Opinion: How San Diego Got Its Finest Hotel—And Why Unions Are Stopping Others

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The elegant Sunday brunch at The Westgate Hotel in downtown San Diego. Photo courtesy of the hotel

By Raoul Lowery Contreras

The most powerful San Diegan ever — C. Arnholt Smith — told this story over the years to explain why he built and opened the Westgate Plaza Hotel at Second and Broadway 50 years ago.

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President Dwight Eisenhower and Smith were breakfasting in the “Presidential Suite” of the U.S. Grant Hotel in the 1950s when Ike asked the powerful chairman of U.S. National Bank and myriad other business scattered around the United States if the then mediocre Grant was the best hotel in San Diego.

It was.

The Grant was built by President Grant’s son in 1911-12. This writer’s great-grandfather was the foreman of the crew that dug out the hotel site and laid the building’s foundation. Covering an entire city block on Broadway between 4th and 3rd streets, it was built on the site of the Horton House, where famed former lawman Wyatt Earp opened a gambling casino after he left the gunfight at the O.K. Corral.

The Grant and the El Cortez Hotel, with its magnificent view of much of San Diego Bay, were the two best hotels in downtown San Diego.

With ownership of some of the city block on Broadway between 3rd and 2nd Avenues to begin with, Smith set out to buy the rest of the block to build the Westgate, which was named after Smith’s flagship holding company, Westgate-California. He was successful until he ran into the Chinese family who owned the legendary Sheng Hang Low restaurant in their building on Third and C Street. It was the traditional hang-out bar for San Diego politicos, judges, lawyers and people from the San Diego Union and Evening Tribune staffs across the street on Broadway.

The Chinese family held firm, forcing Smith to start excavating the rest of the block without Low’s property. Finally, after squeezing every cent possible out of Smith, the Chinese family sold and moved the restaurant to East San Diego. The downtown power people shifted from egg drop soup to turtle soup at the Grant Grill, which didn’t allow women in for lunch or until 5 p.m., and then only with a male escort. Hamburgers at McDonald’s then cost 15 cents; at the Grant Grill they were $3.50.

Raoul Lowery Contreras

The Westgate Hotel was built and filled with multi-millions of dollars’ worth of French royal-era antiques personally selected by Smith’s wife, Helen Alvarez Hill Smith, on numerous trips to France paid for out of construction expenses of the hotel.

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President Eisenhower died just months before the opening of the glamorous Westgate Plaza Hotel he inspired.

A gaggle of hotels have opened in recent years in Downtown San Diego, some charging hundreds of dollars a night, some on the Bay like the Hyatt and Marriot, some in the Gaslamp and some around Petco Park.

More are coming, including the first 5-Star hotel in San Diego — a 153 room Ritz-Carlton hotel at 7th and Market Street in the heart of what used to be the totally segregated downtown section “reserved” for the all-black Buffalo soldiers from Camp Locket in Campo who patrolled the Mexican border during World War Two.

That Ritz-Carlton hotel is coming…someday. It should be open now but for a lawsuit filed by labor unions that are attempting to blackmail developers into signing union-only contracts covering the project.

The lawsuit was filed in 2016 by hotel union leader Sergio Gonzalez and “San Diegans for Responsible Planning,” a legal fiction of alleged community and union members living and working in San Diego. The suit also challenged a proposed 324-room hotel a block away.

The $400 million project includes the 153-room Ritz-Carlton, a Whole Foods grocery store, 156,000 square feet of office space, 125 apartments (plus 34 low-income units) and 59 Ritz-branded condos.

The lawsuit was rejected by Superior Court Judge Gregory Pollack, who reasoned that “substantial evidence exists to show that (the) city properly found that the projects comply with the applicable land use plans and that they would not be detrimental to public health, safety or welfare.”

That’s legalese that really says “baloney.” The decision is a green light to proceed. There will probably be an appeal but appeals rarely work against bench rulings.

If any Presidents visit San Diego now or in the future, they won’t have to ask if their hotel is the best San Diego can do because it will probably be as good as any in the world. San Diego has grown out of the small-town status many of us grew up with, thanks to far-seeing people like C. Arnholt Smith who, by the way, died bankrupt and a convicted felon after his bank failed.

Raoul Lowery Contreras is a political consultant and the author of “The Armenian Lobby & American Foreign Policy” and “The Mexican Border: Immigration, War and a Trillion Dollars in Trade.” His work has appeared in the New American News Service of the New York Times Syndicate.

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