GLJ Partners and Jonathan Segal Architecture want to develop 232 loft apartment units at Pacific Highway and Hawthorn on the edge of Little Italy. The site has fallen into disrepair, the Fat City and China Camp restaurants now just memories. The new use, Fat City Lofts, will benefit the heirs of restaurateur Tom Fat and the community much more than a semi-vacant lot.
The land has been zoned for residential for 20 years. No variances are needed for the project. Environmental requirements have been met. The next-door neighbor and a host of building organizations support the project. So do historical preservationists – the art deco facade of the Top’s Night Club of the 1940s will be preserved.
But this is California, where anyone can object to even a birdhouse being put up.
The owners of the property have been the victims of a whisper campaign lobbying public officials. Solar Turbines, which leases – not owns – a 27-acre plant site across Pacific Highway, would rather not see mid-rise apartments on someone else’s property in the area.
Recently, the whisper campaign bubbled to the surface with an editorial in a weekly business publication. The title of the editorial, “Company’s Place in Community Worth Preserving,” is something all can agree upon.
But the editorial tried to frame the issue as Solar versus apartments. If apartments were built, the company would abandon a favorable lease running to 2043 and leave the state. It would take its 1,800 bayfront jobs with it, and maybe close its Kearny Mesa operations.
Let’s cut through the hyperbole. There is no need to choose up sides here.
Above all, the developers of Fat City Lofts want to be a good neighbor. They have agreed that all Solar operations shall continue. The developers will also put in writing that they will not challenge any permit renewals from the 48 regulators Solar must deal with. Apartment renters will be required to sign the same agreement. Studies the developers commissioned show that Solar operations will have no air-quality effect on the apartment dwellers and that the presence of apartments will have no effect on any Solar permit.
In more hyperbole, the editorial opined: “we have enough housing for the next 10 years, particularly downtown.” Try telling that to someone looking for a rental in a county with a 3.4 percent vacancy rate. San Diego has “one of the nation’s tightest vacancy rates,” says Marcus and Millichap.
Solar Turbines has powerful incentives to stay, not leave. It has the support of the community and a 27-acre bayfront lease from the San Diego Unified Port District for $1.7 million a year. An entire city block for employee parking costs just $165,000 a year.
Actually, this may not be an industrial-giant-versus-residential-neighbors dispute at all. In 1988, Solar Turbines proposed to transfer its bayfront operations to Kearny Mesa and develop the site for commercial uses. The plan was crafted with no public input and city officials were not even briefed, although substantial public costs such as road relocations would have been involved. The port district said no.
Solar’s plant sits on precious waterfront land, not industrial. It is zoned for maritime and visitor uses. Inevitably, questions will arise about the land’s best role – perhaps decades from now. Currently, the port and a citizen advisory panel are analyzing turning the company’s $165,000-a-year parking lot between Grape and Hawthorn streets into mixed-use buildings with subterranean parking.
Meantime, if Solar can use its economic clout to block a landowner from building in accordance with all zoning and applicable regulations, a horrible precedent will be set. No project will be safe from being victimized by someone’s whim. The flow of capital into our city will slow to a trickle.
Solar Turbines is a San Diego success story, a far cry from its great-grandparent, Prudden-San Diego Airplane Co., which built just three airplanes before the Great Depression hit.
Little Italy is a San Diego success story, now a live/work/shop district convenient to the city’s heart and all that it offers. Fat City Lofts and other planned developments in Little Italy will help the city escape the Great Recession.
Solar Turbines and Fat City Lofts can co-exist – and thrive.
*First published in the San Diego Union Tribune on Oct. 30, 2011
Photo from Centre City Development Corporation
Downes is principal of Graham Downes Architecture, known for providing innovative solutions for urban lifestyle projects, including boutique hotels, restaurants, multiunit housing and urban infill projects. The corporation has offices in San Diego, Phoenix and Las Vegas.