May 5 2004 12:00 AM

The Hotel San Diego waits-and waits some more

This year the Hotel San Diego celebrates its 90th birthday, and it'll likely be the building's last. The old hotel's street-level storefronts have been sealed shut for a couple of years now, boarded up before someone had a chance to remove the dingy curtains that still frame most of the hotel's windows. Rumor is the building is haunted; reality is it has suffered years of neglect, arguably forcing its current owner-a federal government agency-to evict the hotel's tenants in June of 2001.

"I know it doesn't look that good right now, but it was a beautiful building," said Bruce Coons, executive director of San Diego's Save Our Heritage Organization (SOHO). On Friday, May 7, SOHO will announce its 11 most endangered historic structures for 2004 and the Hotel San Diego will top the list. "And it will stay on there until it's either gone or somebody has a change of heart," Coons said.

That change of heart has to do with plans to raze the hotel to make way for a much-needed federal courthouse. Those plans are waiting on federal funding that won't come through until next January or February at the earliest. Construction of the new courthouse is expected to cost $185 million, and so far the President's 2005 budget earmarks a mere $3 million to tie up some remaining design costs.

Coons hopes funding delays might buy the building some time. "Any break we can get to try to preserve the building," he said. "We think [the hotel] should be incorporated into the new courthouse project, or the new courthouse should be set behind it. Restored, it could be one of the gems of Broadway."

Despite pleas from historic preservationists, the General Services Administration (GSA)-the government agency charged with overseeing courthouse design and construction-ruled that post-9/11 security concerns make it impossible to incorporate any portion of the hotel into the new courthouse. Federal design guidelines require that on all sides of the building there must be at least 50 feet between the courthouse and the street-a requirement the Hotel San Diego does not meet. "That factor, along with cost implications of rehabbing the historic structure were cited as reasons for the planned demolition of the structure," said Brad Richter, a planner with the Center City Development Corporation (CCDC).

Coons believes the building's current state has prejudiced people against it. For a while, a portion of the hotel was used for supplemental courtrooms-the existing federal courthouse on Front Street ran out of space. 

"Using [the hotel] for a courtroom and at the same time low-income housing wasn't a good situation," Coons said, adding that judges "developed a distaste for the building even though a number of them admitted after they saw the pictures of what it originally looked like, it was a handsome Italian Renaissance building."

In 2000, the GSA acquired the Hotel San Diego, in addition to two others adjacent to it-the Capri and State hotels. Together, the three hotels, deemed SROs (single-room occupancy residential buildings), accounted for 10 percent of downtown's affordable-housing stock, with close to 400 cheap units available on a nightly, weekly and monthly basis.

The State Hotel was immediately vacated, deemed structurally unsound-or as one report put it, there was a 1 percent chance that 100 percent of the building would come down in an earthquake. It was demolished in November 2001. Upon inspection, the Hotel San Diego, the largest of the three, was found to have similar structural problems, in addition to mold and sewage contamination in the basement. Residents were ordered to vacate the hotel by June 26, 2001, something the city fought, evident in a memo from the city's Housing Commission: "... displacement and demolition of needed housing are proceeding even though courthouse design and funding are not finalized and construction is not anticipated until approximately 2005."

"We had wanted to try to keep those [hotels] open as long as we could," said GSA project manager Barry Dauphinee, "but because of the condition of the hotels, particularly not only from a health point of a view but from a structural and seismic point of view, we considered those to be quite a high risk."

Dauphinee pointed out that the Hotel San Diego remained open a year after the GSA acquired it, "but it got to a point where the health conditions were so bad that we had no option but to close it," he said. "There were many, many years of what I would tend to say was deferred maintenance or no maintenance. We had a number of reports that indicated the condition of the hotel and the advice and recommendation that it should be vacated."

While the two smaller hotels are gone-the Capri was leveled this past fall-the Hotel San Diego remains untouched, its demolition waiting on construction funding.

San Diego's been slated to get a new courthouse since the federal judiciary launched an ambitious plan in the mid-'90s to build new courthouses in 160 cities around the country. Courthouse projects queue according to an "urgency score," and San Diego's urgency score was low-58.4 percent, placing it initially at the bottom of 10 courthouse projects vying for funding in 2005.

A study released last year by the Administrative Office of the U.S. Courts showed that San Diego's criminal caseload-3,582 cases last year-is second only to the entire state of Arizona, with 4,320 cases. San Diego's proximity to border drug trafficking is cited as a factor contributing to the caseload.

In March, the judiciary reassessed its needs and removed six of the 10 projects from the list. San Diego was moved to emergency status, making it No. 3 out of the remaining courthouses slated for potential funding in 2005. Dauphinee says he's "cautiously optimistic" that the new ranking will secure funding for the courthouse.

Aaron Hunter, spokesperson for Congresswoman Susan Davis, whose district includes downtown San Diego, said getting the funding for the project is a priority for Davis. Congressman Bob Filner likewise has advocated for a new courthouse for years, but has maintained that the bigger issue is the housing that was lost when the three hotels closed. It was a mistake to empty out the Capri last fall before funding was secured, he told CityBeat-a move he described to GSA administrator Stephen Perry in an August 2003 letter as "unconscionable."

"We don't know when the courthouse is going [to get funded]," he said.

In Filner's opinion, the city should have sued the federal government to get its lost housing back.

City officials initially demanded the government follow municipal laws, which require any developer who converts or demolishes an SRO to replace those lost units. (In a case not related to the courthouse, the ordinance was challenged and is currently being revised).

"When we started talking to the federal government, we were told there's no law that requires them to adhere to local regulations," said Donna Alm, spokesperson for CCDC, "so we're left with 400 less affordable units at a time when affordable housing is a very serious issue."

Alm said CCDC and city housing officials came up with an alternate plan. "We have several projects that we're working on now but for a few more dollars would be under construction," she said. "We thought, wait a minute-instead of asking the federal government to replace the 400 units, which would cost them probably $80 to $90 million... we thought, let's ask them to fill the gap for these four projects."

In all, San Diego legislators are pushing for $20 million to help fund four local projects that would provide more than 350 new affordable units downtown. In 2003, the city was able to get $470,000 from the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development and is waiting on another $725,000 promised this year. City Councilmember Toni Atkins, who's advocated for replacement housing, said the money secured so far isn't nearly enough. The funding, "while greatly appreciated, gets us nowhere near replacing the housing we have lost," she said.

When asked whether she was confident the city would get the affordable housing funds in next year's budget, Alm, like the GSA's Dauphinee on courthouse funding, said she's "cautiously optimistic."

"I think we will get some money," she said. "Will we get $20 million in one year? Probably not. That would be reaching."


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