Padres and city bureaucrats agree to save East Village landmarks

SDG&E Station A, at the corner of Imperial and Ninth Avenues

When La Jolla architect Jeffrey Shorn met with San Diego Gas & Electric Co., officials in downtown's East Village in early 1997 to discuss becoming a consultant, he was impressed by the utility's decades-old offices, brick warehouses, 1920s power poles, and other structures. The "most handsome" building, in Shorn's opinion, Station A, at the corner of Imperial and Ninth Avenues, was the one SDG&E planned to demolish to more easily clean as much as 75,000 tons of contaminated soil underneath.

His preservationist tendencies, Shorn speculated, probably nixed his chances of being hired by the utility, which is a bit ironic. SDG&E prides itself for helping protect its architectural treasures, such as Stations B and C, elsewhere downtown. But in the East Village, the utility needed to raze several buildings it deemed historically insignificant as part of a massive environmental cleanup started in 1995. By clearing and cleaning the 11.5 acres it had acquired over a century in East Village, SDG&E could better market its largely unused properties.

Shorn was disappointed to learn, later in 1997, that SDG&E persuaded San Diego city council members to rescind the historic designation of Station A's north and west walls. As a compromise to the city's Historical Site Board, the utility carefully dismantled and set aside those two façades' 32,000 bricks, doors, arched windows, lintels, and other design elements.

Little did Shorn know Station A stood next to the proposed site for the Padres' baseball stadium. Nor did he know the buildings he evaluated would form a battle zone for team officials and history buffs. SDG&E executives, including Mark Nelson, local government affairs director for parent company Sempra Energy, say they didn't know either -- that they didn't start negotiating a real estate sale with the Padres until early this year. The city had planned to convert the industrial East Village into a residential neighborhood since 1992, but talk of a sports complex circulated too. "SDG&E just wanted everything leveled so they could sell their property. They didn't save two walls of Station A. They saved two piles of bricks," Shorn declared.

Now stacked in a nearby shed, those bricks represent a cornerstone in a deal recently struck by the Padres, the City of San Diego, the National Trust for Historic Preservation, and Save Our Heritage Organisation (SOHO). Under a settlement agreement designed to prevent local and national preservationists from suing the city and the Padres for destroying historic buildings to make way for a stadium, Station A's two walls might be reassembled -- most likely as adornments to parking garages for baseball fans.

Officers of the National Trust and Save Our Heritage joined Padres executives and city bureaucrats in lauding the agreement as a way to save East Village landmarks. "This agreement enables us to preserve some of the character of the area," said Padres president Larry Lucchino. "This project has always been more than a ballpark." Development director Greg Shannon described the "adaptive reuse" and preservation of 11 buildings and announced plans to create a permanent display of the neighborhood's history.

Stripped of its public relations façade, however, the agreement reveals a shaky foundation. The product of secret negotiations spanning three months, the 33-page document fails to guarantee that any buildings will be saved. Assuming they are, some will be radically altered -- in a few cases moved -- without provisions for maintenance or continued preservation. What's more, the city council has not approved the deal, though various city officials have signed the papers. Critics say the National Trust and Save Our Heritage caved in by empowering the Padres to tear away so much of the neighborhood's historic fabric and unusual ambiance.

National Trust and Save Our Heritage officers term the agreement "the best achievable alternative for preserving historic resources." Several months ago, both nonprofit groups supported another alternative, planting the stadium's footprint two blocks east and leaving the buildings intact and untouched, under the ParkBayDiagonal Collaborative's urban design plan. They advocated moving the ballpark in June, during a press conference announcing the Trust's addition of San Diego's Arts and Warehouse District to its list of "America's most endangered historic places." To dramatize the destruction the ballpark would wreak, preservationists spoke outside the Showley Brothers Candy Factory, a historic landmark at 305 Eighth Street scheduled for demolition.

Despite their anger and embarrassment from the national publicity, Padres executives made it clear they would not budge the stadium one inch and excluded ParkBayDiagonal Collaborative members from negotiations. Consequently, the Candy Factory must move under the settlement agreement, which constrains preservationists while giving the Padres great latitude in modifying historic buildings and dropping the agreement entirely. Key provisions include:

-- Barring the National Trust and Save Our Heritage from suing the Padres or the city for destroying historic resources.

-- Requiring Richard Moe, the Trust's president, to prepare a radio broadcast promoting historic preservation features of the ballpark.

-- Allowing the Padres to suspend their obligations if the stadium is challenged by a lawsuit or referendum but holding preservationists to their public relations duties.

-- Ensuring demolition of one historic landmark, the "Spanish eclectic" SDG&E office at 114 Tenth Avenue.

-- Setting a cost limit on moving the Candy Factory, which, if exceeded, could result in demolition.

-- Encasing the five-story Western Metal Supply Co. building at 215 Seventh Avenue within the stadium and adapting it to provide skyboxes, a ticket office, and souvenir store.

Bruce Henderson, a former city councilman who works as a lawyer in Pacific Beach, said he is most disturbed by the agreement's clauses forbidding individual employees and officials of the National Trust and Save Our Heritage from challenging the stadium. "I can't imagine being an employee of an organization and being told that my rights as a citizen are being taken away from me," Henderson said. "This deals with an important public issue, and the agreement prevents people from talking. It's a violation of public policy. You have an agreement full of holes and a radio announcement about how wonderful it is."

Holes appear in the "if" clauses, especially those pertaining to Station A. If the Padres relocate the Candy Factory to Seventh Avenue and K Street, the city takes responsibility for the station's two Richardsonian Romanesque walls. If the Padres can't move the Candy Factory, they would be required to rebuild Station A's façades at Seventh and K. The ultimate loophole occurs in the following sentence: "In the event that it is not feasible to reconstruct Station A at any of the reconstruction sites, developers [the Padres] or public entities [the city] shall not be obligated to reconstruct Station A."

The Candy Factory, considered a "deal-breaker" by preservationists, may stand a better chance of survival, although the Padres reserve the right to remove the top floor. If moving the three-story, 30,000-square-foot structure were to surpass $3 million, preservationists would have 30 days to raise the difference. The Padres agreed to spend $2.59 million on relocation, and the city offered to contribute $410,000. However, "extraordinary events or unforeseen conditions" would open a loophole to revive the Padres' original plan of destroying the Candy Factory.

Peter Brink, vice president at the National Trust's Washington, D.C., headquarters, said his organization rarely agrees to proposals to move buildings or retain parts of buildings. Only one structure on "America's most endangered historic places" list has been saved that way: the Southeast Light in Rhode Island. Eroded by seawater, the lighthouse was moved for an estimated $2.5 million.

To help preserve East Village, the Trust and Save Our Heritage criticized the ballpark's environmental impact report for failing to protect historic buildings. Threats of lawsuits blasting the report's adequacy, which could delay construction, motivated the Padres to bargain with preservationists. That contrasts past actions of team officials, who have attended Historical Site Board meetings to oppose historic designation of East Village buildings. In March, Sempra Energy joined the Padres to protest landmark status of the utility's office complex destined for the wrecking ball. Only a few weeks before, Sempra unveiled plans to sell its East Village properties to the Padres for $24 million. The sale is expected to close later this year.

In an about-face noted in the agreement, the Padres would not block efforts to create a historic warehouse district, while the city agreed to spend $25,000 on a survey for that purpose. During a closed session September 14, city council members discussed but did not vote on the agreement, which also puts San Diego on the hook for moving Rosario Hall from 1143 K Street and possibly reconstructing Station A -- expenditures estimated in the tens of thousands of dollars. A vintage power pole, now being stored by SDG&E, will also be erected in East Village, but public records don't indicate who assumes responsibility for that.

Alan Levy, of the ParkBayDiagonal Collaborative, said, "After you shave off the top floor of the Candy Factory, gut the insides, and move it over a block, I'm not sure what you've got left in terms of architectural or structural integrity." Like other collaborative members, Levy was alarmed by the agreement's "treatment plan" allowing the Padres to modify buildings, such as knocking down three walls of the Farmer's Bazaar on K Street, removing the top floor of Schiefer & Sons Warehouse at 371 Eighth Avenue, burying Kvaas Construction Co. at 330 Eighth Avenue underground by raising the street level, and adding two stories to the TR Produce building at 808 J Street. "I think the Trust and SOHO gave up too much to save bits and pieces of buildings instead of getting the Padres to move the stadium."

Brink of the Trust acknowledged the outcome of negotiations wasn't ideal. "Our approach to preservation is to save things in their original context so everything around them is intact. Moving is the last resort. Even more so with façade-ectomies. In our eyes, placing a historic façade inside or on the front of a new building is a Disneyland approach," Brink said. "But in instances when you're saving the building from demolition, it's better than nothing."

Elizabeth Merritt, a Trust lawyer, said it's not unusual for the Trust to waive its right to sue; and she often opens talks by saying, "We're not going to sue you." The Padres' settlement, however, does not prohibit the Trust and Save Our Heritage from suing over breach of contract. "Sure, maybe we can go to court and sue. Maybe we would win a new environmental impact report, but we wouldn't necessarily win a court order to save the buildings," Merritt said. "We feel we got as much as we possibly could. It was very important for us to be able to say that there were other alternatives to preserve historic buildings in East Village."

Bruce Coons, president of Save Our Heritage, said his organization would have preferred that a new stadium be built in Mission Valley, where no historic landmarks would be compromised. In May, Save Our Heritage gave the ParkBayDiagonal Collaborative an award for designing a plan that would spare East Village's warehouses, but by June, Coons said, his organization had cooled toward the idea of placing the stadium farther east. "The best way to protect historic buildings is to adapt them to new uses." If East Village's landmarks aren't incorporated into the ballpark, Coons said, they would come under pressure from other developers and possibly be razed for parking lots. Save Our Heritage has lost so many battles with the city to rescue historic buildings from such treatment, Coons said, it felt it had a better chance with the Padres.

The settlement includes preservationists in a "Preservation Advisory Group," but they are outnumbered by representatives from the Padres and the city. The group would monitor the "treatment plan for retained buildings," which is supposed to comply with federal rules for rehabilitating historic buildings. Coons said the Padres are veering away from some of the more drastic treatment options, such as burying the Kvaas building and eliminating the top floors of the Candy Factory and the Schiefer & Sons Warehouse. "They're looking at these buildings more positively every day."

Portions of the agreement are included in the final environmental impact report, which is tentatively scheduled for certification Tuesday, October 26, by the city council. However, the report concludes that planned treatment for several historic structures would result in "significant and unmitigable impacts." The report also identifies at least 19 other old buildings and warehouses that would be demolished although they add to East Village's industrial character. Because those structures aren't historic landmarks, the impacts are not considered significant.

Vonn Marie May, a preservationist who serves on the Historical Site Board, said she views the agreement between the National Trust and the Padres as "a firmer set of promises" than what Save Our Heritage usually gets from local developers. "I think the Padres will agree to anything before October 26; but, after that, who knows what will happen? They can wiggle out of a lot." The Padres did not return telephone calls prior to publishing deadlines.

Shorn, a member of the American Institute of Architects and a former trustee of the California Preservation Foundation, said, "When faced with total demolition, people will accept saving walls and moving buildings. I feel a deal was signed with the devil, frankly. Whether it's a success...the proof will be when the ballpark is finished. We'll see what remains of the warehouses."

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