“The operators are seeking a tenant improvement permit by right,” said PCPB board member David Dick, who made the motion to write a letter to authorities decrying physical alteration of the chapel’s interior proposed by new operators 828 Venue Management. “As a result, they are not required to come before this board for a discretionary review.”
Referring to the chapel a “shrine,” Dick noted operators are asking for changes that he contended may violate terms of repurposing a historic building, as well as being unpalatable to some Peninsulans.
“Eight twenty-eight’s plan is to repurpose the North Chapel to use it as event space, and part of that will involve relocation of some of the pews onsite to be stored offsite, but available for reuse,” said Dick.
Constructed in 1942, North Chapel was once a place of worship for sailors stationed at the Naval Training Center San Diego. It was the last stop for many sailors going off to war, some of whom never returned.
The chapel closed in 1997 with the operational closure of the base. The chapel was renovated and reopened in 2007. It was leased for use by two church congregations.
Joe Haeussler, executive vice president for Pendulum Property Partners, which partnered with the Seligman Group to acquire portions of Liberty Station, including North Chapel, from previous owner McMillin Companies, addressed PCPB on Jan. 16.
“We’ve been active in redeveloping commercial properties with adaptive rescues of historical buildings for over 15 years,” said Haeussler. “We have to follow requirements of the National Register of Historic Places, which caused us to hit the pause button on the project in 2019.”
Haeussler pointed to recent approval by California State Office of Historic Preservation and the National Park Service, of 828’s proposed chapel renovations, as vindication for their project.
“We are complying with the regulations that are set before us in the NTC Precise Plan on reuse of historic buildings,” he said.
Liberty Station Arts District tenant Ron Slayen, an outspoken critic of 828’s chapel repurposing plans, emphasized the facility’s symbolic and religious importance.
“The pews are bolted down in this beautiful sanctuary,” said Slayen charging that, “We (community) knew from the beginning that they wanted to gut the chapel. That very much offends me.”
Added Slayen, “They (828) kicked out the two church congregations that had been using the chapel, and they are talking now about also removing some of its stained-glass windows. We recommend you (PCPB) support our position to save North Chapel as it is.”
“We’re not gutting the chapel,” countered Haeussler. “This is one of the most respectful and least-invasive rehabilitation plans we’ve been involved in the last 15 years.”
Added Haeussler, “We intend to have church services and all kinds of activities in the building, and we need flexible seating. So it was decided to store some of the pews in one of the rooms in the back to preserve them inside the chapel.”
Haeussler pointed out some of the stained-glass windows aren’t original and block light, adding the plan is to take them down and exhibit them elsewhere in the building.
Considered to be furniture, Haeussler said pews are “not required by the National Register to be protected.”
PCPB board and audience members alike concurred with Slayen.
Elaine Boland noted 828’s email is firstname.lastname@example.org.
“Does that tell you what it’s all about?” she asked. “The essence and history of North Chapel is what we’re trying to preserve.”
Boland argued the chapel’s hand-carved pews are “part of the history to be preserved and should not be considered furniture. This is a sacred place of worship.”
“I’ve never seen anybody mess with a church,” said PCPB board member Margaret Virissimo. “I’m dumbfounded to think anybody would consider this a benefit to the community by destroying a church. Why did they pick this church for a retail enterprise, when there are so many empty, deserted buildings in Liberty Station?”