San Diego – Another seemingly fatal blow was delivered last week as the Centre City Development Corporation (CCDC) board voted 4-2 against developing a 232 unit residential rental property in downtown San Diego’s Little Italy district.
At issue is not the design or merit of the 4,485 proposed mixed use project, but rather the perceived threat to its neighbor toward the waterfront: Solar Turbines.
Originally developed as a restaurant and Top’s nightclub in 1941 by the late Tom Fat, the property remains in the Fat family who wishes to repurpose the site. Situated on the block bounded by Pacific Highway, Ivy, California and Hawthorn streets, project architect Jonathan Segal along with developer GLJ Partners proposed the complex that gained design approval with relative ease, inching the process forward..
Local historic preservation activist group Save Our Heritage Organization (SOHO,) who felt the site’s heritage warranted historic designation, were ultimately denied. However, the developer did go back to the drawing board and incorporated changes to the architectural design of the complex making clear reference to the structure’s origins. Featuring a nostalgic nod to Top’s, the monument gateway to the property at the corner of Pacific Highway and Hawthorne now prominently showcases the iconic tower and art deco style familiar to the original building. SOHO maintains strong support for the project.
Enter opposition from Solar and the predicament therein. A tenant of the Port of San Diego, Solar occupies significant square footage along Harbor Drive and has been a fixture on the landscape since before World War II. Between their downtown and Kearny Mesa facilities they employ some 3,800 individuals with an estimated payroll of $280 million in 2011. Solar is no small player to be sure.
They contend that their turbine engine manufacturing operation is in no way compatible with residential life. While they take strides to minimize environmental impact, they argue that complaints from neighbors triggering increased regulatory burden could be more than Solar is able to bear. Humans are classified as “sensitive receptors,” and living shoulder to shoulder with a heavy industrial, 24/7 operation could create possible nuisance issues on multiple levels. Insurmountable conflicts between the two, they feel, could portend a death knell to their operations in San Diego—taking valuable high paying jobs with them.
Proponents of the project paint a differing picture. The developers proclaim their project falls well within the scope of the existing community plan and will enhance a now blighted area. They point out that Solar is currently creating no environmental or health risks of record to the community. In fact, Solar reports their uses of toxic chemicals such as cadmium and nickel are being reduced. As well, tenants of the Fat City Lofts will be allowed to terminate their leases should they find living within proximity to Solar problematic.
The journey to a final decision has seen hours of public commentary from both sides of the issue, as well as the resignation of Director Laurie Black of the CCDC board. Her vote represented one of the two in favor of the project. When newly minted CCDC board chair Kim Kilkenny makes his decision, the buck will then stop with the San Diego Planning Commission. The city council appointed commission recommends on land use decisions and has final say on such subdivisions. While the commission can overturn CCDC recommendations, there is no appeal process to the city council.
At present, the fate of the project now rests with a short chain of decision makers—one that pits the rights of property owners against those of a lessee. A visit to the website savefatcitysd.com warns of a disturbing potential precedent effectively suggesting big business rules the day. While Fat City Lofts clearly complies with the downtown community plan, troubling gray area exists in the city’s obligation to preserve employment lands via the general plan. Is the perceived risk to the local economy worth taking? The degree to which this concept factors into the conversation presents an interesting dilemma to be sure.
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Photo courtesy CCDC staff report: