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Friday, May 05, 2006 | Municipal Itinerant

Standing three cream-colored stories tall, with modern, metal-framed windows not-so-subtly filling in for what must have originally been wood-and-plate glass ones, San Diego Historical Landmark number 509 rests quietly on a corner of 7th and Island in downtown’s East Village, an unwitting symbol for the ongoing struggle over downtown redevelopment.

Built in 1887, The Clermont/Coast hotel hosted only “colored” customers until around 1956, when segregation first began to fade as common practice. Throughout much of the 20th century, the hotel anchored a thriving African-American community in the East Village neighborhood, where jazz greats like Jelly Roll Morton and Charlie Parker stayed and performed.

Its history has earned it the distinction of being the first African-American historical landmark in the city of San Diego; it’s also one of the oldest historically black hotels in the country.

Today, the jazz clubs and creole restaurants are gone, replaced by the Budweiser-brokers and gleaming glass of the new downtown San Diego. High-rise condo towers are going up on three sides of the Clermont’s block, most of which is occupied by a pay parking lot. Even with its recent refurbishment, the presence of the hotel barely makes a hiccup within the gentrifying maelstrom of the East Village/Ballpark districts.

Yet the hotel – and the community whose history it represents – have left an indelible mark on the shape of San Diego, fostering a struggle to remember the past that continues amidst the planning of today, as the Centre City Development Corporation requests development proposals for the block surrounding the landmark hotel.

Paradoxically, the place owes its existence to a 2000 plan by CCDC to replace it with a parking garage for the new ballpark. It purchased the land in 1999 with the intention of building a massive “Park-It on Market” garage that would hold space for over 600 cars.

The proposal sparked a wave of community dissent, particularly from the Black Historical Society, who argued that the dilapidated building was not only historic, but in many ways unique. A battle ensued, including a debate on the meaning of the term “colored.” Historians hired by the city had said the word – which was included in 1950s phone book advertisements for the hotel – could indicate people of many races.

BHS director Karen Huff did her own research and found that the Clermont had been a black-only hotel for most of its existence. So the low-income hotel got a plaque in 2001, and CCDC went ahead with parking garage plans in other parts of the Ballpark district.

But nothing much changed at the Clermont site until this week, when CCDC released a request for mixed-use development proposals for the portion of the block (now the parking lot) surrounding the hotel. With the area’s history having recently been brought to light, it was easy to read CCDC’s May 2 press release for proposal requests as planning for a major cultural center.

“We have the opportunity to build an iconic project on this site,” said CCDC President Nancy Graham, quoted in the release. The release goes on to explain that “one prominent feature of the project would be a cultural use and/or performance art space that celebrates the African-American heritage of the block and surrounding neighborhoods. The space would be operated by one or more qualified non-profit institutions and take the form of one or a combination of the following: library, museum, non-profit art gallery, interpretative center, performance art theatre, and other compatible uses related to downtown’s African-American history.”

“I was disappointed, because I was like, wait a minute – they’re making it seem as if they’re doing some wonderful project around black history, but they’ve simply said ‘Oh – try to rent some space to a nonprofit organization to do a cultural center,’ ” she said.

The proposal specifies 3,000 to 5,000 square feet to be devoted to a cultural center or performing arts space – a far cry from the 20,000 or so square feet Huff says the Black Historical Society would need to do something “really significant.”

John W. Collum, who manages the 7th & Market project for CCDC, says the proposal’s priorities reflect CCDC’s main goals of affordable housing and parking. The proposal request asked for 20 percent affordable housing – twice what the city’s inclusionary housing ordinance requires. In addition to 650 parking spaces, the request also specifies 1,250 square feet of ground floor space for a police substation (not mentioned in the press release) and a 500-square-foot public plaza.

Ultimately, Collum says, developers can set aside as much space for a cultural center as they want.

“I would hope that any group could talk them into getting however much space they feel they need,” he said.

We’ll have to wait until July, when the request closes, to see how developers incorporate a cultural center into their plans for the space. Huff says it’s not too late to build her dream on the block: a cultural entertainment complex with southern-style restaurants, a jazz and blues venue, and Afro-centric shopping.

Downtown sure could use some authentic culture among its forest of condo towers, but it seems rather unlikely that cultural priorities will prevail over the necessities of parking and housing, at least in this project.

The test of a quality site, whatever its space allocation, will be the way it incorporates the three manilla stories of the historic Clermont into its massive, modern elevation. The stucco-covered rectangle increasingly looks out of place in a downtown of concrete and glass; the aesthetic goal of whatever new building is to accompany it should be to make this important relic stand out with a dignity that reflects its important past.

Send your own tips about San Diego’s curious public spaces to Ian Port at

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