It has that weird feeling, like Dead Man Walking. We’re at the bar. Jimmy has got me my regular Arrogant Bastard. Tiger does a pretend growl. “That Arrogant Bastard.” Miguel the chef sits with his evening cerveza, a Bud Light, swearing in Spanish at the ball game on TV. Guillermo, one of the bar trainees, passes by clinking a load of glasses. “Como estas?” he says, mainly to give me the chance to use the oh-so-cool answer he taught me, “De que me quejo?” — “Can’t complain.” James the wooden-boat builder, and Bob and Dorothy the retired couple who are famous for dancing lovingly whenever musicians play here, are already ensconced.
Brian the Marine officer and Inga his Navy dentist wife pull up stools to eat and watch the game. Pete the surfboard designer comes up ready to argue the latest wrinkle on the presidency. We both enjoy arguing, so that’s the next half hour taken care of. We’ll end up talking about his idea to start a surf school in Gaza, on the Mediterranean coast, our own Middle East peace initiative.
So, yes, it is a real-life Cheers sort of situation. It quietly soaks into your bones that this is as important to your day, your week, your sanity as any work. And yet, tonight, it’s got a hollow feel. Everything’s good, except it’s not.
“This is it for Costa Azul,” Brant, the owner had told us. “We’re closing at the end of the month. New owners. Going to up the rent. Want to turn this into a ‘high-end boutique restaurant.’ That’s not Costa Azul. We’re a cantina for locals.”
This was last November. What was happening was that a company called Kleege Enterprises had bought the entire prime block of downtown Coronado in one giant real estate deal.
The 20 businesses operating on the block include two restaurants (three, if you include MooTime Creamery), plus the local newspaper, the Eagle & Journal (headquartered in the second-oldest house on the island), cleaners, beauty salons, galleries, the famous Bay Books bookstore, and El Cordova Garage, reputedly the oldest operating garage west of the Rockies.
And the first shock: Kleege Enterprises told El Cordova to leave. They ousted the 114-year-old garage, which had been selling and servicing Coronado automobiles since 1904. El Cordova was about the only place on the island where you could get anything fixed, from your Bentley to your golf cart. El Cordova was such a fixture in the community, as a piece of working history, and a symbol of the “real,” non-tourist Coronado, that it had become a tourist attraction itself.
Kleege Enterprises had decided to kick out El Cordova Garage in favor of an Italian pizza restaurant, Buona Forchetta.
As real estate bites go, this was shark-size. Overnight, a third of downtown Coronado had changed hands. And because ownership rights trump citizens’ or local government or renters’ rights, all eyes were turned to the new owners.
The block fills the space between Orange Avenue, Tenth Street, and C Avenue. Kleege won the bidding war by offering a reported $23 million to Hartwell Properties Limited Partnership of Las Vegas. Hartwell was actually very much a local Coronado concern run under the leadership of Nina Hartwell (whose house on Ocean Boulevard is still for sale at $13,500,000; it’s known as the Velcro Mansion, because Nina’s husband Clark was an early investor in the rippy-sticky stuff). For decades, Ms. Hartwell ran the downtown commercial property with mostly month-to-month leases but, to compensate, a light hand and reasonable rents, until she became too old and infirm.
Suddenly, the Nina Hartwell era has taken on the golden haze of the Good Old Days. All the businesses received notes revealing the new address to send rents to, but, according to Rock Walton, that was pretty much it. Unspoken: an upcoming rise in the rents.
But for Walton, it was much more.
“I got a call. And [people from Kleege Enterprises] wanted to come in and meet with me. I took that as a positive, that at least there would be some kind of communication. Because they weren’t returning calls; they won’t talk to anybody. So we set up an appointment for the next morning. These two guys walked in here. One of them is some kind of vice president for the company, and the other one is a consultant. And this young kid, the vice president, had a prepared speech that he’d practiced that was obviously written by someone else.
“And he said, ‘We wanted to come down and speak with you, face-to-face. And we need to let you know that we have reached an agreement with a new tenant for this property. We understand that it will take some time for you to get your work done, and to get all of your equipment moved out of here, so we’ll give you three or four months to get that done.’
“Because I was a little bit flabbergasted, I didn’t really respond. It was just, Are you frigging kidding me? Because it was not what I was expecting at all. I’m one of the highest rent-payers on the block, and so for them to come in and kill us first was a surprise.
“Honestly, I was freaking crushed. I have spent $2 million on this place. I spent 30 years of my life in this place. It’s more than half my life. And I came to work [that] morning worth two million dollars and went home worth about 20 grand. The $2 million represents the value of the business. Without the property, the business has no value. The only thing it has is its equipment.”
Was there no way to stay? Like offering to pay more rent?
“They didn’t even offer anything to us. There was no offer of ‘If you pay this much.’ After the fact, after that 30-day eviction notice, the guy said that even if he would allow us to stay here — which, again, we don’t fit in his business model because, since he thinks it should be a strip mall, automotive doesn’t belong in a strip mall — he wouldn’t let us stay no matter what we paid. But he said he would have to get $30,000-a-month rent for this building, for what [financial stake] he has in it, ‘to make his bankers happy.’ There is no possible way that this building is worth $30,000 a month. I don’t give a shit what you do with it. It is not worth $6 a foot. Right now, I am paying $10,000 a month.”