An extreme makeover

Posted: November 3rd, 2017 | Featured, Features, News, Profiles | No Comments

SDHC recognized for breathing new life into Hotel Churchill, assisting homeless

By Dave Fidlin

Editor’s note: This is the final installment of profiles on SOHO’s People in Preservation 2017 awards recipients.

When Hotel Churchill’s doors were closed in 2005, the longtime staple of San Diego’s Downtown landscape faced an uncertain future. Were its best days behind it?

As it turned out, the answer was, “no.”

The San Diego Housing Commission, which acquired Hotel Churchill in 2011, has repurposed the building with 72 affordable housing units for homeless people. (Photo by Sandé Lollis)

Hotel Churchill sat vacant the next succeeding decade, and the future of the hotel, seemed bleak as deteriorating conditions on the aging building progressed.

As fate would have it, however, the Hotel Churchill was merely getting ready for its next big act; a reality that became clear in the fall of last year, as the wraps were taken off the extensively renovated facility, which now serves as a home for 72 affordable apartment units for formerly homeless persons.

Earlier this year, the Save Our Heritage Organisation (SOHO), recognized the San Diego Housing Commission (SDHC) for giving Hotel Churchill a robustly new and meaningful lease on life. As one of 10 honorees of their SOHO’s annual People in Preservation awards, the commission received the program’s adaptive reuse award.

From SOHO’s standpoint, the revitalization of a building that achieved local landmark designation — and initially built in 1914 in anticipation of the Panama-California Exposition — was vitally important for the city, and its Downtown neighborhood’s future.

“You can’t hide a seven-story historic landmark when it has faded from glory and been shuttered since 2005,” SOHO officials wrote. “To some visionaries, however, the potential of the former Hotel Churchill was hiding in plain sight.”

The SDHC had acquired the property at 827 C St., as part of a court settlement in a foreclosure proceeding, and that potential came in the form of the new housing units — 56 geared specifically toward homeless veterans and the remaining 16 for other homeless persons through a federally sponsored housing voucher program.

Michael Pavco, senior vice president of real estate with SDHC, said the revitalization of Hotel Churchill was a gratifying project on two accounts. On one hand, it played a small role in addressing homelessness; on the other, it contributed to historic preservation.

“It was truly an honor to receive [the SOHO recognition],” Pavco said in an interview with Downtown News. “We were absolutely delighted to bring the hotel back to its glory.”

San Diego Housing Commission officials pose in front of Hotel Churchill; (l to r) Deborah Ruane, executive vice president and chief strategy officer; Richard C. Gentry, president and chief executive officer; Michael Pavco, senior vice president of real estate. (Photo by Sandé Lollis)

The steps it took to bring the Hotel Churchill toward its next chapter, of course, did not happen overnight. The multi-year project involved a series of interior and exterior improvements aimed at bringing the building back to its original luster and ensuring its new occupants had a safe place to call home.

One of the hotel’s most notable features — its 1940s-era sign at the top of the building — was meticulously restored by hand, for instance. The original blue neon lights are once again illuminated each night, post-restoration.

Interior changes were designed to meet the needs of current occupants while also paying respect to the building’s origins. Some of the most recent characteristics within the building, pre-renovation, were removed to pay homage to its earliest years.

SOHO officials took note of the commission’s efforts in describing the rationale behind the adaptive reuse award, including scrubbing all traces of the fantasy medieval getaway the building had been used for in the 1980s.

“Gone are all the traces of the kitschy castle mural and faux medieval décor,” SOHO officials wrote. “Instead, large restored windows on most floors shower the units with natural light. Six Juliet balconies and the entrance-blade sign and awning have been replicated from historic photographs.”

In the first year of its rebirth, Pavco said operations within Hotel Churchill have gone seamlessly. He credited strong collaboration and an extensive planning process put in place years before the doors were opened to residents last fall.

“It’s gone really well,” Pavco said. “The different populations have integrated well with one another.”

Based on their specific circumstances, residents have access to a number of on-site resources, such as the Veterans Administration.

Richard Gentry, president and CEO of the SDHC, offered similar sentiments about the partnerships last September when the official grand re-opening took place.

“The preservation of affordable housing at the historical Hotel Churchill is a testament to the collaborative efforts of the SDHC and our partners, to find innovative solutions to address homelessness,” Gentry said in a statement at the time.

Fast-forward a year later and Pavco said he and others within the SDHC aspire to repurpose other vacant or underutilized buildings and continue working to assist the homeless population.

“We’re hopeful we’ll be able to do other projects like this,” Pavco said.

For more information about the San Diego Housing Commission, visit To learn more about SOHO, visit

— Dave Fidlin is a freelance journalist with a special affinity for San Diego and its people. Contact him at

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