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Mayor Todd Gloria and his team are demanding that the owner of the blighted California Theatre demolish the downtown venue that has been shuttered for more than three decades.
The city’s development services director this week sent a letter to developer Caydon Property Group, which recently abandoned its city-approved redevelopment plan for the site, decrying the company’s “alarming lack of action” on imminent safety concerns. The director also highlighted its failure to submit a future plan to demolish the theatre by a Friday deadline set by the city amid escalating frustration over the state of the building. The letter also noted that the developer had not adjusted fencing around the theatre to establish a falling hazard protection zone, hired security or put in place a required fire safety watch.
Gloria said late Wednesday that the city is now referring the issue to City Attorney Mara Elliott’s Nuisance Abatement Unit for noncompliance.
“The lack of action by the private owner in addressing the code violations and demands for remediation is unacceptable – and frankly, we’ve lost patience with the impacts on nearby residents and businesses due to their neglect,” Gloria said in a statement. “The city is swiftly escalating this matter and will be securing the building and addressing safety hazards at the owner’s expense.”
On Wednesday afternoon, Voice of San Diego found the eight-floor building at Fourth Avenue and and C Street streaked with graffiti and surrounded by homeless residents and a chain link fence with multiple openings near clear entrances on the theatre’s ground floor. A rope affixed to a fire escape snaked up the side of the building and led to open doors on a terrace where multiple people were walking inside.
Jessica Cox, who manages The Local Eatery & Drinking Hole across the street, called police Wednesday after she spotted people inside the building as she spoke to a Voice reporter about “the decay, and the asbestos, the human waste, all the stuff, the drugs, the rats, the pigeons” that collected there.
“It’s a hazard,” Cox said. “There’s not much more I can say on that. The whole thing needs to be blown up. There is no saving it. There is no doing anything to it.”
Mia, who told Voice she sometimes spends nights on C Street, agreed. She described the building as “unstable” and said she has watched rats scurry out of it. She also said some people who sleep inside the building break glass and throw rocks at people sleeping outside.
“They need to get a big investor or to just knock it down,” Mia said.
Gloria and his team are now demanding that the owner – or the eventual owner – make plans to tear the building down.
It’s unclear who will make that happen.
The California Theatre is now up for sale and McGrathNicol, an Australia-based receiver that has taken ownership of the property following the liquidation of Melbourne-based Caydon, responded to a series of questions from Voice with a statement pledging to improve the situation.
“Caydon San Diego Property LLC has recently undergone a change of control,” McGrathNicol wrote in a statement. “Its new members intend to work constructively with all stakeholders including the city of San Diego to implement a plan to improve the safety, security and general amenity of the property in the near term.”
The company did not say whether it will proceed with a demolition and as of early Thursday, Gloria’s office said the developer and its receiver – which was not copied on the city’s demand letter – had yet to respond.
But Gloria spokeswoman Rachel Laing said real estate brokerage firm Jones Lang LaSalle, which promoted the property to developers earlier this year, told the city that a potential California Theatre buyer is conducting due diligence and “know(s) the theater needs to be torn down.”
There’s been talk of demolishing the California Theatre before.
The theatre at Fourth Avenue and C Street first opened in April 1927, first hosting vaudeville and silent films. It later welcomed concert goers.
In 1990, there were plans to demolish the building to make way for an office tower. That never happened and there have been a series of ownership changes and discussions about what to do about the long-shuttered structure steps away from City Hall ever since.
In 2017, preservation group Save Our Heritage Organisation sued to halt a 40-story housing project there and after a Superior Court victory, the group reached a settlement with the developer.
In late 2019, developer Caydon bought the property and took on the settlement requiring an eventual builder to preserve and reconstruct portions of the California Theatre’s current facade and recreate its Caliente mural.
In spring 2021, Caydon secured permits from the city to proceed with a 41-story boutique hotel and condo complex with ground-floor retail.
But Caydon never took other steps with the city to proceed and last month, the Union-Tribune broke the news that the California Theatre was up for sale again.
“JLL, as exclusive adviser, is pleased to present the opportunity to acquire a premier development site in the core of downtown San Diego,” read an April promotional email sent to developers and obtained by the U-T. “The Theatre House is a trophy development site fully entitled for a 41-story mixed-use development but can be re-entitled for various uses under the current zoning.”
The email noted that a new owner could “re-entitle the unique site for multi-housing, hotel and/or office” or take up the permits that Caydon secured in 2021 that can be used for two more years.
Complaints and concerns about the California Theatre have continued to pile up since Caydon began advertising the property for sale.
In late June, a structural engineer in the city’s Development Services Department assessed the structural condition of the building and wrote in a later report that even police officers won’t set foot in the theatre.
“Two SDPD officers joined us at the site, but since the interior building areas have been deemed in previous structural condition reports as structurally unsafe, and also contain hazardous materials in a high-ranking toxic scale levels, they will not enter the buildings,” senior structural engineer Miguel Sinclair wrote in a July 27 memo. “A warning has been issued that people entering these buildings will be doing it at their own risk and peril.”
Sinclair described finding “numerous signs of breached door/window openings” and exposed roof steel trusses reinforcing the auditorium that had “severe levels of corrosion deterioration” that led him to question whether the framing system could continue to offer adequate support.
Sinclair also called for immediate steps to “protect the public right-of-way from impending falling hazard dislodgments of ornaments” or other building elements.
Development Services Director Elyse Lowe wrote in her letter this week that she informed Caydon’s Houston-based chief operating officer during a July 27 virtual meeting that the California Theatre was “in substantial disrepair, unsafe and a hazard to the public” that required immediate action.
Five days after the July 27 meeting, COO Emma Alexander submitted a letter of agency requested by the city to authorize San Diego police to ask trespassers to leave and to enforce legal violations on its property.
But Lowe documented in a Tuesday letter that Alexander had said during the meeting that Caydon “has no plans to further develop or repair the property due to costs and that it was currently listed for sale” though she planned to seek funds to implement a fire safety recommendation.
Lowe noted that the city was assessing fines daily until fire watches were implemented and for twice-weekly code enforcement inspections. She also wrote that the city would proceed with “recording any issued notices against the property” at the county assessor’s office.
Whatever happens, Bruce Coons of SOHO said his preservationist group will be watching.
Coons believes a demolition of the California Theatre could violate a court order and the group’s settlement and said SOHO is eager to work with whoever ends up taking on the property.
In recent history, Coons said members of his group have complained to the city about the state of the building and have been disappointed to see what it’s become.
“It’s terrible,” Coons said. “We all want to see something happen there.”