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Big push begins for San Diego City Hall & Civic Center redevelopment

San Diego Mayor Todd Gloria gave CBS 8 an underground tour of aging buildings in the six-block civic core.

SAN DIEGO — The City of San Diego may soon embark on a major redevelopment of six blocks of buildings in downtown’s civic core. The proposal includes a new City Hall, hundreds of affordable housing units, and perhaps a new Civic Theater.

Mayor Todd Gloria and top-ranking city officials made their case for the development project on Monday during an underground tour of the civic center buildings constructed during the 1960s.

“You’ll see a lot of the mechanical gear, cast iron pipes that are pretty close to failing,” said Casey Smith, the city’s deputy chief operating officer, who led the tour for CBS 8 and other news media organizations.

Officials repeatedly stopped along aging corridors to point out deficiencies in the buildings’ infrastructure, which led to expensive maintenance year after year.

“It isn't enough to just fix the plumbing.  When a pipe breaks, we have to do asbestos abatement, we have to do testing and air quality standards,” said Mayor Gloria.

Credit: City of San Diego

The city anticipates tearing down most buildings in the six-block civic core, including the City Administration Building, aka city hall, which is 58 years old.

“For those of you who have covered a heavy city council hearing, folks come up 12 floors.  That's not particularly accessible. It's not necessarily the experience we want folks to have,” said Mayor Gloria.

The mayor’s special advisor, Jay Goldstone, said the city is looking at building a new high-rise administration building on the current site of the nearby City Operations Building, which also would be demolished under the proposal.

The proposed development of a new administration building and city hall would be on city-owned land and include public funding, according to a final report posted by the Civic Center Redevelopment Committee.

The city believes public funding of the city hall development would be offset by consolidating all city employees into a single building, eliminating the need to lease private office space for city workers.  Additionally, a spokesperson said the city could save up to $262 million in deferred maintenance on the old buildings.

Credit: Google Earth

“A developer could come in and build this as high as 400 feet, so 30 to 40 stories, depending on the floor-to-ceiling height,” Goldstone said.

One big question:  What would happen to the building at 101 Ash Street? The controversial white elephant sits on the north end of the civic center site. In a lawsuit settlement, the city purchased the building in 2022 for 86 million dollars.

The Ash Street high-rise could be included in a five-block cluster of properties put out for redevelopment bid.  According to the committee report, the new city hall development would not be part of that bid, although that proposal is subject to change.

Under that scenario, Goldstone said, the Ash Street building could be demolished.

“If that's what the market dictates, we're going to leave that up to the developers who are going to come in and propose on the five blocks,” Goldstone said.

For months, the Civic Center Revitalization Committee has been working on the redevelopment plan, which still needs city council approval.  The cost of the proposed project -- either to taxpayers or the private sector -- is still unknown.

Under state law, at least 25 percent of the housing built on the site by developers would have to be affordable units for low-income residents.

“We are inviting folks to come in and help us to solve two significant challenges, the condition of these facilities for both the public and employees that work in it, as well as to build housing that we so desperately need,” said Mayor Gloria.

The fate of the San Diego Civic Theater also remains in the air.

The committee’s final report stated, "Any theater development should collaborate with San Diego Theatres and philanthropists, not primarily funded by the developer or the City."

It will be expensive to remodel the theater and even more expensive to demolish and rebuild.

“The cost to build a new civic theater, I've seen numbers as high as half a billion dollars.  And to renovate that building is 100 to $125 million. So, it's not an insignificant factor,” said Goldstone.

Mayor Gloria said mandating a new theater in the city’s upcoming notice of availability could scare away developers.

“I can foresee a situation where we have everything from a remodel to a theater reconstruction.  I hope that this important part of our civic infrastructure, our arts and culture community, can stay on this site in some form or fashion,” Gloria said.

The next time the public will hear about this redevelopment plan will be at the San Diego City Council meeting on Monday, March 20, 2023, when an informational item is scheduled for the Civic Center Redevelopment Committee to present its final report.

WATCH: Civic Center Revitalization Committee meeting, January 23:



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