant,” said David Marshall, a member of the board and a prominent preservation architect.
Board members said they work to preserve not just the grand old buildings that are aesthetically pleasing, but also buildings that were used by everyday San Diegans and that are representative of a certain space in time.
The grubby, rather nondescript wooden hotel on 11th Avenue was built to accommodate visitors who flocked to San Diego for the Panama-California Exposition of 1915 – the same event that gave birth to Balboa Park.
That’s why it is deemed worthy of saving, said Laura Burnett, the board’s vice president.
“There are some really good examples of what I thought of as a really crappy little building being made into a wonderful part of the city,” Burnett said.
So, after a developer has spent tens of millions of dollars on land, designs for a glamorous condo development and advertising, they are now left dealing with the revelation of a historical building slap-bang in the middle of their lot.
Asked how the developers of Pacific Pointe got into such a situation, the developers’ architect said they had faced a similar scenario with a previous project in San Diego. That time, they got around the problem easily, he said. This time, it’s proving a bit more difficult.
“We assumed that it would be the same process getting rid of this building,” said Jason Bright, the lead architect for Pacific Pointe.
He said the number of people interested in preserving downtown has increased significantly in recent years, which has made it more difficult for developers to “get rid” of historic buildings that are in the way of their high-rise towers.
Historical Resources Board members said that’s true to some extent, but stressed that the process for finding out whether there could be a potential issue with a historical building has actually become easier with time.
The Centre City Development Corp. has been working with architects and historians for the last 20 years to catalog the historic buildings in downtown, said Brad Richter, the principal planner at CCDC. However, they haven’t yet completed a historical review of the East Village, where the Pacific Pointe Development is planned, he said.
Marie Lia, an attorney who helps to shepherd developers through the planning process, said the absence of such a historical review doesn’t mean developers can’t find out if there is a potentially historic building on the land where they plan to build.
Developers can conduct initial reviews of the site, and can work with CCDC to assess whether a site has historical significance, Lia said. In the event that they identify a historic building, developers can work with the city’s Planning Department to incorporate the existing building into their design. That happened with the Electra development at the foot of Broadway. Alternatively, they can attempt to convince the city that the historic building is not worth saving.
Or they can move the offending building.
That’s what Pointe of View, the developers who planned Pacific Pointe, have decided is probably the best solution to their problem. If they go ahead with the project at all, the developers have decided to literally lift the 19th-Century wooden hotel and move it around the corner to an adjacent lot, thus preserving the building’s historical integrity.
“Everyone – from CCDC to the private property owners, to the San Diego City Council – everyone agrees what’s being done now is too old, and needs to be revised,” said Matthew Adams, vice president of governmental affairs at the Building Industry Association of San Diego County.
The historical designation guidelines have been considerably overhauled in the new downtown community plan, which the City Council will consider on Feb. 28.
Adams said the community plan should make it easier for developers to guide their way through the tangle of government regulations in many ways, not the least of which is the simplification of the rules concerning historical designation.
But representatives of the Historical Resource Board and CCDC argued that the hold up at Pacific Pointe and other projects is due simply to the inexperience of certain developers doing work in downtown. Most developers have been able to negotiate the process without a problem, they said, and a company simply needs to do its due diligence properly to avoid any historical designation hiccups.
As for Pacific Pointe, the developer said he has already entertained an offer for the land. But that sale was thwarted by his historical-designation issues, he said, and until he gets those issues sorted out, he can’t proceed with either selling the land or building on it.
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