San Diego Business Journal

Downtown's Little Italy Strives for La Dolce Vita

Development: Community Identity Critical to Rebirth

Staff Writer

There's an Italian renaissance going on in Downtown San Diego and it has nothing to do with Michelangelo.

The Little Italy Association, a group of home and business owners that oversees the business improvement district, makes sure redevelopment fits into the community's mosaic.

The neighborhood is bounded by Interstate 5 and Front Street on the east, Pacific Highway on the west, Laurel Street on the north and West A Street on the south.

Marco Li Mandri, president of the Little Italy Association, said the association has been very supportive of mixed-use development occurring on India Street, even if it hasn't approved of all of the design elements. The association has its own design review committee.

Tony Cutri, principal at San Diego-based architectural firm Martinez + Cutri Corp., said two or three local architects are on the committee and they give new projects a lot of scrutiny. "We've gotten great constructive criticism from them," Cutri said.

His firm designed Village Walk, a 72-unit condo project for The Olson Co. of Seal Beach; Doma, a 124-unit condo project under construction for San Diego-based CityMark Development; and Columbia Street Lofts, a six-unit project for local investor Gene Magre.

Sandcor Harborside LLC, a partnership of Intracorp San Diego and Vancouver, Canada-based general contractor Ledcor Construction, is developing Porta d'Italia.

Construction of the 184 apartments began on Grape Street between India and Columbia streets this summer and is expected to last until the fall of 2003.

Traditional Neighborhood

Keith Fernandez, president of Intracorp, said the development company likes Little Italy because it is a traditional neighborhood.

"Also, it slopes upward so you can get some sweeping views of the bay," Fernandez said.

Intracorp is less than a month away from completing its first Little Italy endeavor, Porto Siena, an 88-unit condo project on the northeast corner of India and Cedar streets.

Las Vegas developer Leo Frey, who owns a home in Coronado, is developing Allegro on the east side of Kettner Boulevard between Ash and Beech streets.

"I felt like I lucked out in getting (the site). There's not a lot of sites left Downtown," Frey said.

Frey's 206-apartment project, designed by San Diego-based Austin Veum Robbins Parshalle, has three towers that are five, 10 and 24 stories tall. He expects construction to begin by the end of the year and last about 16 months.

Vancouver, Canada-based Intergulf Developments will begin construction in September on La Vita, a 303-unit condo project on the block bounded by Beech, State, Cedar and Union streets.

Craig Marcyniuk, marketing manager for Intergulf, said Little Italy is a unique neighborhood with longstanding traditions. "It's something other neighborhoods will have to develop over time," he noted.

Intergulf is unofficially taking reservations for La Vita. Without an advertising campaign other than a sign near the site and a Web site, buyers have reserved 97 percent of the units.

"The transition of parking lots into high density housing is very positive," Li Mandri said. "Our concern is that families are not moving into Downtown San Diego and we have considered Little Italy a family community."

He added, "The housing element is woefully inadequate for working class or even middle-income families."

Li Mandri said San Diego-based Barone Galasso & Associates' project, Villa Maria, brought new affordable family housing to Little Italy at 1500 India Street. The 37-unit apartment project was priced for low- and middle-income families.

More Of A Village

If any community can support families it's Little Italy, according to Li Mandri. The neighborhood has Our Lady of the Rosary Catholic church, which has been in Little Italy since 1925. It is the only Downtown neighborhood with an elementary school. It has a private school, Harborside, and a public school, Washington.

Cutri said Little Italy has 1,200 units coming on line in the next year to 24 months, which will benefit area businesses.

The neighborhood isn't an entertainment district and doesn't want the bar scene that the Gaslamp has, Li Mandri said. Unlike the Gaslamp Quarter, all of the restaurants are family-owned.

Little Italy is trying to create more public spaces. Pop-outs have been built along sidewalks to create spaces where people can congregate. A new public plaza, Piazza Basilone, is being planned for the southeast corner of Fir and India streets.

The second phase of public improvements on India Street , new landscaping and lights, among other things , are under way.

Brad Richter, principal planner at the Centre City Development Corp., the redevelopment agency for Downtown, said redevelopment is particularly important on India in order to maintain the restaurants and retail along the busy street.

Embarcadero Next

San Diego County is soliciting proposals from developers for a parking garage at Kettner Boulevard and Cedar Street near the County Administration Center building. It will lose parking when the North Embarcadero park is built.

"We believe that the North Embarcadero will rival Balboa Park in terms of use by residents of the county. It's the front door to Little Italy and the front door to Downtown," Li Mandri said. In Little Italy, the waterfront park is expected to be done sometime in the next five to 10 years.

The city, CCDC, county, U.S. Navy and San Diego Unified Port District are collaborating on the North Embarcadero Visionary Plan, which creates the waterfront park stretching from Laurel Street to G Street. The project is still in the planning process.

Alexandra Elias, an associate planner at the CCDC, said, "San Diego will always have visitors, but they're designing this for people who work Downtown and live Downtown."