There are 57 million square miles of land on earth, including the 4,206 square miles of San Diego County. Even as our population grows, spaces in the midst of our concrete jungle lay strangely fallow. This is an occasional series to explore those mysteriously unused or seemingly untended bits of land.

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What's That Lot by Ry RivardWhere’s that lot? In downtown San Diego. It’s on C Street between Third and Fourth avenues.

Why are we picking on that lot? There are new plans to demolish the California Theatre, a historic building that has been notoriously shuttered for a quarter-century. In its place, a developer wants to put up a 40-story high rise with retail on the bottom and nearly 300 residential units up top.

Previous plans to redevelop the theater haven’t worked and sparked opposition from preservationists. The rundown theater is one of the main characters on C Street, the so-called Boulevard of Broken Dreams in the heart of San Diego. All of this is happening right across from City Hall.

The site’s developer hopes the new project will help revive that stretch of downtown.


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Who owns that lot? 1122 4th Ave. LLC, a subsidiary of Beverly Hills-based Sloan Capital

How’s that lot used? It hasn’t been used for anything since 1990 when, two years after it was renovated, it was scheduled to be demolished. Another development plan, back in 2003, fell apart and the would-be developers ended up in court with each other.

It was not always thus. When it opened in April 1927, the 2,200-seat California Theatre was called a “cathedral of the motion picture.”

Now, the developer is waiting on a green light. Its application is pending with Civic San Diego, the agency that regulates downtown development.

The plans call for a 424-foot glass tower with street-level retail, 282 residential units and 309 parking spaces above and below ground.

The old California Theatre would be demolished. Cyrus Sanandaji, a representative for the site’s owner, said the new building would “pay homage to its roots.” The 40-story tower would have an annex with a façade designed to look like part of the California Theatre.

In the past, preservationists have said they want to keep the theater intact. A spokeswoman for the Save Our Heritage Organisation said the group had not been aware of the most recent plans but that the old theater remains on its “endangered properties list.” The group has previously fought an effort simply to paint over a sign on the building for horse racing at the Caliente track in Mexico, which no longer races horses. It’s easy to imagine a much bigger fight over tearing down the whole building.

Anticipating criticism, Sanandaji said alternatives that attempt to save the old building and keep it as a theater are unworkable.

“If it made sense it would have been done over the last 45 years and the theater would never have shut down in the first place,” he said.

Sloan took ownership of the building in 2006 after it foreclosed on a loan it made a few years earlier, Sanandaji said. The recession that shortly followed in 2008 halted any plans to develop the property. Discussions over the current plan began about two years ago.

He is hoping for speedy approval and to break ground in mid to late 2016. Construction would take about a year and a half.

Want to know more about a mysterious piece of property in your part of town? Email me about that lot and tell me what you think. Your suggestion could be the next, What’s That Lot?

    This article relates to: Land Use, News, What's That Lot?

    Written by Ry Rivard

    Ry Rivard is a reporter for Voice of San Diego. He writes about water and power. You can reach him at ry.rivard@voiceofsandiego.org or 619.550.5665.

    7 comments
    bgetzel
    bgetzel subscriber

    It's 2016 now, so i am late to the party with my comment. I attended events in the California Theatre in the 1990's (silent movies with pipe organ back-up). Like the theatre's lower exterior facade, the theatre is just beautiful. it would be geat if it could be preserved. On the other hand, as a downtown resident, I know that the delapiidated 'C" street area needs a lot of help, and a mixed-use building that brings hundreds of people to that area, can surely do that. How about the developer saving the lower exterior facade, and building above it. The theatre, and its ornate walls and ceiling, could serve as the lobby and a community room. Bosa Development applied this approach in building its "Elektra" residential project out of the old SDG&E steam plant (on Broadway & Kuttner). It is a beautiful project. 

    Gregory May
    Gregory May subscriber

    "1122 4th Ave. LLC, a subsidiary of Beverly Hills-based Sloan Capital" should be held accountable for breaking the "demolition by neglect" laws.

    Mike
    Mike subscriber

    Before we go charging head first into the beautiful new glass tower, I would like the city and the developers to clearly outline what energy and water conservation features this new building would include. Solar power?  Above average insulation?  Graywater system?  Dual-flush residential toilets?  Beyond conservation, what pedestrian-friendly features are they going to include in the project?  Widening the sidewalk? Safer bike lanes? Minimizing parking/traffic issues? I'm all for revamping the old and developing newer and better things, but our city needs to consider what the requirements should be before handing out permits.  

    bgetzel
    bgetzel subscriber

    San Diegans who frequent downtown know that something has to be done with that site, as well as much of C Street. However, it would be a shame to lose the entire structure. Here is a thought: How about preserving the first 5  floors of the C Street facade? It has wonderful architectural detail (see the photo in the article) and would even be a plus for the new project. Bosa Development preserved the old SDG&E steam plant facade when it built Electra downtown. It worked out very well. 

    Robert Cohen
    Robert Cohen subscriber

    While I would hate to see it go, I understand that it would be cost prohibitive to rehabilitate the structure.  Even losing the Caliente sign would be a shame, but that block really needs to be redone.  That block is essentially "dead" and probably a little dangerous too.  C Street has lagged behind other areas of downtown even though that's where the trolley stops are. A new building that maybe can be a landmark in and of itself can at least give the street some hope.  Just make it pedestrian friendly and not some monolith.

    amy roth
    amy roth subscribermember

    Oh God I hope so! I try to avoid Fourth Avenue when walking downtown because that place has been very scary over the years -- especially after dark -- with all sorts of people camped outside it. 

            Once I led two visitors past that site while walking home from a Mainly Mozart concert at the Balboa Theater, and they were scandalized. Now it's got a wire fence surrounding it, which made me hope something was about to happen. Please God may it happen soon!!