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Planned Development In Little Italy Stirring Up Controversy

Development in downtown San Diego is a common sight, but the "Fat City Lofts" project on the northern edge of Little Italy is attracting criticism.

Katie Orr reports on the Fat City Projects on the show on Monday, Dec. 12, 2011.

Evening Edition airs weekdays at 5 PM and 6:30 PM on KPBS TV.

Development in downtown San Diego is a common sight, but one project on the northern edge of Little Italy is stirring up some controversy.

The neighborhood of Little Italy may not be a quiet place to live - between the planes, trains and traffic - but lofts in the area have been a hot commodity in recent years.

A new project is being proposed for the site where The Fat City restaurant used to be. The pink 1940’s art deco building still sits at the busy intersection of Hawthorne Street and Pacific Highway, with traffic streaming by, heading to and from the nearby airport. Today, a Denny’s restaurant occupies the space, but the neon Fat City sign still clings to the building.

The sign would also be incorporated into the planned 232-apartment project, called Fat City Lofts, that architect Jonathan Segal and developer Garth Erdossy would like to build.

Segal says it would welcome visitors to the neighborhood.

"This is kind of a dead zone right now," said Segal. "And it’s really important that this blighted area, which is the gateway into downtown San Diego from the airport, which I don’t know how many millions of people come through, is a symbol of the prosperity and the good nature and the good news that downtown redevelopment’s bringing."

But not everyone believes the project will serve as a welcome mat.

Across the street from Fat City sits Solar Turbines, which has been in the neighborhood for more than 80 years, manufacturing gas turbine parts. Solar Turbines President Jim Umpleby says putting a residential building so close to the factory could trigger increased environmental reviews that may slow down or delay permits the company needs.

"The issue with Fat City is proximity to our operation," said Umpleby. "The Fat City project is only 100 feet from our fence line."

He says the project could impact Solar Turbines’ business, which could end up affecting the 1,800 people who work at the plant. The developer on the Fat City project, Garth Erdossy, says the lofts will only be rented, so Solar wouldn't have to deal with a homeowners' association. He added that residents will know what they’re getting into when they sign a lease.

"We would ask our renters, in their initial lease paperwork, to sign an acknowledgement and a waiver," said Erdossy.

Robert Kard, the county's Air Pollution Control Officer, says it’s not that simple.

Kard says Solar Turbines legally emits certain pollutants that may not bother someone passing through, but the emissions could be irritating to someone who is constantly exposed to them. Risk increases the closer you get to a source of air pollution. Kard says residents could always call in an anonymous complaint, and his office would be obligated to follow up on any such complaints.

But the developers say Solar Turbines is overreacting: They don’t believe the location is harmful, and they point out the site was zoned as mixed-use residential by the city.

Erdossy says there’s a huge demand for the lofts.

"Right now residential is the highest and best use for this site and probably most sites in the downtown area like this," said Erdossy. "It’s got great access for public transit; you can walk to dinner over in Little Italy. If you worked at Solar Turbines you’d have a really short commute, for example."

Solar’s Umpleby counters that the property’s zoning isn’t the only thing the city should consider.

"The latest document that was developed was the city’s general plan. And that plan does clearly call for a buffer between industrial lands and residential housing," he said. Umpleby says there’s nothing the developers could do that would make Solar Turbines agree with the decision to build apartments at Fat City.

The developers say they believe they have the right to build their project, and don’t plan on backing down. The Center City Development Corporation will have the final say on Fat City Lofts sometime in January. The developers say they’ll go to court if their project gets denied.

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