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Hillcrest Walgreens construction halted

(This article was originally published HERE in SDGLN media partner San Diego Uptown News.)

SAN DIEGO -- Construction work at 301 University, the controversial building at the corner of University and Third Avenue, was shut down on January 7, after a member of the community alerted officials regarding its potential historical significance.

Demolition on 301 University (as seen from the south, with Urban Mo’s Third Avenue Pride Flag visible on other side of wall) was nearing completion when local activists and leaders were successful in getting a work stop order in place.

The building was embroiled in controversy and litigation for years when the original developer announced plans to build a high-rise hotel at the location.

In February 2012, Walgreen Corporation purchased the property and construction on the site had finally just begun after the holidays, starting with demolition.

Hillcrest resident, Save Our Heritage Organisation (SOHO) member and lover of old architecture, Gregory May, said he first became aware of the demolition through a photo someone had posted on Facebook on Jan. 4.

He said he immediately recognized the “Streamline Moderne” architecture clearly visible underneath the partially demolished baby blue sheet metal and stucco that had been the structure’s façade for several decades.

May drove to the location and took photos, as he said he has done with many local historical buildings up for demolition in the past. “I collect pictures of everything and that is satisfying and the idea that all the buildings go to heaven, too,” he said.

“I came back more depressed.” May said. “So I called Jeff [Oakley, a planner with of the City’s Historical Resources Board] and asked him if the property had gotten a 45-year review. He said no … and he jumped on it. He called me right back and said they issued a stop work order on it.”

A 45-year review is just that. San Diego Municipal Code Section 143.0212 requires any structure thought to be 45 years or older be screened for potential historical designation prior to the processing of any permits.

Through Oakley’s research, May said it was found that a review had not been done because the applicant, in this case Walgreen Corporation, put ‘1972’ as the date the structure was originally built. Streamline Moderne architecture saw its most popular phase during The Great Depression in the 1930s, a full forty years earlier.

On Monday, Jan. 7, May drove by the location again to check on it and saw construction had not yet stopped, so he called the Hillcrest History Guild (HHG) for support. The HHG is a nonprofit with a mission to preserve and provide a place of safekeeping for stories, photos, memorabilia and other historical aspects of Hillcrest. Nancy Moors and Ann Garwood, cofounders of the HHG, didn’t waste any time getting involved.

HHG immediately went to the work site that morning and after talking to the contractors, found out the University side of the building would be demolished after lunch and the whole building was scheduled to be gone within two days.

Recognizing the time sensitivity of the situation, the HHG said they then contacted both the mayor’s office, the office of the Council President, SDPD Community Officer Jeff Surwilo, and SOHO, rallying support for the historical site. Within an hour, Surwilo and a city compliance representative arrived on the scene and issued a “stop work order.”

A week later, on Jan. 14, Oakley issued a statement on behalf of the Historical Resources Board to all the community leaders who had been involved in the work stoppage.

“Staff has made an historical determination that the existing structure is Potentially Historic and currently we have given the applicant an opportunity to meet with us and propose a re-design of their project that would be consistent with the Secretary of the Interior’s Standards for Historic Preservation or if they want to continue with the current scope of work then a full Historical Resources Research Report evaluating the 1937 architectural design elements of the structure (which have been revealed recently from the partial demolition work that took place) under all the resource criteria would be required.”

Whether or not Walgreen Corp. will move forward with the construction is still to be seen but after years of disputes over the use of this location, the cofounders of HHG have their preference.

“What [we] hope will happen is that Walgreen will recognize that it would be a win-win for them and the neighborhood to use that building and that façade as their new Walgreens and it will be a wonderful addition to the neighborhood,” they said.

South Park resident and Registered Architect Laurie C. Fisher sees the significance of the original building.

“The concept of ‘modern’ is, ironically, timeless,” Fisher said. “The geometry and clean lines allow modern to be interpreted and re-interpeted as time goes on. The Streamline Moderne aesthetic can and should be easily incorporated into the [Hillcrest] design; for a drugstore chain that began at the debut of the 20th century, I think it’s especially appropriate.”

When reached this week for comment, Walgreen Corporation would not answer any specific questions but replied with a simple statement.

“Construction has stopped at this location,” said Vivika Panagiotakakos, Walgreen Corporate Communications spokesperson. “We look forward to working with the community and plan to open later this fall.”

For historical information about 301 University, visit HillQuest.com, pick up one of their books or visit hillcresthistory.org.

Morgan M. Hurley is Contributing Editor of SDGLN, Editor of San Diego Downtown News and Assistant Editor of Gay San Diego and San Diego Uptown News.