A lawsuit over a fading, painted sign on a historic downtown building has now become political ammunition for critics of a proposed "arts and entertainment" district.
They say it reinforces their concerns about a "Times Square-West" -- festooned with gaudy signs, billboards and digital displays -- materializing in downtown’s financial district.
A court order in a federal lawsuit, issued on Monday, seems to set the case on a trial track -- or toward potential settlement talks between the owner of an outdoor advertising firm and the city of San Diego.
The plaintiff is seeking hefty damages over the city's revocation of a sign permit for the west wall of the long-vacant California Theater building, across Third Avenue from City Hall.
"The city wants to prevent those ads from going up there; they're probably going to have to pay him maybe millions of dollars," says Pamela Wilson, director of Scenic San Diego, which has mustered strong opposition to the proposed arts and entertainment district that would cover dozens of blocks north of Broadway.
"The court order, to me,” Wilson explained in an interview Wednesday, “ appears to say that as soon as that permit was issued and he spent the money for the lease on this wall, he has a vested right to this money, the flow of income."
The sign company proprietor pegs that expected flow of income at $40,000 dollars a month -- quite a profit over his monthly rental payments of $10,500 to the California Theater interests.
City officials didn't realize that the building’s historic designation ruled out tampering with the sign in question – a decades-old promotion for Tijuana’s Agua Caliente Racetrack -- when they issued a permit for new advertising there, then had to revoke it.
Historic preservationists say the money involved in the litigation shows what's at stake for outdoor advertisers -- potential landlords who’d rent out their exteriors -- relaxed in the arts and entertainment district.
The proposal is now under review by the City Attorney’s office after a heated, adversarial hearing in May before a City Council committee that sent the district’s proponents back to the drawing board to shore up their case.
Even folks on the street who'd welcome some economic stimulus are wary.
"If you're going to put it on things, put it on the right buildings,” says downtown resident Monique White. “ Not the wrong buildings."
But "visual blight" opponents have zero tolerance.
"The effort of our organization is to keep San Diego scenic, keep it unique,” Wilson says. “It's not Times Square. It's not Las Vegas. That's what people love about it, and that's how we want it to stay."
The city attorney's office declined comment for this story, as did executives of the Downtown San Diego Partnership, backers of the arts & entertainment district.
The sign firm's attorney tells NBC 7 that the lawsuit preceded the politics surrounding that issue – and should not be linked to it.