The intersection of 30th Street and University Avenue is the physical center of North Park, as well as the hub the commercial and cultural activity in the neighborhood. In the early 1900s this corner earned the moniker of “Busy Corner”, a title that would be fitting today as well. Standing at Busy Corner throughout the years would give a clear view of the many changes that have occurred throughout the decades since the first homes and businesses appeared in the first decade of the 1900s.
In January 1929 a Fox West Coast Theatre opened a block west of Busy Corner to capitalize on the growing population of the neighborhood. The movie theatre enjoyed success in early years, before beginning to decline in the 60s and ultimately ceasing to show movies, and for a time housing a church. The City of San Diego purchased the building in the late 1980s and it sat empty and deteriorating until the city and late developer Arnold “Bud” Fischer got together in 2000 and started to work for a rebirth of the defunct space.
The theatre was re-dedicated on September 30, 2005 under the new name of Birch North Park Theatre, a nod to a $1 million gift from the Stephen and Mary Birch Foundation toward the renovation. The theatre re-opening was followed shortly after, in February 2006, by the opening of an adjacent 388 space, five-level parking garage. The parking garage was intimately tied to the theatre project by Mr. Fischer, who stated “If they (the city) will build a garage, you will have a live theater. No garage; no live theater.” The total cost for the theatre rehabilitation was $12 million and the parking garage project cost $14 million.
The theatre building currently houses a 32,000 square foot theatre with 731 seats as well as a Starbucks coffee shop and West Coast Tavern, a bar and restaurant, in the front of the building on University Avenue. The Lyric Opera owns the building and, when the theatre reopened, took out a $4 million mortgage note to pay for the remaining balance of the construction. The Lyric Opera has had financial difficulties in recent years, posting losses of approx. $338,000, $750,000, $286,000, and $251,000 for the fiscal years ending 6/30/2008 through 6/30/2011. As a result the Lyric Opera declared Chapter 11 bankruptcy in October 2011.
In 2012, after filing for bankruptcy, the Lyric Opera sold the mortgage note on the property to David Cohen, owner of the West Coast Tavern that is housed in the front of the theatre building. Mr. Cohen is now trying to foreclose on the Lyric Opera and take ownership of the building. A hearing on the issue took place before Judge Margaret Mann in downtown San Diego on Wednesday, February 27th, but no ruling was issued and the case will be continued on March 7.
Pending a decision in court there are many possibilities for the future of the space but no clear direction.
Council President Todd Gloria has noted to “keep in mind that the City has a 50-year deed restriction on the property that ensures it will remain a performing arts venue no matter who owns it”. What type of performing arts will be presented at the theatre in the future? Will performances be selected with profit-making as the primary motive or to educate and engage the community in a broad range of live entertainment?
The city has plans to transform the parking lot behind the theatre into a small park for the community. Will the ownership issues of the building affect this plan as well? Currently the parking lot sits empty and unused, with the entrances blocked off, although the lot is in a prime location in an area with high demand for parking spaces.
Is the battle for ownership of the theatre indicative of a broader debate over the soul of the neighborhood? Perhaps this is a proxy for the sometimes conflicting interests of longtime neighborhood residents and the more recent influx of young, hip residents. Will commercial interests be put before those of the broader community?
The future of the Birch North Park Theatre looks to be as dramatic as the films and performances that have been presented in it over the years. Only time will tell if the performance is a tragedy, comedy, farce, or some mix of these genres.