San Diego Union-Tribune Back Downtown at 600 B Street
The San Diego Union-Tribune, May 16, 2016
Newspaper returns to its roots after 43 years in Mission Valley
The last time this newspaper was based downtown, white-hatted sailors frequented peep shows and dive bars and many of the people who lived there occupied flop houses.
Today, The San Diego Union-Tribune will complete its move from Mission Valley, its home since 1973. Much has changed in the newspaper industry and the city.
Computers have replaced typewriters. Digital has replaced film. There’s a website, Spanish-language publications called Hoy San Diego and Vida Latina (both in vidalatinasd.com) and a series of community papers. The Union and Tribune merged in 1992, leaving the city with one major daily. Today, the U-T is printed in Los Angeles and owned by Tribune Publishing based in Chicago.
In the same period, downtown has been revitalized by tony high-rises and meticulously restored historic sites. Thousands of urban-minded renters and condo owners have turned it into a vibrant community reinventing itself as San Diego’s high-tech, innovation hub.
The newspaper staff is excited by a change of place.
“While San Diego is now much bigger and far more decentralized, returning to the center where we can immerse ourselves in its day-to-day operations will result, I believe, in more thorough, colorful news coverage and more insightful commentary,” said columnist Diane Bell.
Bell started her career at The San Diego Union in the early 1970s as a trainee at the U-T’s building at Second Avenue and Broadway, just west of the newly expanded Horton Plaza park.
Her colleague and sports columnist Nick Canepa delivered papers as a youngster from his home in Little Italy and joined the Evening Tribune in 1971.
“It’s great for a newspaper to be downtown,” he said. “The only problem is parking and it was certainly a major problem at the old building.”
He said staffers used to hunt and peck for parking spaces and racked up hundreds of parking tickets when they forgot to feed the meter.
“I remember we had a copy kid spend a weekend in jail because he hadn’t paid them,” he said.
In those days, Tribune writers would knock off at 3 p.m. and head for The Press Room bar across Second Avenue in the Spreckels Theatre Building.
Since 1983, it’s been the home of the much more upscale Dobson’s Bar and Restaurant, known for its “mussel bisque en croûte.”
David Cramer, the U-T’s longest-serving employee, started in June 1970 as an 18-year-old part-timer while working his way through San Diego State University. By the time he went full-time in 1974, he and the rest of the staff had decamped to 350 Camino de la Reina at the crossroads of Interstate 8 and state Route 163.
“We were excited because it meant we’d have a roof that didn’t leak, parking we could just pull into and it was really nice,” Cramer said. “It was closer to where I lived (in La Mesa). “ Everybody was pleased to be moving into a new building. We had push button phones!”
But now, after a week in the new location downtown, Cramer, coordinator of circulation field support, is glad to be back.
“Mission Valley parking was nice, but pretty much once you were in the building, you were just in the building, dealing with other employees,” Cramer said. “And now downtown, you walk out the door and you’ve got all society around you: lawyers, business people, homeless — just quite a flow of people and traffic and everything. It’s kind of nice, in a way. I like it.”
U-T Publisher and Editor in Chief Jeff Light recalls working at a newspaper in downtown Syracuse, N.Y., and appreciating the old path of the Erie Canal and 19th-century buildings around him.
“I personally don’t buy into the whole debate about the relative virtues of suburban-versus-urban development,” he said. “Both can be nice. I think our new office downtown is terrific.”
David Chavern, president and CEO of the Newspaper Association of America, said media and tech companies increasingly choose downtown locations.
“It’s where their workforce wants to live,” he said. “If you were building a digital publishing business, where would you locate? Add to that the smaller workforce and less need for big printing facilities due to technology and consolidation, then I think urban relocation for some papers would make sense.”
The new location occupies about 60,000 square feet on floors nine though 12 in the 24-story, 650,000-square-foot building originally occupied in 1974 by San Diego Federal Savings & Loan Association. The company signed a $40 million, 15-year lease with Lincoln Property Company, the company that bought the building in 2012. About 275 employees will occupy the new space.
The newsroom is on floors nine and 10, and advertising, circulation and other departments are on the 11th and 12th floors. The top floor includes a lobby that displays the newspaper’s Pulitzer Prizes.
Designed by Gensler architects and BKM interior designers and built out by Pacific Building Group, the $6.8 million buildout of the space exudes a bit of the “cool” open ceiling and flexible floor plan desired by millennials, said Robert York, the U-T’s vice president of strategy and operations.
Overhead lights automatically adjust to sunlight conditions. The office furniture features adjustable desktops, but there’s minimal file and storage space — this is the age of cloud computing, after all.
However, U-T librarian and archivist Merrie Monteagudo squirreled away space in the basement for nearly a mile of shelving for 100,000 photo prints, 300,000 photo negative assignments and 340 cubic feet of file cabinets containing microfilm of the newspapers back to 1871.
Preparing for the move, Monteagudo said she came across a 1934 San Diego Union stylebook, a World War II-era collection of military service member biographies and a 1972 news release about the Old Globe’s production of “Love’s Labour’s Lost,” starring a young Christopher Reeve.
The newspaper has seen many homes since The San Diego Union’s first issue on Oct. 10, 1868, starting in Old Town and moving to downtown in 1870.
“We can publish a better newspaper, with more profit, in our new office than in the old one,” said the owners Edward S. Bushyhead and William S. Dodge. “The change, therefore, will be of mutual advantage to our readers and to ourselves.”
John D. Spreckels, the local tycoon who bought the Hotel del Coronado, bought the Union and then Tribune, which was founded in 1895. After Spreckels died in 1926, Ira Copley bought the papers two years.
His son, Jim Copley, swapped the downtown property for a 13-acre site in Mission Valley and opened the building in September 1973, just before his death.
Frank Hope Jr., whose firm designed the building, said the Mission Valley headquarters was meant to solve the many issues of downtown, especially parking and printing.
“I said, ‘It’s got to be something really monumental,’” he said. He considers it “one of the most gracious and attractive buildings in town.”
Casey Brown, who bought the property from former Publisher Doug Manchester last year, said he plans to gut the 160,000-square-office, five-story office building and lease it out to new tenants beginning in mid-2017.
The presses have been dismantled and removed from the printing building and that structure will be converted to new uses. A 200-unit apartment project has been approved for the north side of the property but will probably be built by another developer, Brown said. The total redevelopment plan may cost around $100 million and be completed by 2020.
Although only a handful of current employees worked in the old building downtown, several others occupied various downtown bureaus that existed from 1986 to 2009, including on the 23rd floor of the 600 B St. building, once known as the Comerica Building.
One of those “Comericans,” beer columnist and reporter Peter Rowe, said he can’t remember a single interview that resulted from walks from the Mission Valley building to Fashion Valley. But when he was downtown, he said, story ideas constantly popped up when he hit the streets.
“So much of what we do is happenstance,” Rowe said. “It grows out of these chance encounters or something you see that gets you start thinking about that and start looking into it.”
Zack Watson, who joined the U-T in February as senior director of digital sales and strategy, said he was glad about the move.
“It’s more vibrant downtown. It’s people movin’ and shakin’.”
By Roger Showley