A historic mystery with a happy ending

Imagine being tasked with demolishing and reconstructing a 14-story historic building in downtown San Diego in one year without any access to the building before construction.

This story will take you on a journey of hidden construction, structural challenges and a heroic staff that yielded an iconic structure for San Diego’s homeless population: Connections Housing Downtown.

Connections Housing Downtown was born from the creative minds of Affirmed Housing Group and PATH Ventures, with generous help from the city of San Diego, Civic San Diego, and Housing and Urban Development. It took more than two years of convincing community and local politicians before any shovel touched the ground.

Many thought a homeless shelter in the middle of a vibrant downtown office environment —the project is at 1250 Sixth Street — would create a negative impact to local businesses. Fortunately, Affirmed Housing Group and PATH Ventures were unwavering in their beliefs and in December 2011, the transformation began.

Connections Housing was built in a 14-story historic building that possessed many previous lives and purposes. Each change in ownership created layers of construction that were not documented with clear record drawings.

The building, a cast-in-place concrete structure with a column-and-beam structural system, started out in 1927 as the San Diego Athletic Club. The sub-basement of the building had a lap pool and relaxation deck that spanned to the first floor. The club remained in existence until 1964.

From 1966 to 1969 the building served as California Western University. The building was sold in 1977 to HBJ Publishing and underwent many structural renovations to accommodate massive printing presses.

A restaurant, Ten Downing Street, was added to the basement level and operated from 1972 to 1986. The pool deck was covered with concrete to create the restaurant space.

In 1993 the city of San Diego bought the building and created office space.

Affirmed Housing Group bought the building in December 2011 and negotiated the challenging project with Turner Construction, known for building difficult projects with difficult time restraints.

Connections Housing is made up of the following: Floors 4 through 12 include studio apartments for qualified low-income housing applicants. Floors 2 and 3 have beds for interim housing for the homeless. These floors have an exterior light well that provides natural light and ventilation.

The saw cutting for these light wells was extremely challenging because the columns and beams for each floor did not line up, requiring hand measuring of each structural component.

Furthermore, the structural for each floor varied between a cast-in-place waffle slab and a pan deck. Saw cutting was originally expected to take two weeks. Because of each structural constraint, the saw cutting took six weeks to complete.

The first floor has a health center, community outreach room and two main entrances (one on Sixth Avenue and one on A Street). The basement includes offices for the many public services that assist the homeless. A full-service kitchen and dining room are in the sub-basement.

The building contained a lot of lead and asbestos. Around every corner, unforeseen hazardous materials were discovered, requiring full containment and no access until test results deemed the area safe.

The original plan included demolishing about 100,000 square feet of concrete, steel, drywall wood and most importantly, the swimming pool in the sub-basement.

All debris was going to be removed via a conveyor system to the street level — until it was discovered that the concrete mezzanine built over the pool rested completely on the pool walls. More specifically, the pool walls supported the entire floor above.

Consequently, Turner was forced to saw cut 30-by-30-foot holes in the basement and first floors with complete shoring and ramps to carry out the debris of the entire building. This structural impact added three months to the demolition.

The building originally included four elevators. Because of new building codes, the dual elevators that serviced all floors had to be resized to accommodate a gurney.

This change required an intricate revision to all 14 openings in the elevator shaft that included saw cutting each landing to allow the depth of the shaft to become larger.

Once the concrete was saw cut, a pulley system was devised on each floor to remove the concrete piece by piece. When the proper depth was achieved, a new landing was poured back.

The building had to comply with very stringent historic requirements: If you touch a historic element, you must rebuild it to its original design. This resulted in an entire remodel of the historic façade to replicate the cast-in-place historic balconies, gargoyles and exterior skin.

First, all loose and flakey lead-based paint had to be removed, and then a special coating had to be hand-rolled onto the exterior to remove nearly 90 years of paint. Lastly, the final paint coat had to look like freshly poured concrete from 1927. Each historic figurine was handmade.

Because the building is on a one-way street, there was no staging area for equipment or materials. Furthermore, OSHA required a method of moving personnel from floor to floor. The Historic Board would allow only openings on the façade of the building that were created from the existing window openings.

Therefore, Turner had to find a man hoist that would fit in the size allotted. The man hoist that would fit was over 30 years old and, miraculously, required repair only three times.

In a one-year span, the Turner team reviewed and processed over 40 complete drawing changes (on average 300 drawing sheets), 500 requests for information and 700 change orders and was still able to achieve the unachievable — substantial completion by Dec. 28, 2012. The staff assigned to the project increased from five to 13 Turner employees, with an average of about 130 subcontractors, night shifts and weekend work.

Connections Housing is now fully operational and providing food, shelter and opportunity to those who have virtually nothing. The blood, sweat and tears of all involved in this endeavor are entwined in every component of the building. Somewhere the many past lives of this building are merging with the new and improved lives of the future.

Stevens is manager of business development for Turner Construction and secretary of the Commercial Real Estate Women (CREW) San Diego board. She has more than 14 years of commercial real estate expertise.

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