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Caltrans building transferred; archaeologists await

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The former Caltrans headquarters on Juan Street on the edge of Old Town State Park has been formally transferred to the state parks system Wednesday as the county of San Diego recorded the transaction.

The 1951-era 115,735-square-foot brick and concrete main building — now expected to be demolished — will eventually yield the historic structures under its foundation. The transfer will ensure the site will remain in the public’s hands.

The building sits over a 1,500-year-old Kumeyaay village and the first permanent European settlement in California. Under the site are Fitch’s, California’s first store; a bowling saloon owned by Ab Lyon, who would later become sheriff; and several adobes and homes.

“This is a property State Parks has been interested in for several years, and it is a logical addition to State Parks for its archaeological cultural value," said Anthony Jackson, California State Parks director in a statement.

Plans for the property didn't always focus on archaeology, Perry Dealy, president of Dealy Development in the late 1990s to early 2000s, proposed a mixed-use complex with housing, retail and perhaps a boutique hotel. That didn't happen and neither did a plan to auction the 2.5-acre property to the highest bidder.

Any other development plans were dealt a blow when Bruce Coons, president of Save Our Heritage Organisation, filed a lawsuit in Superior Court in 2012 to stop any transfer to a private developer. Dealy conceded that even without the litigation, construction would have been difficult, given a still-shaky economy.

The actual transfer was slowed by the high value of the asset and state restrictions on making a gift of taxpayer-owned property, even to another state agency.

Earlier this year, Assembly Majority Leader Toni Atkins persuaded the Legislative Joint Budget Committee to overlook the restrictions and approve the transfer.

“Today’s transaction begins the process of integrating the Caltrans site into Old Town San Diego and will create a fuller experience of our San Diego heritage,” Atkins said. “It is a win-win for San Diego, for state government and, most important, for future generations of residents and visitors who will have the opportunity to see how San Diego began.”

A total of $7.1 million in bond funds and $762,000 in parks funds have been set aside since 2009 for planning and design for the site, and there were no additional transfer costs, but how and when the state will proceed wasn't immediately clear.

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