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New Chargers’ Stadium Shadow Looms Over Historic Wonder Bread Building

Gay Sinclair, owner of the historic Wonder Bread building, hasn’t spoken publicly about Measure C, which would clear the way for a new joint Chargers stadium and convention center expansion. But she has been privately fuming over the issue since the team first announced its interest in the site in 2009. With the November vote looming, Sinclair is ready to talk.

It’s more than 90 years old, but the Wonder Bread factory building still draws raves from architecture fans for its iconic flour silo, classic brick façade and high ceilings crisscrossed with large wooden beams and dotted with bright skylights.

Yet it could all soon be flatted or folded into a new football stadium. The historic building sits squarely in the footprint of the Chargers’ proposed East Village stadium and convention center annex.

Gay Sinclair owns the building. She and her husband Bob Sinclair, an East Village sculptor and founder of Pannikin Coffee & Tea, used to own a lot more buildings in and around East Village. When Bob died in a motorcycle accident in 2011, Gay began selling off most of the properties.

“I’m over stuff,” she told me. “Post-stuff – that’s me.”

But she isn’t over the Wonder Bread building. That’s one property she’ll never let go.

“I’m not planning to – not in my lifetime,” she said.

The catch: She might not have a choice.

If the stadium measure passes, the city would likely form an entity that would negotiate purchases for properties in the stadium’s footprint. If those property owners refuse to sell, the city could use eminent domain to force them to accept a deal and clear the way for the convadium.

It wouldn’t be the first time Sinclair would be forced to relinquish a building to clear the way for a stadium: She and Bob had a piece of property taken via eminent domain when Petco Park was built in 2004.

Sinclair hasn’t spoken publicly about Measure C, the ballot measure that asks voters to approve a hotel tax hike to help pay for the new joint Chargers stadium and convention center expansion. But she has been privately fuming over the issue since the team first announced its interest in the site in 2009.

With the November vote looming, Sinclair is ready to talk. She invited me on a tour of the Wonder Bread factory and some of the other buildings she’s owned over the years.

The brick part of the Wonder Bread building was built in 1924 and was the Wonder Bread bakery until 2007. The Sinclairs bought the building in the early 2000s, and it’s still full of traces of Bob inside.

“It has memories,” Sinclair said.

In one section of the building, Bob Sinclair’s collection of old manhole covers had been set in the concrete floor. Pieces of rusty machinery Bob Sinclair collected and repurposed as art still hang on walls.

Photo by Kinsee Morlan
Photo by Kinsee Morlan

Bob Sinclair’s memorial was held at Wonder Bread. That’s part of Sinclair’s attachment to the space.

“It’s a beautiful building, and for me it’s kind of an emotional building, so why should I get rid of it?” she said. “I mean, I shouldn’t be forced to get rid of it.”

Mission Brewery moved into the building not long after Wonder Bread moved out. Dan Selis, the brewery’s founder and CEO, is personally attached to the building too, but more importantly, he said, it offers a glimpse of the city’s history and should be preserved.

“I think when you walk through, if you look at all the original wood, the original brick, this is a city treasure,” he said. “There’s a lot of history here, there’s heritage. … People walk in the door here and gasp – they go, ‘My god!’ because of the way this building was built.”

But eminent domain – a government seizing private property for public good – doesn’t sit well with most folks, so it’s not wielded very often. Fred Maas, special adviser to the Chargers, said eminent domain is something the team wants to avoid, but if negotiations fail, the city may have to use it.

“Eminent domain has never been our objective,” he said. “It’s not something that’s been thought of.”

The Sinclairs owned the historic Rosario Hall Building, known as San Diego’s oldest civic meeting place. In 2004, they were forced to move the building from its location at 12th Avenue and K Street to where it is now on a parking at the corner of 13th and J streets in order to clear the way for Petco Park. The two-story white building now houses The Mission restaurant.

Sinclair said that at the time, the city said it would help them navigate the difficult permitting process of relocating a historic building, but they ended up getting no help at all. The old building was stuck six feet in the air, on the railroad ties used to move it, while the Sinclairs tried to navigate the bureaucracy.

Photo by Kinsee Morlan
Photo by Kinsee Morlan

“It sat up there for two years because we had such a problem getting permits for doing a favor for the city,” Sinclair said. “And then the requirements were so strict that it cost so much more than it should have.”

She said the experience was such a nightmare that it made Bob Sinclair quit his hobby of buying old San Diego buildings to rehab. He had become well known for his work preserving the unique architecture of the East Village and renting to tenants who kept the neighborhood’s funky, artistic roots intact. The Sinclairs had started purchasing properties in New Mexico, and since permitting isn’t as complex there, that’s where Bob Sinclair began focusing his rehabbing efforts.

Wonder Bread is officially designated a historic building, so even if eminent domain is used, the city and the Chargers can’t just tear the building down, they’d have to do something to make up for the loss.

The current conceptual renderings of the convadium show two walls of the Wonder Bread building incorporated into the design. Since the Wonder Bread Factory building is right in the middle of where the new stadium would go, the two walls would be moved from their current location to a new location on the outside of the convadium.

Rendering courtesy of MANICA Architecture
Rendering courtesy of MANICA Architecture

David Marshall, president of Heritage Architecture & Planning, said moving the Wonder Bread facade might pass legal hurdles for preservation – but the team’s proposal isn’t good enough.

“That is called a façade-ectomy, a derogatory term in the historic preservation community,” Marshall said. “You’re just saving a facade, not a building, and it doesn’t maintain its historic designation.”

Maas said the team wants to save as much of the building as it can, but since it is in the middle of the future stadium, it almost certainly has to demolished, minus the facade.

“But the building is a treasure and we need to preserve it somehow,” Maas said.

Sinclair said she plans to do everything she can to keep the Wonder Bread building intact. She said part of her wants to keep Bob Sinclair’s legacy alive, at least with one of the many old buildings he helped save over the years.

The thing that really irks her about all this, she said, is that even though the Chargers have had the current site in mind for almost a decade, the team hasn’t tried very hard to talk to her. She finally heard from the Chargers recently. They set up a meeting, but the Chargers’ spokespeople canceled the day before it was scheduled.

Mass said the Chargers aren’t talking to property owners because it’s the city that will need to acquire all property, so the team doesn’t want to make promises it can’t keep.

Sinclair said if the meeting had happened, she would have delivered one simple message: “Don’t take my property away and don’t take the Wonder Bread building away from the East Village. I’m hoping we can save some of these old buildings to give the East Village some character. I mean, if it was nothing but high rises and the ballpark and stadium, it would be awful.”

Correction: An earlier version of this story said the Wonder Bread building was built in 1894. That’s when a bakery was established at the site. The current structure was built in 1924. 

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