If you drop by U-T San Diego’s offices in Mission Valley, you’ll find the usual newsroom, printing press and proverbial ink-stained wretches along with a little something extra. Visitors can eat at a restaurant, admire signed limited-edition prints by the likes of Picasso and Dali, and visit a small “auto museum” showcasing Shelby Cobras, a Woodie and more.

These are all part of the grand vision of publisher and owner Doug Manchester, who’s been dramatically remodeling the U-T building while brashly pushing his political agenda on the front page of the newspaper.

The auto museum, which required the construction of a ramp and bridge to bring cars into the U-T building, is certainly striking. It may also violate city regulations, potentially exposing the paper to hundreds of thousands of dollars in fines.

The city is investigating whether U-T San Diego built the auto museum in its office building without permission. A city inspector went to the building on Camino de la Reina in late July to investigate the auto museum, but the newspaper’s staff turned the inspector away, saying the museum was only a “converted office,” a city spokeswoman said

If the city deems the auto museum to be in violation of city rules, the paper could face court proceedings and a fine of up to $250,000.

John Lynch, the newspaper’s CEO, seems unconcerned. “Get a life,” he wrote in an email after I asked him about the investigation today. Lynch, who’s previously expressed dissatisfaction with city regulations regarding the use of the U-T building, declined to make any other comment.

The “U-T Auto Museum,” which was built last month, showcases restored classic cars. They sit in a brightly colored room with extensive lighting, golden walls, a bright red ceiling and a floor painted royal red in a pattern featuring golden lines and medallions.

A source who’s seen the museum but wishes to remain anonymous said it spotlights seven vintage cars: two Shelby Cobras, a couple luxury sedans, a Woodie, an old Ford pickup, and a hot rod. (A U-T staffer took a photo of the museum that you can see here.)

On the back side of the bland 1970s-era U-T office building, which sits near Interstate 8, a new driveway has been built from the street to the building to allow the classic cars to get inside the new museum.

Photo by Sam Hodgson
Construction was underway in July on a driveway leading into U-T San Diego headquarters.

The city launched an investigation of the auto museum after Voice of San Diego inquired about it.

The newspaper doesn’t appear to have the appropriate permit to build the auto museum, said the city spokeswoman, Lynda Pfeifer. “However, the investigation is ongoing and no violations have been confirmed,” she said.

The city will follow up with a complete inspection within the next two weeks, she said. Permits are needed for the “construction, conversion, alteration, or establishment of a use” in the area where the U-T building sits, she said, although there are some exceptions to the rules. The city issues permits with an eye toward making sure neighborhood planning rules are followed.

Among other things, construction workers this year built a TV studio in the third-floor newsroom (it is the home of the U-T cable TV channel) and have been ripping out walls on the fourth floor. The paper also closed the employee cafeteria and opened a first-floor restaurant called the U-T Bistro that can hold 313 people; Pfeifer said the newspaper got a permit to convert office space into a restaurant.

Lynch is no fan of city regulations. Earlier this year, he wrote to City Councilman Kevin Faulconer’s office complaining that the paper received a city citation threatening a $1,000 fine for an illegal banner on its building, according to emails obtained by the San Diego Reader.

“If it weren’t for the digital sign pending approval, I would instruct our folks to run a piece on how this is so reflective of this city being anti-business,” Lynch wrote. “We are fighting to keep this business vital and if it were ever to go away, there would be 700 San Diego jobs that go with it.”

The “digital sign” refers to the newspaper’s bid to put what the Reader calls a “video billboard and news ticker” on the top of the existing U-T building.

That’s a separate project from the U-T’s announced plan to build a complex of 198 condos, 230,000 square feet of office space and shops on its Mission Valley property. The project reflects Manchester’s interest in advancing both the newspaper’s journalism and his own real-estate interests.

Pfeifer said the U-T has not yet asked for a permit for the video billboard/news ticker on its current building.

On the journalism front, the paper has changed its name (it was formerly known as The San Diego Union-Tribune) and fired a prominent sports columnist who questioned its new focus on television. On its front page, it’s proposed its own sports mega-project on the front page and adopted a new slogan: World’s Greatest Country and America’s Finest City. It also recently ranked Barack Obama as the worst president of all time.

The New York Times wrote in June that the paper has repeatedly published flattering “Making a Difference” profiles of Manchester’s cronies and “often seems like a brochure for his various interests.”

Please contact Randy Dotinga directly at randydotinga@gmail.com and follow him on Twitter: twitter.com/rdotinga.

Randy Dotinga is a freelance contributor to Voice of San Diego. Please contact him directly at randydotinga@gmail.com and follow him on Twitter: twitter.com/rdotinga

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