In May 2000, the city of San Diego's code compliance department received a complaint from a tenant at the Coast Hotel, a residential hotel located Downtown: “Noise, dirt, gnats, roaches, beatles [sic], moths, bugs, spiders and spider webs,” the tenant had scribbled on a complaint form, “and spider webs and cob webs and spider cob webs, roach shit and roach eggs and carriers of the roach egg industry, carrying the big roach eggs and little baby roaches in it, stuck right in the middle of the thorax of the specie [sic] insect called the cockeroach [sic].”
Of the more than one-dozen complaints filed with the city by the hotel's former tenants—an archive that spanned 1995 through 2005 when CityBeat inspected the file more than a year ago—it's perhaps the most colorful. Others complained, simply, about exposed wiring, locked fire escapes, buckling walls and stairways that seemed about to collapse. In 1992, the city tried and failed to have the building shut down; at that point, the structure was already 105 years old—plenty of time to build up dust, insects and code violations.
But there's more to the building's history than structural problems and disgruntled tenants. The hotel—which was named The Occidental when it opened in 1887, then renamed The Clermont, then The Coast and now is known once again as The Clermont—almost didn't make it to 2008. In 2001, a year after the “noise, dirt, gnats, roaches” complaint, Karen Huff-Willis, chair of the Black Historical Society of San Diego, saved the Coast/Clermont from demolition by successfully arguing that it should be declared a historical building—it had once been a “colored-only” hotel, Huff-Willis discovered. Located just down the street from the Creole Palace nightclub, The Clermont rented rooms to jazz greats like Charlie Parker and Jelly Roll Morton.
At that point, Huff-Willis had plans to work with a developer who was interested in rehabbing the hotel and building up the city block on which it sat. She envisioned moving the Black Historical Society offices into the hotel and opening up a museum there. Larry Sidiropoulos, a San Diego attorney, bought The Clermont in 2004 with two investment partners and, after talking to Huff-Willis, agreed that a rehab that stayed true to the hotel's African-American history was a good idea.
“We were going to turn it into a museum,” Sidiropoulos told CityBeat last week. And a jazz club: “We had signed a franchise agreement with Birdland jazz club—Charlie Parker's family,” he said. Sidiropoulos and his investment partners—who call themselves ALS Investment Group—had teamed up with local developer Robert Green, who put together a proposal to redevelop the city-owned block that's bounded by Seventh and Eighth avenues to the east and west and Market Street and Island Avenue on the north and south. The Clermont would be a focal point of the mixed-use project.
But while Green, Sidiropoulos and Huff-Willis were envisioning a higher and better use for the building, the United African American Ministerial Action Council (UAAMAC) was focusing on what was happening inside the building. In 2005, a company called Diestro Inc. had signed a contract with the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR) to operate “Valley of the Sun Guest Homes” located at 501 Seventh Ave., the same address as the then-named Coast Hotel. Under the contract, the state would pay for up to 90 days of transitional housing for up to 75 parolees at a time at a rate of $17.40 per person per day. The contract, which covered Jan. 1, 2005 through June 30 of this year, paid a total of $1,666,485.
The 42-page contract set out specific conditions: The hotel's operator needed to keep track of parolees' comings and goings; no more than two people to a room; doctor-prescribed medication would be kept in a secure cabinet and distributed by staff; the contractor would provide parolees with basic hygiene necessities, cleaning supplies, bus tokens and clean linens; and no alcohol or drugs would be allowed on the premises. In other words, every effort would be made to get a person who'd been recently released from prison back on his feet and into a more stable living environment.
But, as UAAMAC found, that wasn't happening. Robert Robinson, a case manager for the nonprofit, filed a complaint with CDCR in April 2007 after being contacted by several tenants. When UAAMAC didn't receive a satisfactory response from CDCR, Robinson scheduled a hotel walk-through and invited representatives from state Assemblymember Lori Saldana's office and the City Attorney's office. In a report on the walkthrough, Robinson described a long list of code and contract violations: faulty electrical wiring, people being housed four to a room in metal bunk beds with no mattress covering—“worse than prison space,” he wrote. One tenant was smoking pot in his room during the inspection; other tenants complained that an exterminator would come by to spray for insects and rodents while the building was occupied. Even then, the place was infested with bed bugs.
“When we toured the facility, men would come out and show us how the bed bugs were biting them up,” said Makini Hammond, the deputy city attorney assigned to the Clermont case. Tenants were also being forced out of the hotel at 8 a.m. and couldn't return until 4 p.m.—another contract violation.
“There's a need for people to get up and go out and find jobs,” Hammond said, “but to put people out and not provide them services? How about referrals… or any kind of assistance to go look for a job? Just put them out and say, you can't come back before 4 p.m.? Then they became our problem, you know, the city's problem.”
Diestro had also failed to obtain an operating permit from the city, Hammond said.
Jerome Marsh, spokesperson for CDCR's Division of Adult Parole Operations (DAPO), said there had been plans to renew the contract with Diestro, but after CDCR determined that Diestro lacked the proper permit, the company was disqualified. Marsh said DAPO has requested funding to contract with a different transitional housing provider, but that's on hold pending approval of the state budget. Agents stopped referring parolees to the hotel in January, he said. By press time, Marsh hadn't responded to an e-mailed question about why CDCR didn't check on the building prior to UAAMAC's walk-through.
Right now, the hotel sits about half full, Sidiropoulos said, while necessary repairs are being made.In December 2007, the Centre City Development Corp., which facilitates Downtown redevelopment for the city, selected Related of California over Robert Green/ALS to build the Seventh and Market project. Unlike the Green/ALS proposal, Related's didn't include the Clermont but instead would build around it.
“Instead of using [The Clermont] as an African-American component, they're putting one right next to it,” Sidiropoulos said.
As Huff-Willis told CityBeat columnist John R. Lamb earlier this month, “They did it out of spite to say, ‘Well, you saved the hotel, but we're going to build a project around it that will render it insignificant. It'll fall to the ground one day, and it'll be gone.'” In 2001, CCDC opposed Huff-Willis' request that The Clermont be designated a historical structure.
Last month, Huff-Willis asked for an investigation into how the Related project was selected. As reported by the online news website voiceofsan diego.org, CCDC President Nancy Graham had a prior working relationship with Related of California's parent company, though Graham has denied having any influence over the decision. On Aug. 19, CCDC suspended an inquiry into the project and announced plans to discuss the status at its Sept. 10 board meeting.
If CCDC opts to go ahead with the Related project, Related can purchase what are known as density rights from ALS. Per Downtown's land-use code, a development can only be so big, and the project Related has planned exceeds its allowed square footage. Since the 5,000-foot Clermont sits on a parcel that allows for a building that's up to 30,000 square feet in size, ALS can opt to sell 25,000 square feet of density rights to Related. That would give ALS money to put toward rehabbing the building.
“Because the building is historical, there's only so much we can do with it,” Sidiropoulos said, “and it needs way more repairs than what it's worth.”
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