Cleaning up the Gaslamp

Posted: May 5th, 2017 | Featured, News | 1 Comment

New training initiative targets lack of compliance

Morgan M. Hurley | Editor

The Gaslamp Quarter — which takes up 16 and a half city blocks of Downtown San Diego — was designated as a “national historic district” by the National Park Service in 1981.

As a result of this designation, all businesses within the historic district must adhere to a statute and corresponding set of standards, called the Planned District Ordinance (PDO).

The Gaslamp’s Volunteer Code Enforcement Committee are currently tackling permanent and temporary signage around the historic district that is not in compliance with the Planned District Ordinance (PDO). Below are examples of signs that are out of compliance. (Courtesy GQHF)

Martha Sewell, chair of the Land Use and Planning Committee, was recently tasked with revising the Gaslamp’s PDO.

“The PDO sets the rules for preserving the historic buildings and guiding new structures so that they fit in without overpowering or negating the neighborhood,” Sewell said, adding that the new The Pendry Hotel is a good example. “It lists all the rules for signage and sidewalk cafes, and changes to facades.”

Exterior advertising signage, stickers, flashing signs, multimedia signage, beer flags, temporary signage, TVs facing the street and even neon signs are all items that are not permitted. Only three historically-designated neon signs within the district are allowed; anything else is considered out of compliance. Neon signs are allowed if they are beyond five feet from the exterior window, but signs advertising alcohol are frowned upon.

Even exterior paint color is predetermined; it follows the Sherman Williams preservation paint pallet.

A Gaslamp Quarter business owner herself, Sewell is a resident of the Marina District, which lies just steps from the official boundaries of the historic designation. She formerly lived in the Yuma Building, which she and her husband bought, gutted and renovated in 1991, and her business is still there.

Catalina Preskill, executive director of the Gaslamp Quarter Historical Foundation (GQHF), told San Diego Downtown News that things had “gotten sloppy” in the neighborhood in recent years and she felt it was time to do something about it.

“The rules have been in place since 1981 and with few exceptions, they haven’t really changed since then,” Preskill said.

Sewell, who has served on the Land Use committee in various capacities since 1993, had already been looking into the Neighborhood Volunteer Program, a project of the city that provides training for residents who want to get more involved.

Pooling their resources, Preskill and Sewell launched the Volunteer Code Enforcement Committee to combat the burgeoning infractions and get the historic district back into compliance.

They now act as the front line of oversight and work closely with the Enforcement Office of the city of San Diego.

While there is no formal education involved in getting their information out to business owners, they start with a letter to each business, which is then followed up by a brochure. The two documents outline — in great detail and in layman’s terms — the PDO guidelines and they address the specific issues that are not in compliance with the historic district’s requirements.

The first initiative they took on was the inordinate amount of “A frames” that had popped up throughout the Gaslamp Quarter. Used to advertise in front of a business, they seem harmless enough, but can hinder public safety, Preskill said.

“A frames are in the public right of way,” she said. “Businesses have a tendency to think their property goes to the curb, when in fact it doesn’t, it goes to their front door. If you have a patio you can be permitted to have a patio but only for tables and chairs, no signage. There is no signage that’s allowed in the public right of way.”

The committee’s educational campaign targeting the A frames was highly successful; starting with nearly 100, they are down to the last 10 or 15 A frames, Preskill said.

“Most businesses, if they know what the rules are, they are willing to follow them,” she said. “By the time we send a second letter, about 80 percent of the time, they are gone. Then compliance will step in and work on that 20 percent.”

In addition to the A frame obstruction, Sewell said it is also important to keep a business’s windows free of curtains and signs.

“Covering the windows with stickers and other types of advertising keeps the neighborhood from looking good and makes for an unhealthy atmosphere,” she said. “If people can see into a business, they will be more interested in going inside. It’s good for everyone.”

Preskill noted that their committee’s goal is to get as much back within compliance as possible, without involving the city’s enforcement department. They see that step as a last resort; but some businesses, especially the big chains that are moving in, require it just to get their attention.

“Nobody wants a code compliance officer walking in,” she said. “They can always find something.”

And penance for additional violations found at that level may be much more painful than removing a beer flag. There will always be exceptions and with new businesses coming to the Gaslamp Quarter all the time, Preskill figures their job may be never done; but for the most part, the committee just wants to keep the neighborhood looking at its best.

Their next target? Temporary signs.

“We’re talking about the essence of the district and maintaining the integrity of the district,” Preskill said. “If it is ‘no holds barred,’ why even make it a national historic district?”

For anyone who would like to go over the rules more closely, Sewell is happy to oblige. She can be reached at or 619-696-7575. The committee’s brochure can be picked up at the Davis-Heath Building, location of the Gaslamp Quarter Historical Foundation, at 410 Island Ave. For those who wish to do the research on their own, visit or read the PDO at

—Morgan M. Hurley can be reached at

One Comments

  1. Thanks for the GREAT write-up… I’ve been out of town, so I didn’t see until today. Catalina is still gone, but I’m sure she will be thrilled with the coverage.

    Please let me know when you would like a tour of the Yuma Building

    Best regards,
    Marsha Sewell

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