California: Construction of
U.S. Courthouse, San Diego
Agency: General Services Administration
Criteria for Council Involvement:
- This undertaking raises questions about how the General Services Administration coordinates its Section 106 responsibilities (particularly public participation) with other environmental reviews (Criteria 2 & 3).
- There is substantial public controversy regarding the proposed demolition of the Hotel San Diego (Criterion 3).
In October 1999, the General Services Administration (GSA) met onsite with Council staff, the California State Historic Preservation Officer (SHPO), and other consulting parties to discuss its adaptive use study regarding incorporation of the Hotel San Diego into new courthouse construction. At the meeting, GSA promised to coordinate its further analysis of reuse of the historic hotel with the consulting parties and to work cooperatively to resolve questions about the program needs of the new courthouse.
Hotel San Diego
(Photographer: General Services Administration)
Despite such assurances, however, GSA did not contact any of the consulting parties before notifying the Council in March of its decision to record and demolish all buildings on the site, including the hotel. In its letter, GSA states the entire project site is needed to meet the long-term requirements of the U.S. District Court. The Council was not provided with any documentation about the scope of GSA’s review, in spite of the fact that potential reuse of the Hotel San Diego has been the primary focus of Section 106 consultation.
The Council is working to set up a meeting with GSA and the consulting parties in an attempt to clarify the basis of GSA’s decision and discuss options for bringing Section 106 review to closure.
GSA proposes to construct a new U.S. Courthouse within the central business district of San Diego. The U.S. District Court presently occupies the Edward J. Schwartz Federal Building-Courthouse, a 1970s-era building, in addition to leased space downtown. The preferred site for the new courthouse is adjacent to the Schwartz Federal Building, and the current proposal would require demolition of the historic Hotel San Diego, constructed in 1914 by prominent local developers, the Spreckels Brothers, and their architect, Harrison Albright.
In response to GSA’s public outreach pursuant to the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA), the National Trust for Historic Preservation, the California Preservation Foundation, Save Our Heritage Organization (the local preservation nonprofit), and the San Diego Historical Site Board raised questions concerning GSA’s analysis of the potential for reuse of the hotel and the need for its demolition. Further coordination with these groups did not take place as part of the Section 106 review process, however, and consultation between GSA and the California SHPO led to the development of a Memorandum of Agreement (MOA) accepting demolition of the building.
Upon receipt of the MOA, the Council concurred in GSA’s site selection but questioned its determination that the historic hotel could not be reused as part of the courthouse project. While expressing support for GSA’s attempt to coordinate its Section 106 responsibilities with NEPA and other environmental statutes, the Council noted that GSA based its determination that the building could not be reused on a “preliminary walk through” of the building, not an in-depth study.
In response to the Council’s concerns, GSA completed an adaptive-use study of the Hotel San Diego. The document was produced absent the involvement of the Council or the consulting parties. GSA’s conclusion that adaptive use of the hotel is infeasible has been criticized by the Western Regional Office of the National Trust and the city’s Historical Sites Board.
This case highlights the ongoing challenges posed by review of Federal courthouse construction projects under Section 106. Local Federal judges are often actively involved in consultation on these cases and play important roles in shaping the decision-making process. This particular case underscores the difficulties that GSA faces in meeting the requirements of the Federal courts while coordinating its various environmental reviews. GSA attempted to link its Section 106 responsibilities with its analysis of the project pursuant to NEPA but did not adequately address historic preservation concerns raised by interested parties during the NEPA scoping process and public comment period.
Staff contact: Ralston Cox
October 1999 report on this case
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