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The Plight of the Historic California Theatre

Evening Edition

An old abandoned building in the heart of downtown used to be one of San Diego’s most elegant theaters. It’s been empty since 1990 even though plenty of developers have shown interest in buying it. KPBS culture reporter Angela Carone looks at the past, present and uncertain future of the California Theatre.

Aired 3/6/13 on KPBS News.

You can’t walk along 4th and C Streets in downtown San Diego and not wonder about the dilapidated building across from City Hall. It was once the California Theatre. But it’s been empty for more than 20 years. KPBS culture reporter Angela Carone explores the building’s past, present and uncertain future.

A couple of years ago, it was dangerous to walk by the abandoned California Theatre on 4th and C Streets. The cool vintage marquee reading “California” was falling down and posed a threat to passersby. It was rightfully taken down, robbing the building of one of its last remaining jewels (tarnished as it was).

The theater is on the ground floor of a shuttered nine-story building. The property covers an entire city block and has sat empty for more than 20 years. Vagrants and pigeons live inside. Graffiti dots its walls, including a piece by the French street artist Invader.

Few people have been inside since it was boarded up. It’s an unlikely fate for a building so prominently located on a prime piece of real estate. The California Theatre building sits directly across the street from City Hall.

The Caliente advertisement on the side of the historic California Theater dat...
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Above: The Caliente advertisement on the side of the historic California Theater dates back to the 1960s. It may be painted over soon. Photo by: Pamela Schreckengost

In 2011, I wrote about a vintage advertisement on the side of the theater building. The city had approved a proposal to paint over the sign with a beer advertisement. A public outcry and lobbying by historic preservationists resulted in the city reversing its decision. The vintage sign was saved, but the building its on seems far from salvation.

It’s currently for sale, though that’s not unusual. The current owners, Sloan Capital LLC, periodically list the 81,000 square foot building and entertain offers. They acquired it through foreclosure. The building is also historically designated and is on the local Register of Historical Resources. This limits what can be done with it.

A lot of developers have shown interest in the building over the years, but none have been able to rescue it from a decades-long limbo. Its ruined state has contributed to the overall blight along one of San Diego’s most powerful downtown corridors.

The Past: From Cathedral to Rotting Shell

In 1929, two years after its grand opening, the California Theatre on 4th and C offered a glamorous night out for San Diegans.

Movie theaters were once called movie palaces. When the California Theatre opened in 1927, it was so ornate it was called “the cathedral of the motion picture.” A silent, black-and-white film called “The Venus of Venice” screened on opening night.

An advertisement for the 1927 grand opening of the California Theatre. "The Venus of Venice," a black and white silent film, was the first movie shown at the theater.

The entrance to the California Theatre in 1929. The movie theater was called "the cathedral of the motion picture."

It was a large venue with 2,200 seats, a curved balcony, and a single screen (multiplexes were unheard of at that time). Its Art Deco marquee read “California.” The building housed restaurants and a high-end department store.

The California had a long run as a movie theater. Bruce Coons, executive director of the Save our Heritage Organization, saw a Beatles concert film there in the 1960s. “The girls screamed so much we couldn’t hear anything,” Coons recalled.

Toward the end of the 1970s, the theater space was used for special events, including concerts.

Patti Smith recorded an album there in 1978. The poet and novelist Jim Carroll, famous for penning “The Basketball Diaries,” opened for her.

San Diegan Rex Edhlund saw one of the best shows of his life there. The punk band Public Image Ltd. came to town in 1984. The lead singer was former Sex Pistols frontman Johnny Rotten, whom Edhlund describes as the “Lincoln of punk rock.”

At one point during the concert, Edhlund rushed the stage and Johnny Rotten handed him his beer. On-stage bouncers tossed Edhlund into the crowd but he managed to save the prized beer.

Edhlund said by that time, the theater was a rotting shell. “It smelled like a place everyone there had broken into. It had this tattered fabric, and everything you’d expect from a punk rock show.”

Eventually the building’s owners foreclosed and investors took over the lease. The building was shuttered and has been left to decay since 1990.

The Present: A Black Hole

A balcony view of the shuttered California Theatre in 2008.

Another view of the extensive damage to the walls and ceiling of the California Theatre. Since this photograph was taken five years ago, the damage is likely to be much worse.

In 2008, the old stage curtains were still there. "Asbestos" is written prominently on the curtains. Before the dangers of asbestos were known, it was a way of assuring audiences they were safe is a fire broke out on stage.

A close-up of a hole in the ceiling where the plaster has broken away from rainwater infiltration. The brown and hanging pieces are rusted metal lath that once held the plaster in place.

The California Theatre was once so ornate is was called "the cathedral of the motion picture." Today, those elaborate details add drama to the building's decay.

A chain link fence surrounds the building in an attempt to keep squatters out, though some suspect people have found ways to get in.

If that’s true, squatters and vagrants are among the few who’ve been inside over the last few decades.

David Marshall is an architect who specializes in historic buildings. Five years ago, he went inside the theater when his firm, Heritage Architecture and Planning, was hired by an interested developer to assess damage to the theater and building.

What he saw was disheartening.

The theater suffered the most damage. It was full of trash and mildew. The roof has numerous holes so rainwater had caused a lot of damage. “There were dead rodents and pigeons,” Marshall said. There was more than a foot of standing water in the basement.

Marshall worked on the 2008 restoration of the Balboa Theatre just blocks away. That project cost $26 million. He says the California Theatre is in worse shape and is much larger. He thinks renovating it will cost between $30 and $40 million.

Abandoned buildings are not unusual in urban areas. The irony here is this derelict building's proximity to City Hall. “There it is, immediately next door,” explained Marshall. “Probably visible out the window of the movers and shakers in the city and there it’s sat for many years, just an eyesore.”

And it’s not just the theater. C Street has become a blighted downtown corridor. When the trolley line was added, it became difficult for cars to access the street. That drove retail and restaurants away.

“It’s a black hole,” said Gary London, a local real estate economist. He thinks the rundown theater has had a psychic toll on the area. “It has a tremendous effect. It sucks all the energy out of that central business district,” added London.

The Future: A Way Out of Limbo?

Developers have been interested in buying the California Theatre building over the years, but the high price tag is a problem. It’s listed at $10.3 million dollars. Some estimates put its actual worth at $3 million.

The building is also protected as a historic site, which limits what can be done with it.

Bruce Coons and the Save Our Heritage Organization lobbied successfully to get the building’s historic protection. He would like to see the whole building renovated and the theater restored. Coons suspects the owner is keeping the price high so the building continues to fall apart. “He has some fantasy that he can bulldoze it, which isn’t going to happen,” Coons insisted.

The realtor for Sloan Capital, Cyrus Rapinan of Rosano Partners, admitted the owners are not in a rush to sell the building, even though they get offers “all the time.” Rapinan said the listing price is based on what the land would be valued at in a healthy market, and they need to get a return on their investment.

But will that return come from a renovated theater? London doesn’t think that makes economic sense. “There are probably a lot of other theaters that are underutilized where millions of dollars have been spent renovating them,” London said. “The Balboa and the Spreckels Theatre are probably empty most of the time.”

Redevelopment funds, which no longer exist, were used to renovate the Balboa Theatre in 2008. It’s still operating at a loss.

But there are those who look at the building and still see a theater.

Dawn Griffin, CEO of Davenport Financial Group, is one of them. She is a developer looking for investors. Griffin wants to buy the California Theatre building and turn it into a high-end theater and performing arts academy. She explained: “If we needed more condos, great, but we don’t. If we needed more offices, fine, but we don’t. But do we need an excellent state of the art theater? I think we do.”

That remains to be seen.

One thing we know for sure, San Diego does NOT need a historically protected pile of rubble.

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Avatar for user 'Missionaccomplished'

Missionaccomplished | March 6, 2013 at 9:24 a.m. ― 4 years ago

Save it! It's one of the few such buildings left!

Saw some movies there in the 70s. In the 80s, saw the Todd man.

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Avatar for user 'starfish'

starfish | March 6, 2013 at 9:47 a.m. ― 4 years ago

The condition of this building is a result of an obvious deliberate strategy by the owner. "Demolition by Neglect," is illegal in San Diego. But the City does not enforce the code! City staff concedes the owner has been issued a stack of code violations, but no enforcement through either substantial fines or prosecution has taken place.

Several prospective purchasers have stated the owner has made it nearly impossible for anyone interested in the theater itself to actually enter and see the building. In short, the owner years ago decided the value of the site is not the building, but the empty lot. In lieu of not being able to demolish the historic theater outright, they opted to let weather elements demolish it. Let the roof leak. Let the pigeons in through broken windows. Let mold eat away at the once lavish interior.

In 2001 the world was outraged when the Taliban army used the great rock sculptures of the Buddhas of Bamiyan for target practice. However in San Diego another crime of cultural destruction is on going and continual with the California Theatre. And nothing has been done or is being done to stop it. Shame on both ownership and City government.

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Avatar for user 'JeanMarc'

JeanMarc | March 6, 2013 at 9:52 a.m. ― 4 years ago

As much as I love historic buildings, I cannot see this being properly utilized as a theater. I don't think it will attract enough business to justify the 30+ million dollar restoration. We have two cinemas, two theaters, and a symphony hall in downtown already. The cinema outside horton plaza mall is already struggling to survive.

On my lunch time stroll I often walk by this building. For several blocks in any direction I am forced to navigate a minefield of human waste, or wasted humans. It is dangerous and scary in the day time. I can't imagine what it is like at night time.

Sadly I don't think restoration makes economic sense. People don't want to drive into downtown to watch a movie. It is already extremely crowded nearly every evening with gridlock down 5th and 6th. Parking is a problem. Psychotic homeless people are a problem.

Tear this building down.

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Avatar for user 'JeanMarc'

JeanMarc | March 6, 2013 at 9:56 a.m. ― 4 years ago

starfish - I already wrote my comment, but I almost spit my coffee out when I read yours. Did you really compare this building to the Bamiyan Buddha statues?

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Avatar for user 'Really123'

Really123 | March 6, 2013 at 10:49 a.m. ― 4 years ago

"One thing we know for sure, San Diego does NOT need a historically protected pile of rubble." - an unfortunate use of language. We want to prevent the rubble. I looked at this building almost 15 years ago with a cadre of successful theatre poeple ready to invest in it's restoration and possible use as an arts academy. We decided back then that along with government hostility towards the arts (Karen Finley), and the condition of the facilities, we just couldn't find the money to get it going and took a pass. IT WAS $1.5 MILLION BACK THEN. How in the heck can anyone with half a brain ask $10 Million for this place? I don't know whether to laugh or cry. I would love to see a performing arts academy there. Just cause a group of do-gooders couldn't do it 15 years ago, doesn't mean qualified people today couldn't make a go of it. Irwin Jacobs, this is where San Diego needs you! Bring in a performing arts academy!

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Avatar for user 'starfish'

starfish | March 6, 2013 at 11:27 a.m. ― 4 years ago

@JeanMarc I didn't say the California Theatre is the Bamiyan Buddha statues. Get real. The point, which you failed to see: while one instance of cultural destruction is blatant and obvious, the other is more devious and protracted over a long period of time--and they're getting away with it. That is the point.

As for your very narrow analysis of the potential use of the California Theatre, you only see it in the realm of a stage and or movie theatre. You are apparently not aware the expressed array of interest in the building by new potential owners over the years. Two key words which you failed to mention, Adaptive reuse.

A number of investors with excellent creative proposals have come forward. The Griffin proposal for a Jazz cultural center is only one of them. But as I said, the owner has made it nearly impossible for interested investors to even view the building. Like you, the owner only sees demolition as the only solution. Terribly unimaginative and narrow minded. Even Nancy Graham, the former head of CCDC, saw the value in potential of the California Theatre. She had in fact stated commitment to finding a way to save the building--which she could see every day from her office across the street. Sadly other issues forced her to leave and her leadership on this issue is gone too.

An example of proper investment and management by comparison (please read interpret carefully this time) of historic sites can be found in Los Angeles. They've abandoned the demolition moniker for their opulent but run down downtown historic theaters and have mandated adaptive reuse. It is working well.

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Avatar for user 'Alex_Grebenshchikov'

Alex_Grebenshchikov | March 6, 2013 at 12:16 p.m. ― 4 years ago

"A couple of years ago, it was dangerous to walk by the abandoned California Theatre on 4th and C Streets."

This is still true today, but not because of the "cool vintage marquee " hazard. The homeless and mentally insane live all around the perimeter of the building, and people walking by are in danger of being assaulted. Maybe that area will improve once the multi-million dollar, high-rise, bay view homeless shelter is finished being renovated in the old world trade building.

The square of land that the old California Theater sits on is indeed valuable. On top of that valuable piece of land sits a mountain of dangerous urban trash. Why can investors not develop it? Well, because some say it used to be great, and since it used to be great, it is of historical value and should be preserved, whatever the expense. Well, I think enough time has now passed. Was 20+ years insufficient time to allow someone to restore this historic "gem"? If it was so important, someone would have spent the money by now. This city doesn't have the money, they spent it on the world trade building. It's time to bring this nightmare down and let a developer build something nice.

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Avatar for user 'starfish'

starfish | March 6, 2013 at 12:37 p.m. ― 4 years ago

Alex, your arguments were the same ones heard over the years if not decades concerning the run down theaters of downtown Los Angeles. Once rehabilitation and adaptive reuse for those buildings was mandated, downtown began to revive in a quality way demolition and new construction was unable to achieve. The same has been true in other urban areas. Brooklyn, Chicago, St. Louis. There have been hugely successful adaptive reuses of run down theaters in San Francisco.

As far as the homeless population is concerned, their presence isn't unique at the California Theatre. They surround the downtown library. They're up along the entire length of streets past the County Courthouse and surrounding blocks. They're in east village.

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Avatar for user 'JeanMarc'

JeanMarc | March 6, 2013 at 1:55 p.m. ― 4 years ago

Starfish I guess I am just unimaginative. I have seen countless businesses of all types in this area fail over the years and I cannot think of any economically viable use for the California theater that would justify a 30 or 40 million dollar renovation.

I do not want to appear closed-minded though. What sort of business do you think would work there and return the cost of the property plus the cost of the renovation?

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Avatar for user 'Alex_Grebenshchikov'

Alex_Grebenshchikov | March 6, 2013 at 2:16 p.m. ― 4 years ago

@starfish, I appreciate the end result those cities enjoyed after the rehabilitation and adaptive reuse. Who doesn't like the feeling of nostalgia one gets when they are in or near a historic area. But this cannot be an emotional decision. Where will the money come from for this? It has not come from investors/developers. The government is in no position to spend money on this. I am all for it if the money exists for it. If there is no money for it, I don't believe it is logical, it becomes an emotional cause in the end.

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Avatar for user 'starfish'

starfish | March 6, 2013 at 2:48 p.m. ― 4 years ago

@JeanMarc & Alex To begin with allow prospective buyers into the building. Allow their own designers and architects to imagine and dream. And of course evaluate the possibilities. To allow their own partners to say 'yes, I'll pony up the cash'-- old buildings in this condition have and will continue to speak to people, in a manner of phrasing. And projects just as hopeless have come to fruition. Dawn Griiffin, as example, brings that experience to the discussion having seen hopeless situations turn successful elsewhere. Allow the process of offering and counter offering to happen.

The recalcitrant owner won't do that because of a pre determined decision a long time ago to demolish by neglect. As the article says they are in no hurry to move off the status quo. For shame.

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Avatar for user 'JeanMarc'

JeanMarc | March 6, 2013 at 3:39 p.m. ― 4 years ago

Well this is quite a conundrum. The owner won't let people in to try to come up with a use for the building. What can be done?

I have a feeling the owners are waiting for our next big earthquake...

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Avatar for user 'Alex_Grebenshchikov'

Alex_Grebenshchikov | March 6, 2013 at 3:47 p.m. ― 4 years ago

@starfish I have to agree with you there 100%, the owner needs to allow prospective buyers into the building with their designers and architects, as you wrote. Perhaps then we would see an investor restore the building. The owner really should be motivated to allow investors in the building, and by motivated, I mean required to at least make the building up to code. The city needs to enforce the codes.

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Avatar for user 'Real_MF_G'

Real_MF_G | March 6, 2013 at 4:09 p.m. ― 4 years ago


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Avatar for user 'Real_MF_G'

Real_MF_G | March 6, 2013 at 4:17 p.m. ― 4 years ago

That thing is a total piece of crap. It's full of vermin and filth and is more of a hazard than it's worth. I can't believe anyone would waste money on it or have any sort of plans for it. I thought the only reason it hasn't been demolished was because they'd have to shut down fourth. The city needs to tear down that piece of crap, along with that stupid transient hotel, with the castle on the side of it. These old buildings are not treasures; we'd be better off with a couple more parking structures.

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Avatar for user 'mgw'

mgw | March 6, 2013 at 7:23 p.m. ― 4 years ago

Wow. This is incredibly disheartening. I just saw the report on the news and I had to comment (this is my first time on the KPBS site). I found the story strangely biased against historic preservation and the arts. Very sad--and very very foolish. Too many people know the price of everything and the value of nothing; I'd hate to think that KPBS is among them. This is a historic building. Wake up people. Do you have no respect for your cultural inheritance? People travel to Europe to see, and gasp at, old buildings but they won't preserve the valuable old buildings under their own noses. I was deputy commissioner of the arts in Boston during the major renovations of the theatre district. It was worth every penny and all the hard work the City put into it. The project made the community safer and created attractive new venues for performance--not just for elite groups and shows but also for neighborhood arts groups serving the community. And I am also a fourth generation San Diegan. Culture is not just for Bostonians, folks. San Diego has its own unique mestizo culture and we need to preserve historic performance spaces where this culture can realize its truest expressions. Good on you, Dawn Griffiths. And I'm not the only one cheering you on!

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Avatar for user 'JeanMarc'

JeanMarc | March 7, 2013 at 9:35 a.m. ― 4 years ago

mgw I would like to make one comment... the old buildings in Europe did not need to be restored. They were built of stone and they withstood the elements for centuries. If someone built the California Theater in 1300, it would have crumbled into a pile of rubble hundreds of years ago and no one would have bothered to maintain it. Old castles and such weren't saved and restored over the centuries, they were just built out of different materials so they lasted longer.

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Avatar for user 'jenjen'

jenjen | March 7, 2013 at 2:29 p.m. ― 4 years ago

Downtown megachurch?

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