The Isle of Right
Coronado is not for the faint of income. It’s middle-class America with an upper-class price tag. Family values with soaring property values. Small-town dreams with an uptown tax base.
Not much bigger than a neighborhood —and with all the feel of a neighborhood —Coronado is, in fact, a city. With its own elected mayor and city council, police department and unified school district. And its own problems. It’s a city looking nervously to the future with one eye firmly fixed on its past.
"People ask me why I live here," says Nick Reynolds, a Coronado boy who grew into fame as one-third of the folk-singing Kingston Trio. "I’ve lived in some beautiful places, near to paradise: Sausalito, San Francisco, the coast of Oregon. But I’ve come back after 30 years because it’s home.
"To come back here at this time in my life is ideal," says Reynolds, who jerked sodas as a kid at Oscar’s, the homegrown restaurant. "It really hasn’t changed that much in all these years. The challenge is to keep it from changing too much."
No small challenge.
The past—the history of this island (don’t call it a peninsula, though it really is)—is of considerable importance to Coronadoans. And if you are going to learn something about the real Coronado, there are a few things the locals would first have you unlearn.
To begin with, Thomas Edison did not wire the historic Hotel del Coronado for electric lighting. Aside from inventing the electric light bulb, Edison had nothing to do with the lighting system of the Del. He did, however, come to light the first Christmas tree at the hotel on Christmas Eve, 1904.
Second, L. Frank Baum did not write The Wizard of Oz when he lived in Coronado. In fact, The Wizard of Oz was a screenplay based on several of Baum’s Oz stories. A few were written while he lived here.
As for the legend of legends—the one about Prince Edward meeting the divorcée Wallis Warfield (Simpson) during the prince’s visit to Coronado in 1920? Romantic idea. Never happened. The woman for whom the prince would later abdicate the British throne did live in Coronado when the prince made his visit. But forever after their marriage, the Duke and Duchess of Windsor would steadfastly deny stories of their meeting in Coronado that year.
That year, 1920, was 35 years after Elisha Babcock and H.L. Story first came to the deserted island of Coronado for a rabbit hunt. It was then that the two Midwest businessmen first discussed plans to develop the land and build a resort hotel to attract buyers. They purchased Coronado and North Island in December 1885 for $100,000 and incorporated the Coronado Beach Company. They then set about building what would become the world-famous Hotel del Coronado and peddling $1 million worth of home lots, at an average price of $400. Property values have escalated some since then.
More than a century later, the hotel is still the center of attention and the object of some controversy here. The controversy—or "the split," as most locals call it—has to do with the lifeblood of Hotel del Coronado and, indeed, most of the businesses in the village: tourism.
Last year, on a platform that included a cry for "managed tourism," Tom Smisek defeated two-term incumbent Mayor Mary Herron. According to locals, that race was a battle across a wide political fence in Coronado. On one side: Smisek, Coronado born and raised (his parents still live on the island), a retired Navy pilot and businessman who came to represent the older families. On the other side: Herron, a progressive, business-backed, pro-development politician and strong supporter of tourism.
Herron’s defeat came on the heels of the Republican National Convention, a time when residents may have reached the tourist-saturation point. Politics and politicians have long played a role in Coronado’s reputation as a tourist town. Bob Dole stayed at the Del during the GOP convention. President Bill Clinton visited Coronado twice during his first term, once settling in with Hillary and Chelsea for a week-long vacation. (Hillary collected fodder here for her book, It Takes a Village.)
But locals in the mostly conservative, Republican village have mixed feelings about the political visitors. The image of Coronado as the final roost for conservative, retired admirals is still strong.
"During the convention," says Kris Grant, executive director of the Coronado Visitors Bureau, "there were red, white and blue banners welcoming the Republicans, and practically everybody hung them out. When Clinton came to visit, I think maybe two posters welcoming the president and the first lady went up."
The Clintons’ introduction to Coronado came from M. Larry Lawrence, the longtime owner of Hotel del Coronado, who died last year. A lifelong supporter of Democratic candidates and causes, Lawrence’s influence and money helped Clinton win the White House. Clinton did not forget. Three years ago, the president appointed him ambassador to Switzerland.
And Clinton did something else for his political friend: Clinton’s widely publicized visits helped bring tourists to Larry’s hotel rooms.
"Larry Lawrence would have been freaked out by some of the stronger anti-tourism feeling that’s been developing in Coronado lately," says Grant, who trots out charts to show just how much Coronado’s economy reaps from its visitors.
According to the Visitors Bureau, tourists from outside the San Diego region account for 53% of all spending in Coronado. They do 54.5% of the restaurant spending, 58% of retail spending and 65% of hotel-motel spending. According to Councilman Bruce Williams, projections for next year’s city budget show transient-occupancy tax revenue surpassing property-tax revenue—$6.1 million to $5.9 million—for the first time in the city’s history. And that represents just the taxes on rooms, not the boost visitor spending gives the general economy.
The issue is classic Catch-22: The village’s warm, small-town ambience attracts the very tourists who sometimes threaten it. Striking a balance that continues to fuel the economy while preserving the atmosphere, says Grant, is the key. "But somehow," she says, "the two sides always manage to come together to protect the quaintness and the charm of our city."
The charm is undeniable.
Leslie Yerger, a former SDSU vice president who grew up in Coronado, sees corporate America as a much greater threat
to the village than tourism. Yerger, now married to Nick Reynolds, takes an active role in efforts to protect the village feeling through a group called Coronado MainStreet Ltd.
"We have a fast-food ordinance coming before the city council soon," she says. "There’s an effort by some to try to keep fast-food chains down by the Ferry Landing [a newer commercial and restaurant complex at the east end of Orange Avenue], where it’s not so obvious as it would be in the village. We’re trying very hard to support small, local business. There’s a tendency to try to make it Strip-Mall City.
"Local business is good for this community," Yerger says. "Bay Books [where she works part-time] gives $35,000 to the Coronado Public Library each year. We asked a franchise bookstore once to help support the local high school, and they said, ‘No; it’s not our corporate policy to give in that manner.’"
But in fact, in one block of the central village, there is already a Domino’s Pizza, a Subway, La Salsa, Marie Callender’s and a Wendy’s. Still, most of the businesses are one of a kind, homegrown and locally owned. If there has to be a chain Payless, and there is, then there are two local drug stores. And Central Drugs, established in 1893, still delivers. One block off Orange Avenue, at El Cordova Garage ("Here Since 1901"), the sign outside still says "Authorized Service DeSoto-Dodge." This is not Econo Lube ’n’ Tune. El Cordova hasn’t serviced many DeSotos lately; the last DeSoto rolled off the Detroit assembly line in 1961.
Across Orange Avenue and three blocks down from Wendy’s is Danny’s Palm Bar & Grill, where the concept of burger wars is about as far out as Star Wars. Danny’s Slamburger is $4.25 and worth it; the one-pound Grand Slamburger is $7.50. Afew doors down at Stretch’s Cafe, a sign in the window proclaims: "Change Always Given for Anything. Anytime. Restrooms Available. We Welcome Anyone. Skateboards OK. We Are Here To Serve You." A decidedly uncorporate attitude.
Clayton’s restaurant up the street is straight out of Back to the Future. No corporate plotter’s idea of a campy ’50s diner, Clayton’s is a ’50s diner, a pterodactyl thriving in the ’90s. Where chicken-fried steak and baby beef liver are dinner-menu mainstays and a peanut butter–and–jelly sandwich costs a buck ninety-five. Where the mixers serve up authentic malted milkshakes and 26 counter seats swivel to the sounds of a real jukebox that plays real vinyl records, like "Cherry Pink and Apple Blossom White." And across the street from Clayton’s is Primavera, a first-rate, locally owned Italian restaurant. Coronado has several good Italian restaurants, including Island Pasta and Tomaso’s in the popular new La Avenida retail center. But no chain Olive Garden.
Down two blocks from Primavera is the Village Theater, another throwback —a neighborhood movie house that still shows first-run movies one at a time. The Village is worn and dirty, and a yellowed sign out front warns, "This theater is NOT air-conditioned." But prime-time tickets are only $5.50, and you don’t have to take out a second mortgage to buy a bag of popcorn.
Jim Laslavic, the KNSD-TV sportscaster, his wife, Sue, and their two daughters live in that Beaver Cleaveresque house on A Street. Jim and Sue first came to Coronado in 1979, when Jim was still a Chargers linebacker and before they were parents.
"We were looking for a rental that would take our dog, and we were looking for a beach community. When you’re raised in Pittsburgh and come to California, you want to live on the coast," says Jim. "We started in Encinitas and worked our way south." They rented a condo in Coronado Shores—the still-controversial high-rise complex just south of the Hotel del Coronado that many villagers refuse to acknowledge as part of Coronado. Deciding it was the ideal place to build a family, the Laslavics bought their first home on Coronado in 1981.
"There’s a commitment from the old-timers to preserve what they have here and make it better. That’s one reason we moved here. And there’s a village atmosphere; people look out for each other," says Sue. "A while ago, some friends of ours sent their daughter down to a movie. But it was rated PG-13, and she wasn’t quite old enough. The owner wouldn’t let her in without her parents. He took it seriously that it was his responsibility to watch out for the kids."
Coronado is a family town, but it’s also a Navy town. And the two haven’t always been entirely compatible.
The Navy first discovered Coronado’s North Island in 1911, when pioneer aviator Glenn Curtiss offered to train a few naval officers at his flying school at no cost. It was commissioned a naval air station in 1917. Today, when all ships are in port, the military and civilian population at North Island is more than 30,000. Its harbor is home port to two major aircraft carriers and may soon harbor nuclear carriers—a circumstance viewed as alarming by some residents.
Coronado is also the site of the Navy Amphibious Base, home to the elite Navy Seals, with a population of around 5,000.
Over the years, the large Navy population may have contributed to the proliferation of liquor stores and bars. Locals with long memories tell stories of the 1950s and ’60s, when the Navy pilots would get well-oiled at the bars on lower Orange Avenue, then race their cars up the avenue in flying formation.
In one block of Orange Avenue closest to the Ferry Landing—boldly poised across the street from the First Baptist Church—are the Coronado Brewing Company, the Mexican Village restaurant’s cantina, and three other bars. At Mexican Village, owner Sharon Considine does much to cultivate Navy business. And something to honor her military patrons. Her annual Veterans Day tradition of free meals for active and retired military personnel has continued for 10 years. But the Navy’s reputation for wild drinking days on Coronado has faded, she says.
That is not to say the Navy harbors teetotalers. Another favorite watering hole is at the opposite end of Orange Avenue: McP’s Irish Pub & Grill, owned and operated by Greg McPartlin, a former Navy Seal. And a certified character.
On any given night, a dozen or more pilots or Seals may be found at McP’s. And they can drink. "One night," McPartlin says, "this drunk came in the front door and ordered a drink from Scotty. Scotty says, ‘No way, you’re too drunk. Get out.’ So the guy walks out the door, turns right, and walks in our side door off the patio. He comes up to the bar, orders a drink, and there’s Scotty, telling him he’s too drunk. ‘Geez,’ the guy says. ‘You own all the bars in this town?’"
About 60 percent of McP’s business comes from the military. About a third comes from visitors. But McPartlin is not an avid supporter of the push for more tourism on the island. He believes the city should do more to promote business with locals. "Why spend all that money to try to get the Joneses to come from Toledo, Ohio," he asks, "when we spend zero to get the Joneses to come across town from Tolita Avenue?"
Still, the impact of tourism on Coronado’s economy is hard to ignore. It supports scores of shops and restaurants, three major hotels—Le Meridien, Loews Coronado Beach Resort and the Hotel Del—and more than a dozen smaller ones. The historic Del, in fact, is about to embark anew on a major expansion, submitting plans to increase the hotel from 692 rooms to about 950.
The plans also call for improvements at the northeast end of the hotel’s property, to include retail shops and a pedestrian promenade. Although opposition to any growth in Coronado is predictable, many Coronadoans seem to welcome the improvements planned at Orange Avenue and Dana Place —a process that would open up to the village a side of the hotel that is now virtually walled off.
And then, visitors to Coronado often become residents of Coronado. And residents often become experts in the rising cost of real estate.
After leaving the Navy and before opening his Irish pub, McPartlin bought his first Coronado home in 1976 for $27,500. His second home, the old Jessop house on First Street, cost him $105,000. He sold it for $1.6 million. Then he bought the island’s famed Crown Manor for $375,000. It later became home to Larry Lawrence and a part of the Hotel del Coronado owner’s holdings. Its current occupant, the widow Shelia Davis Lawrence, has it on the market for $12 million—although there is some question how much equity she may have in the house, with the takeover of the Hotel del Coronado properties late last year by lienholder Travelers Insurance Group.
If tourism and the military are the number one and two industries on the island, real estate must be a close third. The Coronado Yellow Pages lists more than 30 real estate agencies. Estimates of the number of agents range upwards of 200—in a city with a civilian population of 28,500. And real estate, after a recessionary slump, is booming again. "Just going clickety-click," as one ebullient broker at the Lee Mather Company puts it.
Of course, the visitor who decides to make Coronado home may suffer serious sticker shock. Lee Mather’s Mike Herlihy recently closed escrow on a two-bedroom, one-bath house on a 1,700-square-foot lot, in a high-traffic area, that was just short of being what they call "a scrapper"—a tear-down. The sale price: $250,000. Listings for single-family detached homes at one of Coronado’s largest real estate companies, Century 21 Anthony Furlano Associates, range from $270,000 to about $2.4 million (not counting the $12 million Crown Manor). Median price: $516,500.
But Coronado is a big draw for families, says Herlihy. "Coronado has its own unified school district. If you buy a home in some other upscale communities," he says, "you have to figure in the cost of private schools. Not here. The schools are a great asset to the real estate community. And the community is aware of it and very supportive of the school district."
For some, that might be viewed as a downside for Coronado. An island community of luxury-priced homes with its own unified school district does not exactly lead to an ethnically or racially diverse community. The Navy’s presence helps. Still, the population of Coronado—discounting the military—is decidedly white, family-oriented and upscale.
But then, so was Leave It to Beaver.