April 26 2016 04:30 PM

A Historical Resource Board meeting could decide fate of vintage downtown signs

Caliente mural
Photo by Carolyn Ramos

"They're just trying to clear a hurdle as far as I know and they could care less about what the murals and the theater mean to the citizens of San Diego," says Bill Coons, executive director of the Save Our Heritage Organization. He's referring to a report submitted to the city's Historical Resources Board by technical services company AECOM asking the board not to designate the three murals on the sides of the California Theatre as historic and, therefore, no longer safe from demolition or defacement.

The three Caliente murals were painted in the '60s to advertise a Mexican racetrack. The murals, as well as the theater (which was built in 1927 but has sat vacant on the corner of 4th and C since the '90s) have long been a point of contention between real estate developers and preservationists. The owners of the property, the Beverly Hills-based Sloan Capital Partners, LLC, want to build a multi-unit residential building. While the theater itself has been designated by the city as historic, AECOM's new report contends that the murals on the theater do not fall into the parameters of HRB's criteria for historic designation. The HRB staff concurred with the report and plans to have a meeting at 1 p.m. on Thursday, April 28, to hear from AECOM and decide the mural's fate.

"The whole report is kind of a botched amateur report. They're paid to make sure that the developer gets his way," says Coons, claiming that the AECOM report, among other things, misrepresented the painting technique used for the mural, which could help distinguish it as historic. SOHO's website also quotes AECOM's own website which states that the company's agenda is "managing historic preservation processes and moving the project forward, regardless of the challenges."

Reached by email, senior planner and HRB liaison Kelly Stanco says that the board has done its due diligence.

"That [AECOM] report found the signs ineligible for designation," Stanco says. "Staff reviewed the report and the designation file for the California Theatre, conducted a site visit and ultimately concurred with the conclusion of the consultant's analysis."

Coons encourages anyone who cares about the murals to sign the group's change.org petition and to write to Stanco and/or to their city councilmember. He's also encouraging supporters to show up at the HRB meeting on Thursday to voice their concerns.

Stanco added that it's a possibility the board "takes action" on Thursday. If they decide the murals will not be historically designated, Coons says SOHO still has legal recourse.

"Theyíll get a letter from our attorney reminding them it's still significant under CEQA [California Environmental Quality Act] and they still have to treat it that way for purposes of their Environmental Impact Report. And we'll submit it to the state for designation and to the National Register of Historic Places," Coons says. "We're going to do everything we can to protect the murals and the theater. This is only the first shot across the bow."

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