King of the Hill
Graham Downes builds up Bankers Hill
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Architect Graham Downes
San Diego Magazine: Your company, BLOKHAUS, just bought the entire block at Fifth and Maple. Sounds like a takeover.
GD: I really have a strong passion for Bankers Hill. I think it’s underdeveloped. Its potential is magnificent and I want to be a part of it. It doesn’t have a lot of hang-ups that other places have in terms of what they stand for. Bankers Hill has great old buildings. It’s not that we have the great buildings on our side. The Britt-Scripps Inn, that’s 100 years old, but that’s not my style. It’s a bit “granny.” But it’s an immaculate property. Then you have the Mandarin House. It’s an institution. The site has much more potential than a parking lot with a Chinese restaurant. It’s not gentrification. This isn’t a depressed area like the East Village in ’97. But it lacks vitality, lacks a soul, lacks street activity, lacks a pulse. And all that’s available because it has Balboa Park; it has Fifth Avenue and Fourth and Sixth; it runs parallel with the freeway, has very close proximity to the airport, but it’s not in the flight path. Mister A’s is an institution that you can see from miles away. It’s iconic. So I think this is an excellently placed property.
SDM: The Britt-Scripps Inn is a landmark. What can you do to it?
GD: We can do things in the interior, but can’t do much on the property. The inn and the carriage house are historic, which essentially tells you the grounds are historic. And there’s not a lot one would want to do. I’m hoping to improve their weddings and events business significantly. We’re thinking of rebranding it. I like the idea of pulling up the bricks and making it a little more upbeat. I’m in the boutique hotel business; I have a couple hotels and also design hotels for other people. Basically we’re called in to turn something around and make it fun.
SDM: In Bankers Hill, you live in a 101-year-old house. Isn’t that a little “granny” for you?
GD: I don’t really care for the old stuff at all. I don’t want it to get torn down, but I’m not a preservationist. I’m not interested in restoring things that are old; I think things should be left to die. In this case, it’s in perfectly good condition, so I don’t think it should be torn down. Even old warehouses or industrial buildings that I get my hands on, I’ve kept them or maintained them or expanded on them—what they call adaptive reuse. So if something’s a welding shop and there’s no welders in the area, it’s not a desirable use anymore. Then you do certain things to the shop but you don’t have to throw its whole character away. You don’t have to tear it down.