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Planned Development In Little Italy Stirring Up Controversy

Aired 12/12/11 on KPBS News.

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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Avatar for user 'Peking_Duck_SD'

Peking_Duck_SD | December 10, 2011 at 11 a.m. ― 5 years, 3 months ago

I find it unsettling that Solar Turbines seems worried about their future polluting - they are in a highly urban area already, regardless of whether this project moves forward or not.

Maybe that's not the best place for a factory that could cause environmental concerns.

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Avatar for user 'CLMT'

CLMT | December 10, 2011 at 5:48 p.m. ― 5 years, 3 months ago

I think its wrong to put residential units across the street from Solar Turbine
its heavy industry and not a good place for people to live next to.
Solar Turbine is a true job creator in San Diego and has been for a
long time. If it forced to leave the Down Town location it will probably
pack up an move out of state. That would not be in the best interest
for San Diego or all the employees that work here. I find it ironic one
of the best employers in San Diego is having to even deal with this.

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Avatar for user 'Peking_Duck_SD'

Peking_Duck_SD | December 10, 2011 at 6:30 p.m. ― 5 years, 3 months ago

CLMT, the area is zoned for mixed-residential use. This area on a busy corridor in between downtown and the airport, to suggest everything around that high density area should have to conform to the desires of one company is absurd. Yes it's a good company and nobody wants them to move, but one company should not dictate the entire development of this important area.

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Avatar for user 'dmitryb'

dmitryb | December 12, 2011 at 5:02 p.m. ― 5 years, 3 months ago

They are not dictating, they are fighting for their business. There is no reason Solar Turbine should just accept what's happening without putting up a fight. The same goes for the developer. And ultimately, it's up to the people to make the choice.

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Avatar for user 'Peking_Duck_SD'

Peking_Duck_SD | December 12, 2011 at 5:39 p.m. ― 5 years, 3 months ago

dmitryb, how is the "up to the people" to decide?

It's up to city planners to decide, and possible the courts if this company decides to take it there. Where does it say this is going to a vote? We live in a representational government where we elect people who will work with experts in urban development and environmental planning to determine what's best for the *entire area* not what's best for *one company*.

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Avatar for user 'CaliforniaDefender'

CaliforniaDefender | December 13, 2011 at 1:43 p.m. ― 5 years, 3 months ago

Solar Turbines is in opposition to the development because it would encourage more environmental awareness of their operations? Good! Next issue.

However they should change the name. "Fat City" gives off a negative impression and it does not reflect San Diego appropriately. Even the owners of the old steakhouse Fat City consider the site non-historical. Change the name and proceed.

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Avatar for user 'Pearson'

Pearson | January 9, 2012 at 8:58 p.m. ― 5 years, 2 months ago

People build next to a dairy then complain about the noise and flies- the dairy goes away. People build next to a factory then complain about the noise and the factory goes away. Solar has been here for 80 years. Solar already has plants in Texas, don't force them to move the rest.
San Diego can afford to lose a few more high priced rental units; San Diego can't afford to lose so many well paying jobs.
The EPA is well aware of Solar Turbines operations and Solar is well within standards or they would be shut down. Who would want to live next to a manufacturing plant running 24 hours a day, anyway? There are plenty of other, better situated areas for such development without having to sit on top a manufacturing plant with three shifts of employees coming and going all day long. Show some sense.

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