California Theatre deal: Largest-ever downtown condo tower planned
By Phillip Molnar
There may be new life for the nearly 100-year-old California Theatre on C Street.
Preservationists have struck a deal with a developer that intends to construct a multi-million dollar 41-story condominium tower on the site of the historic theater. The compromise will preserve more of the building’s exterior and lobby, as well as use original ornamentation.
A dispute between preservation group Save Our Heritage Organisation, or SOHO, and the developer halted the demolition in March 2018. The new plan still calls for tearing down the heavily dilapidated building, but more of its exterior will be saved and a stronger effort will be made to faithfully reconstruct the building. The California Theatre, made up of a 2,200-seat theater and nine-story office building, closed in 1990.
Rising above the former theater, developers have decided on a 474-foot futuristic-style tower designed in partnership with San Diego-based Carrier Johnson + Culture. At 444 units, it would be the largest condominium complex in downtown’s history and rare in the apartment-heavy market.
The new design is expected to be reviewed by downtown planning agency Civic San Diego in July, and then reviewed by the city’s Planning Commission in August or September. The developer’s application said it hopes to start construction in March 2020 and complete it by September 2022.
The theater site at 1122 4th Avenue was purchased by Beverly Hills-based Sloan Capital Partners in 2006. The project is being developed by Caydon Property Group, an Australian company, which is coordinating with SOHO on the preservation of the site.
Bruce Coons, executive director of the preservationist organization, said the plan was a major improvement from the original design that gutted out the theater’s nine-story office building to be used for parking spots, and saved little of the original structure.
Instead, the new plan calls for reconstructing the lobby in its entirety. Much of the exterior will be rebuilt to look exactly like it was, but the interior will be modern. Efforts will be made to reuse ornamentation of the building in the new structure. The western wall with a large yellow Caliente horse racing advertisement cannot survive the reconstruction, but the developer will attempt to recreate it.
Coons said the organization is excited to be a part of the process.
“It will be a good, accurate reconstruction,” he said. “We will be working with the design team until it is completed.”
Caydon principal Joe Russo said in an emailed statement that while the building could not be saved, it has worked hard to rebuild the complex and honor its history.
“Our team is a big fan of the history behind the California Theatre and drawn to the details in the architecture,” he wrote. “We worked diligently on the design of the building to create a landmark destination that captures the essence of the community and celebrates the theater’s history.
Parts of the building have fallen off and are sitting behind a chain-link fence blocking the public from getting too close. Despite being shuttered for decades, plenty of people still sneak inside and post photos and videos online. The outside of the building is also a popular spot for homeless people to congregate with a city-operated bathroom, and portable toilets, nearby.
Plans for the building include a communal area and a dog park on the seventh floor, gym and yoga area on the eighth level, lap pool and sky deck on the ninth floor, and a lounge for residents on the top level. There will be 45 subsidized housing units and 252 underground parking spots. The design calls for an eco-roof on top of the office building and U.S. Green Building Council certifications for environmentally friendly features.
“Our project is both a new urban marker and a historical memory at the same time,” Giuditta De Santis, Caydon architect, said by email. “We were concerned about the site’s inter-connection between the past and the future.”
The design submitted to Civic San Diego proposed studios (average 567 square feet), one bedrooms (averaging 765 to 795 square feet), two bedrooms (averaging 1,081 to 1,129 square feet), three bedrooms (averaging 1,714 square feet) and penthouses averaging 1,71quare feet. The complex will include 7,445 square feet of retail.
The California Theatre opened in 1927 and was the largest movie palace in San Diego County. It started by playing silent, black-and-white films but later moved on to talkies. The space was also used for concerts and a bootleg Patti Smith album was recorded there in 1978.
Save Our Heritage Organisation and its attorneys had argued the city did not do its due diligence in originally approving the project by not considering other options for the building, as required by the California Environmental Quality Act.
C Street, centrally located downtown and on the San Diego Trolley route, may be undergoing a bit of renaissance in the coming years. A $400 million complex made up of mostly apartments has been proposed to replace the former courthouse. The Holland Partner Group project is about four blocks from the California Theatre site and, if both projects go through, could be a major change for one of downtown’s most shunned streets. Aside from governmental buildings and a few new restaurants, much of the street is made of bail bonds businesses and shuttered stores.
California Theatre narrowly becomes the largest-ever condo tower in downtown. The Grande at Santa Fe Place on Pacific Highway has 442 condos. Vantage Pointe on 9th Avenue, with 679 units, was developed as a condo building but ended up as apartments.
It will be interesting to see if it gets approved...Stay Tuned!