Action by the Palomar Pomerado Hospital District board of directors Tuesday to apply for demolition permits for Escondido City Hall and the adjacent 47-year-old adobe firehouse set off angry protests among city officials and firefighters who are seeking to save the old station.
The hospital board, which purchased the property from the city about five years ago, also agreed to offer to resell the one-acre civic site to the city at an undisclosed price, but the offer won no applause from either city officials or local historians.
The hospital district paid $720,000 for the property after the City Council decided to sell it--with the condition that it could retain occupancy--and use the proceeds as seed money to build a new and larger civic center several blocks away. The $15.7-million complex will be ready for occupancy in February.
"We will offer to negotiate the repurchase with them," said Ted Kleiter, an executive vice president of the hospital district, "but only on the entire parcel." Kleiter did not reveal the price the hospital district would ask.
City Councilman Ernie Cowan, criticizing their actions Tuesday, charged the hospital directors with "playing games."
"It appears to be a shabby public relations gesture" to offer to sell the property back to the city while applying for demolition permits at the same time, he said. "Their attitude all along has been to get this nuisance out of their hair, rather than to sit down and seek how to resolve this matter to the benefit of all parties."
"They took two opposite actions with no explanation," Cowan said. "It may be that they could explain their reasoning to me so I might understand their position and not be as angry as I am right now."
City and hospital officials have been talking about preserving the adobe fire station for months but have reached no agreement, according to Fire Capt. Vic Reed, spokesman for the Escondido Firefighters Assn.
The group conducted a successful citywide petition campaign in an attempt to speed up action between the two public groups, he said. About 7,500 signatures, nearly twice the amount needed to qualify the issue for the ballot, were collected and are now being checked by the county registrar of voters. The petition calls for a citywide vote to designate the adobe firehouse a historic building, which would require that it be preserved in its current condition.
'Big Stumbling Block'
"It's a little disappointing that the (hospital) board voted to offer the property as an all-or-nothing deal," Reed said. "We had hoped that they would work out a deal to preserve just the fire station. Their decision is going to be a big stumbling block."
Reed said he was sure that the petitions asking for a vote on preservation of the fire station would be validated. The matter then would come before the City Council for action, leaving council members with the choice of voting to preserve the site or putting the issue before the voters, he said.
If the voters approve preservation of the firehouse, "the only remaining public building in Escondido still in its original state," the structure could not be torn down or altered, Reed said. "That's all we are asking, that a piece of Escondido's past be preserved."
Cowan said the City Council may meet as early as today in emergency executive session to seek ways to handle the problem. He said that the threat of demolition of the buildings by the hospital district is offset by the right of the City Council "to designate the fire station as a historic building, which would prevent its being torn down."
Station Would Restrict Access
Kleiter said the site--a triangular piece of land at the intersection of Valley Parkway and Grand Avenue--is suitable for construction of a needed 25,000-square-foot administrative annex for the hospital, which adjoins the property. Retention of the fire station on the site "would drastically reduce the usefulness of the property" to the hospital because it would restrict access to the adjacent hospital buildings and would reduce the size of any new building on the site.
Mayor Doug Rady said that he did not feel the hospital board's actions Tuesday put the City Council in a corner.
"All we have to say is 'no,' " Rady said. "The firefighters are not the citizens of Escondido and we are in no bind to do anything."
Reed said the old fire station could be used as a museum with a community meeting hall on the second floor if voters or the City Council approve its preservation.