San Diego City Hall. Photo credit: Alexander Nguyen
San Diego City Hall. Photo credit: Alexander Nguyen

The future of the large advertising mural in downtown San Diego for Tijuana’s Agua Caliente racetrack was thrown into question Thursday when the city’s Historical Resources Board was unable to muster enough votes for historic designation.

The 80-by-40-foot ad is on the west wall of the dilapidated California Theatre, which a developer hopes to turn into a 40-story residential tower. The building, just east of City Hall, has been unused for years and is a major eyesore along C Street and the trolley tracks.

Last week, city planning staff in a memo reiterated its opposition to bestowing the designation on the sign, visible in much of downtown.

The memo was issued two months after a meeting in which the board asked a consultant for further information. The consultant, AECOM, maintained its opposition to designation, but a San Diego archeology and historic preservation firm, Legacy 106, jumped into the fray by submitting a report that supported such action.

Most board members favored designation — just not enough of them.

Board member Priscilla Ann Berge said the sign was reflective of the economic development of San Diego and cross-border tourism marketing, while member Ann Woods said it was a “popular local landmark and icon” that is of a type of advertisement that used to be found throughout the city.

Both proposed motions that were supported on 5-1 votes — but six were required for approval. Architect Richard Larimer cast the dissenting votes.

Board Chairman John Lemmo was absent and Vice Chairwoman Gail Garbini recused herself. Also, three other seats on the panel are vacant.

Bruce Coons, of the Save Our Heritage Organisation, said the mural, depicting a horse on a yellow background, is “the epitome” of criteria used by the board.

He said the setback was just one skirmish, and the sign’s supporters will review their options. He said they would try to work with the developer to find a way to preserve the mural.

The plans for the building include retail space, bars and restaurants, and nearly 300 residential units — 20 of which would provide affordable housing.

“The development team’s intention has always been to seek the guidance of the city’s historic staff and the Historic Resources Board throughout the entitlement approval process,” said Cyrus Sanandaji of Presidio Bay Ventures. “We are pleased with the decision of the Historic Resources Board and we look forward to continuing the environmental review process to obtain our site development permit.”

If the rest of the approval process goes smoothly, work on the project could start by the end of this year, with opening possible for 2018, according to a Sanandaji.

–City News Service