Wednesday, June 27, 2007 | Sunroad Enterprises will lower its controversial office building near Montgomery Field airport so that it complies with a federally imposed height limit, a lawyer for the company said late Tuesday night.

The announcement, which came after dark in a sparsely lit credit union parking lot next to the company’s Kearny Mesa project, signals a marked change to the company’s defiant stance and comes after weeks of political battle among the city of San Diego’s top elected officials. For a full year, the developer has been at odds with government officials who say the 12-story building poses a threat to pilots landing at Montgomery Field.

The company maintained that its building is safe, despite piercing the Federal Aviation Administration’s 160-foot height limit by 20 feet. Instead, the decision was made after city officials refused to work out an alternative solution, Sunroad attorney Dennis Crovella said.

“At a time like this, being right is not enough,” Crovella said. “The Sunroad Centrum building has become a lightning rod of divisiveness in San Diego.”

Sunroad’s announcement comes less than a week after Mayor Jerry Sanders ordered the developer to stop work on the building and to take down portions of it that exceed the FAA’s height limit. The FAA, state Department of Transportation and City Attorney Mike Aguirre have been urging the tower’s reduction for several months, but Sanders was reluctant to firmly enforce the 160-foot threshold until Thursday.

The issue has become so contentious in recent months that it drove a wedge between Aguirre, who unilaterally filed a lawsuit on the city’s behalf that sought the building’s diminishment in December, and Sanders, who hunted for an out-of-court compromise until recently.

But Sanders, spurred by Aguirre’s constant prodding, gradually became more combative toward the development. On Monday, the two officials said they would order city contractors to enter the Sunroad property to begin deconstructing the building if the company didn’t begin lowering the building promptly.

On Tuesday, Sanders and Aguirre said they were encouraged by Sunroad’s statement, but that they wanted assurance from the company that it would lower the building to 160 feet and that it would propose and meet a timeline for completing its work.

“This is a message to developers in the city of San Diego to obey the law,” Sanders said.

Gerald Blank, an attorney for the Community Airfields Association of San Diego, lamented the several months that have gone by since the Sunroad structure surpassed the FAA limit. The company should have complied sooner, he said.

“It’s a darn shame for citizens of San Diego that it came so darn late,” Blank said. “San Diego is less safe with the building at this height.”

Sunroad has argued that the building does not pose a palpable safety threat despite government warnings. Crovella said his client still adheres to that stance, but that the “highly technical” discussion that is needed to set the record straight couldn’t exist while a political fiasco languished.

“Sunroad Centrum has never been a public safety issue. Instead it is a political issue that has taken much too much from the true business of city government,” Crovella said. “The time, expense and effort to reduce the height will be considerable, but again, being right isn’t always enough.”

With the company and city planning for the building’s reduction, the legal dispute between the two parties now appears narrowed to issues of cost. Sunroad has countersued the city, seeking $40 million in damages incurred as a result of the city’s decision to retroactively stop the project after initially issuing its building permits last June. The city claims the developer skirted proper review of the project by not being forthcoming about the office building’s true height.

Both Crovella and Aguirre said determinations over the cost and logistics of the development’s reduction will be made in the coming days and weeks. In a letter Sunroad sent to the city earlier in the day, the company said it expected that it would need an extension of the Aug. 25 deadline set forth by Sanders in an administrative order last week. Aguirre said he will be advising the mayor how to proceed beginning Wednesday.

It’s unclear how exactly Sunroad will remove 20 feet from the glimmering building’s physique while keeping the rest of the building intact. Some construction experts have said they believe the entire edifice will have to be torn down, while others see the possibility that portions can be removed from its center on order to keep its architectural integrity. Machinery, such as elevators and ventilation shafts, will complicate such a process.

Nonetheless, the finer details of the company’s concession will likely play out beforehand. Sunroad said that it will “attempt to comply” with the city’s demands and the FAA’s restrictions, but Crovella would not explicitly say that the company agrees with lowering it 160 feet — even though that it is the height being pushed by both agencies.

Aguirre and Sanders see Crovella’s nuance as a technicality, saying they will renew their threat to have the city begin deconstructing the building itself if they are not satisfied with Sunroad’s proposal.

“We want to remind Sunroad that we trust them, but that we will be prepared to act if we see fit,” Aguirre said.

Correction: The original version of this article misspelled the name of Sunroad attorney Dennis Crovella. We regret the error.

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