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In early June, San Diego’s preservationists were abuzz with the news of an imminent demolition.

Developers wanted to knock down a 70-year-old building on the corner of Pacific Highway and Hawthorn Street and build 237 apartments in its place. It’s a Denny’s today, but in its heyday the pink rectangular restaurant in Streamline Moderne style — with long curving walls and a soaring tiered façade — was Top’s Nightclub, where Nat King Cole and Shelley Winters once performed.

So on June 23, more than a hundred showed up to demand the city’s Historical Resources Board declare the building a historic landmark. That would make it more complicated and expensive for the developers to tear it down, possibly delaying their project for a couple of years.

The developers, Luke Daniels and Jonathan Segal, saw the writing on the wall. If the board declared the building historic, it would lay costly hurdles in the way of their project and could put its future at stake.

So after that meeting they called Bruce Coons, the director of the Save Our Heritage Organisation, the preservation group that led the campaign. They invited him to talk. And on July 14, Segal wrote to the Historical Resources Board. He said he had struck a deal with Coons. He would tear down part of the aging building but save and restore most of it and incorporate it into his apartment complex.

Coons wrote to the board too, asking it not to declare the building historic after all. The more stringent review requirements triggered by that designation would muck up Segal’s ability to complete the new project.

It was a swift victory for the nonprofit Save Our Heritage Organisation, which in recent years has leveraged historic preservation laws to become a powerful and persistent thorn in the side of many a developer who would sooner demolish an old structure than build around or reuse it.

Like the skirmish on Pacific Highway, most of its battles are with private developers. Whether they result in a restored building or a pile of rubble often depends on a developer’s calculation: if it’s preferable to engage in a costly fight or compromise with preservationists for the sake of moving a project forward.

Now SOHO is leading one of the biggest battles in its 42-year history, against a philanthropist’s proposal to renovate San Diego’s most beloved public space: Balboa Park. Qualcomm co-founder Irwin Jacobs wants to remove cars from the park’s central Plaza de Panama and turn it over to pedestrians by building a new bridge, road and parking structure to make it work. The nonprofit believes that the project would destroy the park’s historic character, and that has pitted it against one of the county’s richest men and Mayor Jerry Sanders, who supports him.

But in this fight, the nonprofit’s tried and true battle strategy has proved insufficient. A developer’s profit isn’t driving the Balboa Park renovation. Jacobs has deep pockets and is proposing the project as a gift to San Diegans. He has held firm to his plan with the mayor’s backing and a recent vote of tentative support from the City Council, which the city attorney has vowed to defend against legal challenges.

That has complicated SOHO’s efforts to stop the park renovation plan.

“Developers are interested in making money,” Coons said. “So it’s easier to appeal to a developer in a business sense than it is a philanthropist.”

Instead, the group is waging a vocal public campaign to line up opponents and influence the City Council. It has sued the city early, a strategy it usually reserves for the most recalcitrant developers.

“Believe me,” Coons said, “the last person in the county that we want to fight is Irwin Jacobs.”

But SOHO’s decision to do just that reflects the organization’s growth and its rise in local influence in the last decade. For much of its history, it operated on a small budget, engaging in grassroots advocacy campaigns and pushing to make historic preservation a primary consideration in development projects. It filed occasional lawsuits.

Since Coons took over in 2000, the nonprofit has secured contracts to operate several house museums, expanded its educational programs and organized public events to bring in revenue. Its budget is now about $1 million a year, which Coons said allows it to see legal challenges through to the end.

Its critics often characterize SOHO as a nostalgic obstructionist group afraid of progress that is sensationalist in its public campaigns and loose with facts. In the Balboa Park case, both Jacobs and the Mayor’s Office have said the group’s arguments opposing the plan have been riddled with hyperbole and misinformation. And they have accused SOHO of cherry-picking what it likes and dislikes.

For example, the group has opposed some elements of Jacobs’ plan, like the new bridge, in part because an existing, heavily vetted park planning document doesn’t include it. But in its own alternative to Jacobs’ plan, it leaves out the parking garage that Jacobs has proposed, even though it is included in that same document.

The perception of those kinds of inconsistencies has soured the spirit of cooperation between the two sides, and SOHO has so far been unable to accomplish with Jacobs what the group’s primary negotiation strategy depends on: convincing a developer it is in his best interest to compromise.

That’s why it has resorted to a lawsuit.

“They’re not part of any required approval,” said David Marshall, an architectural consultant and former president of SOHO’s board of directors. Marshall has been hired by Jacobs to advise the Balboa Park design team on standards of historic preservation for the Plaza de Panama. “So they first have to make enough noise to be invited to the table.”

The organization did that successfully in the early 2000s, when the proposal to build Petco Park threatened to demolish a dozen old warehouse buildings in San Diego’s East Village. The preservation group believed they were important vestiges of the neighborhood’s historic role as an industrial center.

Though SOHO never filed a lawsuit, the specter was there. The prospect of a long, expensive fight led the Padres organization and the team of developers to hear Coons out. The result was a stadium that incorporated the brick Western Metal Supply Co. building into its design and a surrounding neighborhood that retains the flare of old downtown.

That victory gained the organization praise within preservationist circles around the country.

Now it is trying to achieve the same result in Balboa Park. While profit is not a motivating factor, time may be. The mayor and Jacobs want to complete the Balboa Park renovations by 2015, in time to celebrate the centennial of the 1915 Panama-California Exposition.

Coons is hoping that as the date approaches, a dragging legal challenge might finally convince Jacobs and the mayor to scrap their plan and sit down with preservationists to hash out a proposal that would not significantly alter the park’s historic features.

The city has already shot back, hoping to get SOHO’s lawsuit thrown out.

The Mayor’s Office said it was confident it would be.

Correction: This story originally stated that the city attorney had vowed to defend Jacobs’ plan. In fact, he has vowed to defend a recent agreement the City Council made with Jacobs, not the final plan.

Disclosure: Irwin Jacobs is a major supporter of voiceofsandiego.org.

Adrian Florido is a reporter for voiceofsandiego.org. He covers San Diego’s neighborhoods. What should he write about next?

Contact him directly at adrian.florido@voiceofsandiego.org or at 619.325.0528.

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Adrian Florido

Adrian Florido is a former staff writer for Voice of San Diego.

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