An Asian-themed district reminiscent of a big city’s Chinatown could be incorporated in select areas of San Diego’s Gaslamp Quarter and Marina District if the Centre City Development Corp.’s $2.6 million construction proposal is approved.
The CCDC, the downtown redevelopment arm of the city, is presenting its proposal to the city of San Diego this holiday season.
The area’s business improvement district, Gaslamp Quarter Association, however, vows to oppose the project as outlined in the Asian Pacific Thematic Historic District master plan, saying it would contradict established boundaries in downtown’s entertaining and dining district, the Gaslamp Quarter.
For now, the project remains on track.
“We are currently putting together the final construction documents for the Asian district,” said the project’s leading design consultant, Tim Gabrielson, a civil engineer and associate at Rick Engineering Co. in Mission Valley.
If all goes as planned, said William Yee, associate project manager for the CCDC, bidding will start next spring and construction will follow in June 2010.
“Our focus is on Third Avenue between Market Street and J Street, and Island between Second Avenue and Fourth Avenue,” said Yee, explaining the area is located outside of the overlaying historic Gaslamp Quarter on Island Avenue between Fourth Avenue and Sixth Avenue.
The plan calls for replacing existing trees with Chinese flame trees and the iconic Gaslamp lighting with Asian-style streetlights. The plan also includes banners, public art, signage and Asian brick paving and tiles on the sidewalks.
In addition, the CCDC set aside $300,000 from the public art budget to hire an artist to create an Asian gateway on Third Avenue and Market Street.
“It would be something that we see in Chinatown in San Francisco or Los Angeles,” Yee said. “The gateway would represent all four ethnicities” — that is, Chinese, Pacific Islander, Filipino and Japanese, identified by the CCDC to represent the Asian historic district.
Two Chinese guardian lions, donated by the executive director of the downtown Chinese Historical Museum, Alexander Chuang and his wife, will demarcate the other grand entry to the proposed district at Third Avenue and J Street, Yee added.
Jimmy Parker, executive director for the Gaslamp Quarter Association, calls the Asian theme outdated and says the plan disregards the hard work and monies spent in urban development that created the Gaslamp Quarter.
“Decisions that were made 20 years ago aren’t relevant when you get into implementing them down the road,” Parker said. “If you look at the Gaslamp District in the early 1990s and now, it’s not the same and we want things to be in context (of today), not from 20 years ago.”
The Asian district was formally created on April 29, 1987, when the city of San Diego designated 22 structures as historic sites and approved the creation of the Chinese/Asian Thematic Historic District, now known as the Asian Pacific Thematic Historic District.
It wasn’t until 1995 that the redevelopment agency approved the master plan.
Yee attributed the delay to the plan being “a very complicated process.”
He said it took years to identify the four stakeholders that now define the four ethnic groups that serve as the district’s advisory committee, then develop the plan and have it reviewed by the public and communities.
“The project has been on the back burner, but the community is really behind it now,” Yee said.
Some business owners and developers located between Fourth and Sixth avenues in the Gaslamp Quarter have already had to comply with improvements adopted in the plan.
Among them is the Stingaree restaurant and nightclub located at 454 Sixth Ave.
James Brennan, who owns the Stingaree, gave estimated costs of $150,000 to replace the Gaslamp fixtures with Asian-style lights and make other improvements when establishing his business back in 2005.
Brennan said he remains indifferent to the Asian-style outdoor ambience.
“I don’t think it has made any impact on my clients and I don’t really think they notice the sidewalk or lighting,” Brennan said.
Parker contends that the Asian themes are confusing and distracting to visitors in the Gaslamp.
“From Harbor to Broadway you see the iconic Gaslamp fixtures, and all of a sudden you have in the middle of the district the green single Asian lights,” Parker said.
Both men, however, agreed that the dimmer Asian-style lights pose safety issues.
“We are big on safety, and as a nightclub, lighting is a critical part of safety for our patrons,” Brennan said.
Yee, who is aware of some of the concerns expressed by the Gaslamp Quarter Association, said the project needs to be approved by the CCDC board of directors and the city of San Diego. He said the Gaslamp Quarter Association merely has an advisory role.
Parker said his association has a good track record working with the CCDC. But he also stressed that he will bring the business group’s concerns to the City Council and mayor if the project moves forward as planned.
“We’re not litigious, but we are pro-business,” Parker said.
For now, Yee’s and Parker’s vision remains an East-West dichotomy.
For Yee, creating an “Asian Gateway” on Fourth Avenue and Island Avenue is pivotal to putting San Diego’s downtown on the map as recognizing its Asian heritage. The Chinese first immigrated to San Diego in the mid-19th century creating a Chinatown in downtown.
For Parker, the existing Gaslamp represents one of San Diego’s biggest attractions for tourism and entertainment. He wants to celebrate the multicultural neighborhoods with the creation of a “Friendship Gate” instead.
Marion Webb is a freelance writer for the Business Journal.