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El Cortez Homeowners Suing City Over Condo Plans

The days when the historic El Cortez towered over downtown San Diego are long gone, but that doesn’t mean that residents of the building are happy with plans for a new condo tower right next door. El

The days when the historic El Cortez towered over downtown San Diego are long gone. But that doesn’t mean that residents of the building are happy with new development especially when it’s a project for a condo tower right next door. El Cortez homeowners are suing the city to stop the project. The developer says opponents don’t have any legal standing. When the El Cortez Hotel opened in 1927, it was the tallest building in town. On a clear day, guests could see 30 miles out to sea and San Diegans downtown couldn’t miss the Spanish Revival architecture of the hotel’s central tower flanked by two six-story wings. So when the building was refurbished and sold as condos two years ago, many like Barry Bruins jumped at the chance to call the El Cortez their home.

Bruins: When you talk to the people who live here, everyone loves the historic building because it’s a piece of San Diego history. It’s basically the icon of historic buildings in San Diego. To be able to buy into this and maintain this is something that everybody enjoyed the idea of.

But now developer Peter Janopaul – the same builder who restored the El Cortez enabling people like Bruins to purchase condominiums there – wants to replace the El Cortez pool with a seven to 12-story condo tower. The project could be build as close as 40 feet away from the El Cortez and would block views for some residents like Bruins. It’s a plan that has homeowners there up in arms. Bruins says he and others were told in 2004 that nothing would here until at least another 20 years.

Barry: Residents are very upset about anything being built out there and most of them feel quite betrayed that it’s being planned right now because most of them were told at the very least it was years away and a lot of them were shown the document 2025.

Michael Zucchet, former city councilmember : It’s a very nice sound bite that the opponents have come up with that somehow there’s an agreement not to develop this place until 2025. It doesn’t exist.
Zucchet now works for developer Janopaul. He says all of the buyers of El Cortez condos were given a 15-page disclosure document which revealed possible plans to build a condo project next to their building.

Zucchet: They were asked to sign every single paragraph in the disclosure. And that disclosure told them over and over again that a building was going to be built here. That the building was going to create noise and dust. That the building was going to lower their property values. That the building was going to take away their parking temporarily. That the building was going to take away their pool permanently. Sign here. Sign here. Sign here. This was during the height of the real estate market in 2004. And people willingly signed them.

Nevertheless, people at the El Cortez are suing the city to stop Janopaul’s condo project. Their attorney, Everett Delano, says the project violates a 1999 agreement affecting real property at the El Cortez. He says the pact gives condo residents a say in any changes made to that site.

Delano: It specifically provides that successors and interests are protected from any additional development on that site. Every single condo owner in that building is a successor and interest to that agreement.

But City Attorney Mike Aguirre disagrees. His office released an opinion last summer saying Janopaul doesn’t need El Cortez condo owners to sign off on the condo project next door on a site called parcel two. Legal arguments aside, Bruins says the project will end up devouring a piece of San Diego’s past.

Bruins: They like to say there’s no historic fabric on parcel two but there is history out there. The palm trees and the pool. Elvis Presley swam in that pool. The Beatles stayed here when they were here to do a concert. This is just a part of San Diego history and we hate to see it go.

The project still needs the approval of the Centre City Development Corporation and the San Diego City Council. Brad Richter says the condo plans have generated a lot of controversy not just within the El Cortez building but from the surrounding community. Zucchet says the opposition is ironic.

Zucchet: That’s a 22-story building right across the street where a lot of opponents live in that now say, ‘Oh, gee please don’t block the views into El Cortez with your seven-story building, especially our views from a 22-story building right across the street that was built just five years ago.

Zucchet isn’t the only former city official touting Janopaul’s project. The developer has also hired ex-Mayor Dick Murphy’s chief of staff John Kern and political consultant Jan Tierney to advise him on the plan. Bruins says that doesn’t bode well for El Cortez owners.

Bruins: We’re coming up against some of the best and the biggest names in political, backdoor dealings in San Diego that you can imagine.

On that point, Zucchet agrees with Bruins, at least partially.

Zucchet: That’s what Peter Janopaul does. He hires the best and he does the best work.

Janopaul plans to submit new plans of the project to Centre City Development Corporation in January.