By Ken Williams | Editor
Casey Brown, the new owner of the 13-acre San Diego Union-Tribune property, says he has loved the iconic newspaper building since he was a child.
“The first time I saw it, I was in the third grade,” said Brown, a La Jolla native. “It was a field trip to tour the newspaper.”
Little did Brown know that one day — long after he went on to be known as “Touchdown Brown” as a halfback and fullback with a penchant for scoring short-yardage touchdowns for the San Diego State Aztecs (1982-85) — that he would become the owner of one of the most recognizable buildings in America’s Finest City.
Brown gave an exclusive interview to Mission Valley News about what he intends to do with the U-T property and whether his purchase will change the plans to build luxury apartments along the San Diego River.
Last month, Brown’s new firm, Casey Brown Co., purchased the land for $52 million from developer Doug Manchester, the former owner and publisher of the U-T. Brown previously was founder and president of BBL Commercial Real Estate.
The 170,000-square-feet, five-story newspaper building, designed by architect Frank Hope, is a familiar landmark that can be seen by drivers on Interstate 8 and state Route 163. “It has great bones,” Brown said. “Architecturally, it remains a very current building, even though it was built in 1973. The iconic nature draws me to the building.”
Brown doesn’t envision doing much to the exterior of the newspaper building. “Certainly there will be some exterior work, but no structural changes,” he said. “We’ll be cleaning up the landscaping.”
As for the Union-Tribune newspaper operation, which is now owned by Tribune Publishing, Brown all but confirmed that the U-T will be relocating to Downtown. “I will be sorry to see them go, but happy for Downtown,” he said.
With the newspaper’s impending departure from the office building and other tenants expected to leave as well, big changes are in store for the interior.
“We will demo most of the office space to shell condition,” Brown said. “We want to appeal to more current tenants with office space that matches their needs. We will be turning the building into a Class A corporate campus.”
Brown said modern offices are amenity-based and focus more on lifestyle and health, outdoor break areas, interior common spaces and presentation areas that are shared by tenants, and a collaborative environment that ditches stuffy old conference rooms for “huddle rooms,” or creative spaces. He promises a less formal environment, an open layout, high ceilings, and a contemporary look and feel.
Next door, connected by a skybridge on the third floor of the newspaper building, is the 190,000-square-feet, three-story structure that housed the U-T’s presses and distribution center. Brown said the presses are being dismantled and removed. The press building is zoned for light industrial, and Brown said he and his team are still coming up with ideas on what to do in that space. He said he likes the skybridge, and has no plans to remove it, because future tenants may want to occupy space in both buildings. Brown’s challenge is to figure out what “light industrial” means and what tenant types could use the space. He suggested it might work for biotech industries, for example.
Renovation on the two buildings is expected to begin in February or March 2016, Brown said. As far as the 200-unit luxury apartment project, he is unsure when the groundbreaking will occur.
“There is no timetable yet,” he said. “We are excited we got unanimous approval from the City Council.”
Brown said he was mostly happy with the plans announced for the luxury apartment complex, which will face the San Diego River. He is enthusiastic about the changes — between the U-T property and the massive renovation next door at the Town and Country Resort & Convention Center — that will transform the river into an asset.
“I’m thrilled we’re opening up the river,” Brown said. “Mission Valley has always turned its back on the river. We want to be a pioneer on this.”
As the Mission Valley News has reported [read “U-T project will change riverfront” at bit.ly/1RDZUXC], the luxury apartments will feature a promenade along the river for walkers, hikers, bicyclists and commuters who can catch the trolley or a bus at the nearby Fashion Valley Transit Center. Amenities will include public art, benches, lighting, “look-out” points and public restrooms at a 0.82-acre park along the riverfront.
Between the two renovations, the riverfront will be vastly improved from Fashion Valley Road to Avenida del Rio — the Fashion Valley mall entrance off Camino de la Reina.
Brown addressed concerns of some residents who feared the loss of mature trees along the river during the construction phase of the luxury apartments. “Most of the mature trees will be preserved,” he said. Some of the non-native eucalyptus trees, which have shallow roots and are considered a fire hazard, may be removed.
“There is a dense forest along the river,” Brown said. “This is a forgotten asset, and it should not be.”
—Ken Williams is editor of Mission Valley News and Uptown News and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or at 619-961-1952. Follow him on Twitter at KenSanDiego, Instagram account at KenSD or Facebook at KenWilliamsSanDiego.