IT CAN BE A BREEDING ground for contention … modern day residential developers setting their sights on old and sometimes historic commercial buildings. But in the urban environment of San Diego, the often-opposing forces of development and preservation have been able to recognize the strengths in each other—resulting in an adaptive reuse project that retains its heritage and enhances its neighborhood.

The neighborhood, near San Diego's Balboa Park, is rich with Egyptian influences in structures the San Diego Historical Society has dubbed the “Egyptian Revival.” Uses of the flat roof and open courtyard became a common sight and the falcon, ornate cornices, and columns appeared in the architecture of several buildings. When a neighborhood theater was constructed in 1926, it was named The Bush Egyptian Movie Theater. Replete with stone reliefs and grand columns, the high stucco wall behind the lobby boasted a curving cornice and circular sun disk that spread protectively over the theater's patrons. Upon completion, it was one of the city's original luxury theaters.

DIAMOND IN THE ROUGH Over the years, the theater changed hands and underwent renovation, losing much of its former identity and eventually becoming vacant. But with such influential roots, the theater and many other buildings in the area were deemed locally historic. And despite the fact that the theater represented a full city block ripe for revitalization, the intricate design and negotiating process associated with historic preservation often present enough risk to send residential infill players running.

CLASSIC PRODUCTION: CityMark Development is working with local preservationists and historians to make sure its Egyptian Theater project in San Diego stays true to its roots.

But CityMark Development could see a diamond in the rough. “There is definitely more heartburn associated with these types of projects,” says Russ Haley, one of the company's principals, who estimates the preservation alone cost nearly $600,000. “But we seem to be drawn to them. At the end of the day, it just makes for great architecture and it carries over. Our buyers love the story behind this place.”

Going into the project, CityMark knew that the city's historic preservationboard would be pushing for as much authentic detail as possible. “There were a lot of meetings, and they were real sticklers,” recalls Haley, “but we were both working toward a common goal. We knew the project would benefit from retaining its historical roots.”

The roots are deep. In 1922, the discovery of the ancient tombs and treasures of 18th-dynasty pharaoh Tutankhamun and others buried in the Valley of the Kings in Egypt fascinated Americans. The boy king, commonly known as King Tut, inspired a virtual “era” influencing everything from the entertainment industry to jewelry design to architecture, with merchants and artists alike trying to capture the prolonged media attention as scientists took 10 full years to clear the ancient tombs.

WORTH THE PRICE: CityMark's downtown development of 80 residences with floor plans ranging from 800 to 2,200 square feet didn't come cheap. The preservation alone cost the company about $600,000, according to principal Russ Haley.

But what has emerged today is a seven-story building with mixed-use space including 80 residences with a mix of floor plans from 800 to nearly 2,200 square feet. The major element from the theater dating back to its original 1926 design is the original frontispiece that once led into the lobby. By obtaining photos from the historical society, CityMark has recreated several columns consistent with the building's original architecture. The rest of the building was gutted and brought up to code for residential use and features Art Deco architecture.

During demolition, art stone reliefs and metalwork were discovered and have since been cleaned and restored. The original building projections that went out toward the street were rebuilt and the original windows were included. The original ticket booth was changed over the years, according to Deborah Smithton, manager of architecture and planning at CityMark. “Today it's located on the building's first floor inside the commercial space that we expect to be used by a restaurant. We have recreated it to the original design based on historical photos and could easily see that space being a bar area where drinks are actually served through the ticket booth.”

A HAPPY MEDIUM CityMark decided to hire a local historian to document the latest changes in design and use throughout the historic building. After cataloging the photos and architecture plans and discoveries, they plan to add the information to the city's historical documentation.

“It's a pretty interesting project,” acknowledges Dennis Sharp of the San Diego Historical Society. “Of course, I would have liked to see the entire theater revived to its pristine condition, but I think this is a happy medium between the developers and the preservationists.”

Learn more about markets featured in this article: San Diego, CA.