A tale of two Escondido rinks: One gone forever, one soon to return?
Ice-Plex unexpectedly closed July 2 but may return; Ups-N-Downs roller rink is being demolished for a future car wash
Seventy years ago this spring, Escondido’s Ups-N-Downs roller-skating rink opened to the public on Broadway. Forty-five years later, the city added an ice-skating and fitness arena, now known as Ice-Plex, to its recreational offerings. Now both are gone, but one of them could reopen soon.
On July 2, city officials, hockey league and fitness club members were stunned by the news that Ice-Plex at 555 N. Tulip St. — temporarily closed since March due to the pandemic — would not reopen. In a letter posted on the Ice-Plex website, owners cited the pandemic, a history of operating losses and aging equipment too costly to replace.
Meanwhile about two miles away, demolition began this month on the long-shuttered Ups-N-Downs Skating Rink building at 862 N. Broadway. Although many nostalgic residents hoped the roller emporium would return, it will instead be replaced by a long-approved Wash N’ Go Express car wash.
Amber Tarrac, Escondido’s deputy director of economic development, said it’s clearly too late to turn back the clock on the roller rink, which closed more than a decade ago. But she hopes to have news soon on the possible reopening of Ice-Plex. One local ice rink manager said many companies are competing to buy the arena, which includes two ice rinks, a fitness club and a large indoor swimming pool.
“I can tell you I’m hoping there will be some exciting news on this in the next couple of weeks,” Tarrac said. “When it closed, we got a a community outpouring of support and we want someone to take it over and retool this community asset and keep it going.”
Ice-Plex to rise again?
Ice-Plex, formerly known as Ice Floe and Ice-O-Plex, was built with then-state-of-the-art technology when it opened in 1995. Owned by Southwest Generation in Colorado, the large complex is a “peaker plant,” or a small co-generation power plant. Fired by natural gas, the plant creates steam energy that is sold to San Diego Gas & Electric. Its byproduct energy was used to chill the rinks, air-condition the building and warm the pool.
In the closure announcement, Ice-Plex officials said they had worked for months to find an affordable new cooling system and they reached out to other local rink operators, investors and hockey organizations to offer a no-cost, five-year lease if the lessee could make the needed equipment improvements. Those efforts were unsuccessful.
“In recent years, Ice-Plex has operated at a substantial loss,” the letter read. “The facility’s refrigeration and HVAC systems, which are used to cool ice and provide safe air flow throughout the building, are beyond their lifespan and in dire need of replacement. These are complex and energy-intensive systems, and the cost of design and install is prohibitively high. When compounded with the financial impacts of forced closure due to COVID-19, we cannot make these investments.”
Ice-Plex officials said they offered full refunds to the figure skating and hockey programs that operated at the arena before the pandemic-related closure and they are hopeful a new solution will emerge for these organizations soon. The resident hockey program at Ice-Plex is the San Diego Jr. Gulls program, which has served youth players for more than 40 years. An email to the hockey league’s director, Craig Carlyle, was not returned, but on the league’s Facebook page July 15, it was announced that tryouts for the ’20-'21 season have been moved from August to October.
The closure of Ice-Plex leaves just six other ice rinks in the county, including The Rinks in Poway, Icetown Carlsbad, San Diego Ice Arena in Mira Mesa, the ICE rink at Westfield UTC, the Kroc Center Ice rink in Rolando and the Rady Children’s Ice Rink at Liberty Station.
Tarrac said she hopes a solution can be found soon because the city’s young people need a variety of recreational offerings, particularly during the pandemic when families have spent more than four months cooped up at home.
“It’s a great facility to keep kids engaged in a team sport and get some exercise and it’s the only one of its kind in the area,” she said.
Ups-N-Downs comes down
For three years, entrepreneur Neil Capin has been working to bring a Wash N’ Go Express car wash to the former Ups-N-Downs lot. Now, once the 0.7-acre lot is cleared, he hopes to begin construction in August with the goal of opening the business in February or March 2021.
For Capin, it has been a long and frustrating wait. In 2017, he began the permitting process for the project and it was in the final approval stages in May 2018 when the City Council voted for a moratorium on any new car washes until the council could draft new special-use permit requirements for car washes. At the time, the city had 29 operating car washes. But in a subsequent vote that rankled some council members, Capin was allowed to proceed without a special-use permit because his application long pre-dated the moratorium.
Capin, who has been in the car wash business for 20 years and operates five other Wash N’ Go centers in San Diego County, said it’s a tough business. It’s hard to obtain and keep the property entitlements for car washes, even though the businesses are popular with the driving public. In 2019, he lost an appeal with the Chula Vista City Council for a car wash project he spent three years working on.
“It’s a very difficult thing to get entitled, it’s a clean use that everyone needs at one point or another, especially if you can design it where it’s appealing and doesn’t interfere with traffic flow,” he said.
Capin said the Escondido Wash N’ Go Express will be one of his best projects because the 326-foot-long lot will have plenty of room for cars to line up to enter the 135-foot conveyor-driven washing tunnel.
“We have the most stacking (queuing area) I’ve ever designed. In-N-Out Burger has lines down the street, but there will never be a car on the stretch of Broadway for our business,” he said.
The Wash N’ Go will offer free vacuums for customers, with automated washes starting at $5 and monthly memberships starting at $14.99.
While the Escondido car wash will look the same as all of Capin’s other Wash N’ Gos, he’s adding a special memory wall inside the tunnel for fans of the former roller rink. The “Ups-N-Downs Skating Rink” monument sign pole installed in 1977 will be taken down but Capin will save the facings on the sign’s once-illuminated word and letter cubes to mount inside the car wash.
According to historical records and newspaper articles, Ups-N-Downs started out in 1950 as an open-air skating rink surrounded by a chain-link fence on the same Broadway lot. Three years later, co-owner Chester E. Loveberg bought out his partner Desmond J. Drexel and he later added a snack bar with a wood patio on the property. In 1959, Loveberg enclosed the rink in a prefabricated quonset hut-style building with concrete block walls and a truss-less arched metal roof.
Over the next 17 years, Loveberg continued to improve the property with a paved parking lot, a brick lobby and snack bar at the front of the building and two different monument signs. Around 1977, the Lovebergs retired to Oregon and left the management of the business in the hands of skating instructor-turned-manager William Tobin. Tobin and his son, Jim, ran the business with about 13 employees until he retired in 1994.
After Loveberg’s death in 1993, his widow Jeannette kept the property in a trust until she sold it in 2005 to its current owner, the Shah Revocable Family Trust. Tobin, then 80, came out of retirement to buy the skating operation, which he renamed the Roll-Arena, but he died a a year later, in 2006. After his death, the Shah trust sold the business to Myrna and Alberto Ramirez, who struggled to keep it afloat. Declining attendance and rising costs led the Ramirezes to permanently close the rink sometime between 2008 and 2010.
It was one of several San Diego County roller rinks that shut down between 2000 and 2010, including the Aquarius Roll-A-Rena in La Mesa, Palisade Gardens in North Park, and RollerSkateLand locations in Santee and Chula Vista.
When Capin applied to build a car wash on the property in 2017, he hired Brian F. Smith and Associates in Poway to prepare a historic structure assessment study for the city. In the 87-page report, Smith determined that only the hut structure and rink met the minimum age threshold of 50 years to be considered historically significant. The city council later approved the demolition.
The demolition aroused a wave of hundreds of nostalgic comments on the Escondido Friends group page on Facebook this month. Many residents wrote about their happy memories of skating at Ups-N-Downs in the 1960s, ‘70s and ‘80s. Ed Johnson remembered a 40-mile skate-athon at the rink during the Kennedy administration. Dawn Smith met the man she would later marry there. Theresa Rigdon Conboy recalls working in the rink’s snack bar, which was known for selling long ropes of red licorice. And Erin Rachel DeWolfe had a hard time choosing a favorite memory.
“Awwwww, I remember going as a family and having fun roller skating and enjoying the music and snacks and watch everyone having fun,” DeWolfe wrote. “I fell on my butt a couple of times but who hasn’t..!!?? Good memories...!!”
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