A lawsuit filed in federal court in May claims city officials acted illegally when they revoked authorization for a business owner to repaint the Caliente sign in downtown San Diego.
Emails in the lawsuit reveal that city staff originally decided the sign had no historic significance, but after negative media attention changed their minds.
Eduardo Valerio, owner of the Chula Vista-based Valerio Resources Inc., said he’s now stuck with a $10,000 a month lease, after city officials first issued a permit to repaint the sign, but later revoked it.
Valerio had orginally requested to place vinyl over the sign but instead was granted a permit to paint over it.
“What happened with the sign was that my permit was taken from me. Frankly, it was taken from me illegally,” Valerio said Friday.
The Caliente sign is painted on the north side of the downtown California Theater Building on the corner of C Street and Third Avenue in downtown San Diego. It dates back to an era when horses still raced at the Caliente, owned by former Tijuana mayor Jorge Hank-Rhon.
The original horse racing track burned down in 1971, but dogs still race on a rebuilt track.
For many, the sign hearkens back to an older, more harmonized time when people would regularly cross the border for entertainment in Tijuana. For others it conjures memories of gambling, addiction and other vices.
Brad Richter, the assistant vice president of planning for the Center City Development Corporation, wrote Stephen Hill, the senior policy advisor for Councilman Todd Gloria in December defending the decision to grant the permit.
“The sign is not part of the historical significance of the California Theater,” Richter wrote on Dec. 9. “The sign itself is not historically significant.”
Gloria said Friday the sign is a historical landmark of regional significance.
“The Caliente sign has been a landmark in downtown for decades. When there was a proposal to cover it up with a more modern billboard, the outpouring of community opposition was very loud and very strong,” Gloria said. “I think a lot of people have an emotional attachment to it.”
Lead by preservationists like the Save Our Heritage Organisation, organizers rallied behind a “Save the Caliente” battle cry in December. They hosted an art show, collected thousands of signatures for a petition, and even formed on a “Save the Caliente Mural” Facebook page that attracted more than 177 fans.
Responding to the heavy public outcry, Cathy Winterrowd from the City of San Diego’s Development Services Department wrote Valerio on Dec. 15 : “in light of concerns raised by the public, City Council offices and the City Attorney’s office … the previous approval is null and void,” according to the lawsuit.
Valerio’s attorney says it’s not so simple.
“Once you have a permit and you’ve spent money and done things in reliance of that permit, you then have a property right, which cannot be taken away without an opportunity to be heard, without a hearing and without just compensation, which is why we had to bring this lawsuit,” said Christopher Morris, an attorney with the Aguirre, Morris & Severson law firm.
Valerio said during the few weeks he had stamped approvals to repaint in hand, he entered into an expensive lease and made plans to replace the decades-old Caliente sign with a beer ad.
“He, unlike many wanting to ‘save the sign,’ actually recalls spending time at the Caliente Racetrack with his father,” the lawsuit states.
“When I was very young, my father would take us on the weekends down to the Caliente, what they called the “hipodromo,” which is the racetrack when they had live racing and we would spend our days down there because that’s what we did as a family - in my father’s eyes -- for entertainment,” Valerio said Friday.
“I recognized from the very beginning that there might be some sentimental value with the existing sign here, which is why I had initially applied to utilize vinyl to preserve the existing sign,” he added.
Gloria said covering the Caliente with a vinyl advertisement would not be acceptable to San Diego residents.
“I think that particular suggestion really robs the community from an experience that they enjoy, and which we’ve heard time and again from thousands of people literally across the country that have called my office to say that they really like the Caliente sign and they’d like it to stay,” the councilman said.
SOHO Executive Director Bruce Coons blames the city and Valerio for the conflict, saying the business owner was playing a risky game. He said the existing sign ordinance allows for off-premise active advertising signs to be painted over as long as the new message is the same size as the old one.
“He basically thought he found a loophole in the existing sign ordinance,” Coons said. “If it would have worked out, it would have been a pretty sweet deal and he would have gotten a spot in San Diego that no one else could have, but the risk didn’t pay off,” Coons added that the city should have immediately notified the historic resources board and SOHO about the plans.
“He did get caught in the middle and they gave him bad advice,” Coons said.
The city attorney's office is still looking into the issue, but must file a response to the lawsuit by July 9, a spokesman said Friday.