Hotel del Coronado plans horrify locals

Pseudo "Bahama Cays" architecture to surround structure

— Does Bill Clinton's favorite hostelry, the Hotel del Coronado, need saving? By all appearances, the 109-year-old, 692-room historic landmark is doing fine. Depending on whether you talk to the town's mayor or the hotel's manager, it's had between $50 million and $100 million of refurbishing over the last decade.

No one worried too much last year after owner Larry Lawrence died and his widow sold the Del to the $60 billionPrich Travelers Group, a New York financial services company, which had held most of the tabs anyway.

But then you start reading the pink flier circulating through Coronado. "North, south, east, and west views to be blocked! Pioneering historic electric power plant, original and subsequent brick laundries, garage/stables, original Kate Sessions plantings and prehistoric archaeological sites to be destroyed!!!" Word had been trickling out ever since Lawrence's death that the hotel's new owners were itching to develop the entire beachfront site. Plans include a conference center, parking structures, and 40-foot-high stacks of new guest rooms - options so extensive they'd surround the famous hotel. According to local critics, you wouldn't be able to see in or out: the 1888 Queen Anne Victorian palace would all but disappear from sight behind pseudo "Bahama Cays" architecture.

Last February 13, Travelers sent the Coronado City Council a "revised proposed Specific Plan," which confirmed preservationists' worst fears. The "footprints" of the proposed ring of buildings were there for all to see.

"To show your support," begged the flier, "post this in your windows!"

Downtown Coronado didn't need to be told. Eight thousand of the "preservation alert" posters have already been distributed. Merchants and residents are asking for a second printing. The shocking-pink signs assault your eyes from half the storefront windows up and down Orange Avenue. Even from l'Armoire, the conservative dress shop for ladies of a certain age. Even the old-money mansions of Alameda Boulevard.

"They're going to ruin it," says Fran Brown, the 85-year-old owner of M.J. Brown's on the corner of 10th and Orange. "It's the new owners. What do they care? But this is Coronado. They don't realize what kind of a fight they're taking on."

"To have them trash such a place!" says Carol Cahill, longtime activist and a vocal opponent of the development, "that's why we're all brokenhearted; because it's going to turn what was such a lovely, elegant, friendly place into something quite hostile."

Why the new owners' urge to surround the Del with development? Dipping property values have left Travelers with a money loser in the Del. In 1987, Lawrence, who had bought the hotel in 1963 for a reported $7 million, refinanced it through Primerica Corporation, which later acquired Travelers and took its name. The value of the refinancing is not public, but most observers say the loan, which was made at the peak of the '80s real estate boom, topped the hotel's 1996 assessed value of $150 million. County records indicate only $2.9 million changed hands on the day of sale, September 12, 1996. From a financial point of view, development seemed the only way out.

That's not likely the way Coronado sees it. Forget the Alamo. Coronado's cry is "Remember the Bridge! Remember the Shores!" The sneak attack that created the shoreside Miami-style condos south of the Del taught islanders not to trust big corporations. The combined power of Caltrans and Governor Pat Brown, which forced the bridge upon Coronado in 1969 - despite a resounding "No!" vote by locals - taught islanders not to trust politicians either.

"This is the biggest campaign we've ever done," says Bruce Coons, who wrote the flier and who is the point man for soho's (Save Our Heritage Organisation) "Save the Del" campaign. I agree to meet Coons at the Del and let him give me the tour. The light is fading when I spot him, Travelers' development plans in hand, at the Hotel Del's beachfront Ocean Terrace cafe.

It's a spectacular evening. The bop of tennis games below us competes with a navy S-3 aircraft coming in low on its approach to North Island. Then both sounds fade, leaving us in the twilight quiet, with just the smell of salt breezes and coffee. The sun reddens over the kelp beds off Point Loma. A silhouetted navy cruiser cuts its way through the narrows, ocean-bound.

"Look well, my friend," says Coons. "If Travelers wins, you'll be looking at one giant blob of bedrooms between us and the sea. This will be a 50-foot-wide alley between two buildings." He opens Travelers' proposal to "Planning Area 5. Southwest." It shows the area of the present tennis courts (currently between us and the beach) shaded. "Buildable area, up to 80 guest rooms, recreational facilities and accessory use."

"And in the front of the document," says Coons, "they're asking for [permission to build this structure up to] 40 feet high with 60-foot features for this entire area. That would block all views of the ocean to the top of the fourth floor of the old building." Jody (not her real name) comes and serves us coffee. "Oh sure. The new owners really, really want to build on the courts, but the City of Coronado's fighting them on that."

"That's not 100 percent certain," says Coons. "The hotel pays the City maybe $4 million a year in taxes. It swings a lot of weight." Warning letters have been sent to the Coronado City Council and to Travelers. The National Park Service voiced "concern" about overbuilding. The National Trust for Historic Preservation people "sincerely hope" preservation would be the "guiding principle" in any development. The Department of Historic Preservation in the Department of Parks and Recreation urged Coronado to "consider the effect of this project on the integrity of this important landmark." The California Preservation Foundation worried that "schematics...show new buildings and parking structures ringing the old hotel."

However, the San Diego Historical Society and the Coronado Historical Association, which both get financial support from the Hotel Del, have so far been remarkably silent on the issue.

Coons leads me to the large northwestern corner parking lot, near the Duchess of Windsor's cottage. Coons points out that this fenced-in parking lot used to be an open lawn and miniPgolf course (trees planted by Kate Sessions), where townfolk mingled with hotel guests. "I'd like to see these lawns restored. And they could rehab the gardens and open it up to the town again."

The essence, he says, of the Del's Queen Anne Victorian design - evoking the castles of England with its towers and turrets - lies in its standing in splendid isolation. "And yet they want to crowd this entire parking lot with a structure for guest rooms and parking. Forty feet high!"

He points to the northwest corner where the kitchen area backs out to meet Orange. "More parking building there. And retail. Forty feet high!"

We walk around to the southern area. "And they want to build up all this - some bits as high as 80 feet! That completes the tomb."

But Coons's real passion comes out where a tall brick chimney dominates a series of old workshops. "They [already] destroyed the original stables and garage. Now they want to destroy this extremely important power plant and original steam laundry to make room for a 25,000-square-foot conference center." He shakes his head. "Uh-uh. This, we're going to fight. They could turn all this into shops. Back East they love these beautiful brick buildings."

We walk inside, past bricked-up arches where the old steam generator engines used to hiss away, powering the hotel, as well as all of Coronado. When it was installed in 1887, it was the largest electric power plant of its kind in the world, according to a January 1888 report in the San Diego Union. Suddenly, Coons's face lights up. We're entering an underground passage. This is the famous "secret tunnel," which legend says was used to guide patrons under the hotel and into illegal drinking rooms during Prohibition. And beside the tunnel entrance, Coons is amazed to find a wall of original 1887 marble facings still intact, insulating the present-day generators' throw-switches.

Coons's voice is adamant. "Destroying the historic buildings, the laundry, the power plant, that's not an option. Travelers is not going to be able to do that, despite what they think. And views - the vista of the hotel cannot be compromised. It will ruin this town. It will ruin this region. This hotel is a poster child for the whole historic viewscape notion."

So with all the heat already generated, why isn't the Coronado City Council taking a strong stand? No messages of "Forget it" to Travelers. To date, all the council has done is send back the plan, asking for more detail.

"That wasn't the place to be [taking stands]," says Mayor Tom Smisek. "We were very clear. The next step of the process, when the specific plan is completed, we'll conduct the public hearings, bring up these issues, and state our positions on them then." Smisek says he would be prepared to put the issue to a public vote, if it came to that, but points out he is just one of five votes. He is generally thought to be proconservation. The swing vote to watch, so the buzz goes, is Councilman Dave Blumenthal.

Travelers, a company never heavily involved in the hotel business, wants to obtain planning permission from the Coronado City Council, with a built-in guarantee of noninterference for 20 years. Many believe Travelers then intends to sell the property, which cost them so heavily in the Larry Lawrence years.

But Coons thinks the local council and Travelers still don't get it. "This is a national historic landmark. It belongs to the people of the United States. It may be privately owned, but they know that designation is reserved for buildings that are of the utmost importance to the history of the United States as a whole. It's a national treasure. They took on the honor, they took on the obligation. This will probably be the biggest preservation fight in San Diego history. And the most important one. I don't think Travelers have a clue what's coming - yet."

Travelers' New York spokeswoman Mary McDermott, who last week insisted on seeking written responses to questions, had not provided them by press time.

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