By Ken Williams | Editor
There are two sides of the same coin, as the saying goes, and that seems to apply to the Observatory North Park.
To hear some local residents describe it, the historic theater is breathing life into North Park after dark, enriching our cultural fabric with nationally known music acts and popular local events like the Friends of Jefferson Elementary holiday show and the annual FilmOut San Diego LGBT Film Festival.
But to other residents, the theater is causing a public nuisance with unruly music patrons, aberrant behavior on nearby streets, safety fears, and ongoing parking, noise and trash problems.
There’s truth to both sides of the coin.
Each year, the venue attracts tens of thousands of people who spend their money at local restaurants, bars and shops, providing an economic engine that helps drive up property values and keeps businesses thriving.
But it was an ugly incident at a concert on Wednesday, June 7, that has riled up some North Park residents. During the concert, a man ran past the Observatory’s security guards surrounding the stage and sucker-punched Florida rapper XXXTentacion, knocking him out. The rapper’s bodyguards immediately rushed onstage and began punching the assailant, before carrying the dazed singer backstage to safety.
Videos of the melee were quickly posted on social media, showing confused audience members screaming and some people fighting. A young man was stabbed, sustaining a collapsed lung, and he was transported to a Hillcrest hospital for treatment.
The concert was then canceled and the Observatory was evacuated, but the tension spilled out onto 29th Street and University Avenue. Police quickly responded in droves before the incident could turn into a street riot.
The community meeting
Responding to complaints from residents, District 3 Councilmember Chris Ward organized a community meeting on July 13 at Horizon Park Christian Fellowship on North Park Way. Dozens of people attended the meeting, and many stood in line to speak their mind.
Councilmember Ward summed up the meeting’s purpose: What happened on June 7 and what lessons can be learned?
“Everybody wants peace in the neighborhood,” he said. “Public safety is critically important for me as their council representative, and I want to make sure we all are on the same page.
“This is just the beginning,” he added. “We all need to work together to come up with a solution that works for everyone.”
At the top of everyone’s mind was what’s going on with the police investigations.
Capt. Tom Underwood from the Mid City Police Division, which has jurisdiction over North Park, said the criminal investigation is closed because both victims refused to cooperate with authorities.
Michael Hastings, commanding officer for the police’s Vice Unit who formerly held Underwood’s job with Mid City, apologized to the audience because he could “feel the frustration in the room.”
Hastings said his investigation into issues related to the theater’s permits and licensing would take a few more weeks of fact-gathering.
“We’re looking back a full year at any problems that may have occurred,” he said, adding that the conclusions his report will make would have to be signed off by Police Chief Shelley Zimmerman.
The theater responds
Paris Landen and Ryan Blank, managers at Observatory North Park, addressed various issues during their PowerPoint presentation at the meeting. Landen noted that the theater was built in 1929 and redeveloped in 2005.
Landen said the theater annually hosts more than 200 events, spanning all sorts of musical genres as well as comedy, community fundraisers and drag shows. Landen said the theater employs 157 people who live in San Diego, adding that she and Blank are North Park residents.
“We’ve done over 500 events since we opened as Observatory North Park [in 2014], and unfortunately one bad thing happened,” she said.
“Unfortunately,” Landen continued, “that evening our stage was breached.” She called that “a huge problem” and said that the theater is working to fix the problem.
“The police were there within 5 minutes,” she said. “They did an excellent job of containing the situation. … We need to do a better job of directing people to the garage.”
Landen acknowledged residents’ complaints about the Observatory posted on the nextdoor.com website, which included concerns about the parking lot behind the theater, buses and generators, the parking garage, trash, noise, booking policy, safety and city permits to operate.
One of the major issues is parking. Nearby residents accuse theater patrons of parking on nearby streets, taking up spaces they use.
“Why should I have to fight for a parking spot in front of my home?” a law student said.
Landen said patrons can park for free in the North Park parking garage on 29th Street with validation, but some drivers don’t like to wait in line to exit the garage after the shows are over.
One resident argued for parking permits in the residential areas south of the theater. Councilmember Ward said affected residents would have to vote in favor of parking permits.
Some wondered why the parking lot behind the theater is not used. That lot is owned by Civic San Diego and has long been designated to become a mini-park. The city-owned nonprofit corporation doesn’t allow public parking on the property, although the theater can negotiate with the group to park tour buses for musical acts.
The tour buses were another issue. Idling buses and their power generators create noise, and nearby residents don’t like that. Landen said tour buses are now hooked into the theater’s power grid, eliminating the need for generators.
Neighbors accused patrons of trashing the neighborhood before and after concerts. The theater management said they send security out to clean up trash in the neighborhood between 10 p.m. and midnight on concert nights. Landen said they go two to three blocks south of the theater to do cleanup. Some residents scoffed at that.
But one resident pointed to an uptick in homelessness in the area, and blamed the trash problem on the homeless.
Complaints about concert noise have already been addressed, Landen said, since the theater added sound proofing to the back of the theater, which faces the residential neighborhood on the south side of North Park Way.
Landen said the theater has a “no re-entry” policy during concerts to tap down the noise and posts “Quiet Zone” signs on tickets and poster boards.
Several residents criticized the Observatory for booking acts that seem to attract “the wrong element,” mentioning rap and hip-hop. Other residents blasted those comments as being racist and fundamentally unfair to target certain genres of music. Landen said the Observatory books a diverse lineup that includes rock, hip-hop, rap and country.
“The community is diverse and we want our venue to be diverse for everyone,” she said, adding that management has also learned that what works in their Orange County venue doesn’t always work in North Park.
The melee shook up a number of residents, who worried about safety. Landen said the theater hires additional security for concerts as well as off-duty police officers. The security guards must go through certification training before being hired. She said their city permits require one guard per 50 guests, and the theater always exceeds that requirement.
She said patrons must go through pat-downs and show their identification before entry.
The Observatory’s permit allows for all-ages events and states that entertainment and alcohol service must end by midnight in the theater portion of the venue. West Coast Tavern, the restaurant and bar that is also part of the venue, is allowed to operate until 2 a.m. Landen said the theater is allowed annually to apply for up to eight extensions beyond midnight, but rarely does.
“We did one for New Year’s Eve,” she said.
The public comments
A homeowner who said he lives near Utah and Landis streets — a few blocks away from the theater — contends that theater patrons have public sex in front of his house, poop on his lawn and pee in his bushes.
A jazz musician who lives on Utah Street said the Observatory was a “gem in the neighborhood” but wondered how someone could bring a knife into the theater despite have to go through a security screening.
A couple who sold their home in North Park to move to Point Loma returned to complain to officials that North Park was going to the dogs because of an oversaturation of craft beer pubs.
Rick Goldenstein, president of the board of directors of FilmOut San Diego, lauded the Observatory for being supportive of the annual film festival.
“Staff management is very professional and responsive to our needs,” he said. “They’re not the bad guys. They bring a lot of business into the community.”
Angela Landsberg, executive director of North Park Main Street, said she represented more then 650 businesses in the neighborhood, including the Observatory.
“We have a lot of business coming to North Park because of the Observatory,” she said. “It is one of the reasons North Park is such a great place to live, work and play.” Despite the melee, she said, “the good outweighs the bad.”
One neighbor said he was walking by the theater the night of the melee. “Hats off to the police,” he said. “Their response was incredible.” He noted that the theater’s previous owners “weren’t very successful” and that he was “really happy the Observatory is here.”
Another resident had vengeance on his mind. “Can you penalize them?” he asked. “Pull their permit so they lose revenue so they actually do something? Modify their permit? Suspend, revoke or deny it? … I like Observatory as a neighbor, but appeasement is all I hear from them.”
Several North Park business owners praised the theater for bringing them business. The manager of Tamarindo Latin Kitchen & Bar, which opened a few months ago across the street from the venue, said he sees additional patrons before and after the concerts. “As far as I see, it’s working. Their patrons are polite and spending money in North Park.”
A man who lives close to the theater said “99 percent of the time we don’t have any problems” from concertgoers but notices cigarette butts and empty beer cans the morning after shows.
A woman who lives directly across the street from the theater said she “loves the Observatory” and how it has helped to revitalize North Park.
“When people leave the theater,” she said, “they are [practically] in my bedroom.” She said the “under-age nights” are the worst because “things can get a little out of control.”
Andrew Williams, who said he used to enjoy shows when the now-defunct Lyric Opera operated the theater, said he has lived in North Park “when it was urban blight.” He credited the restoration of the theater for helping to turn around the neighborhood. “Every event I’ve been to at the Observatory has been well-run,” he said.
One woman said she wished she could fact-check some of the complaints, wondering how residents knew for sure that concertgoers were causing all the problems. She said dozens of bars, pubs and restaurants stay open late, and their patrons could also be responsible for noise, trash and other nuisance complaints.
A homeowner pointed to the bottom line. “When I look at my property value going up, I love it!”
Sara is the editor of San Diego Uptown News.