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Convoy District Looks To San Diego’s Little Italy For Inspiration

Photo by Matthew Bowler

Sculptured lions guard the front of Jasmine Seafood Restaurant on Convoy Street. Aug. 25, 2016.

Convoy District Looks To San Diego's Little Italy For Inspiration

GUEST:

Ping Wang, co-founder, Convoy District Partnership

Transcript

The Convoy Street corridor is in the middle of a flat traffic-clogged section of San Diego that’s a jumble of light industrial buildings, car dealerships, strip malls and big-box stores. But drive north of Balboa Avenue and you see the signs: Dede’s Chinese Cuisine, Korean B.B.Q. and Convoy Noodle House.

“You’re looking at the main thoroughfare of Convoy Street,” said Ping Wang as he stands on a narrow sidewalk while cars rush by.

“You’ve got a lot of great establishments here already. You’ve got Jasmine here for dim sum. You’ve got dessert places like Icekimo. You’ve got Revolving Sushi, which is a hot item… so that’s a great starting basis.”

Wang is a co-founder of the Convoy District Partnership. The group wants to spruce the place up, with banners and trees. They want to make it a place to live. In short, they want it to be a true “Asiatown,” a vibrant urban neighborhood for businesses, residents and tourists.

“If you can just imagine into the future, if you could hop from one shop to another by walking without always having to drive,” Wang said. “A little nicer sidewalks. A little more green. Perhaps some shades and trees. Having some banners to sort-of demarcate and tell you where you are.”

Add to that some crosswalks, bike paths, a narrowed street (Convoy is six lanes wide) and maybe some mixed-use housing developments and the Convoy District could turn from being a place of roads and cars to a walkable place where people want to stick around for a while. In San Diego, it’s been done before.

Photo by Matthew Bowler

Ping Wang, one of the founders of the Convoy District Partnership, points out some of the best known restaurants on Convoy Street. Aug. 25, 2016.

Little Italy provides a model

The place that comes up again and again — as you ask members of the Convoy partnership for their redevelopment model — is Little Italy, just north of downtown San Diego and just up the hill from the bay. Like the cluster of Asian businesses of Convoy Street, Little Italy grew organically as Sicilian immigrants found a convenient place to live that was close to their marina of tuna boats.

But after Interstate 5 construction plowed through the area, the old families moved out. By the 1990s the neighborhood’s main street, India Street, became “basically an on-ramp to Interstate 5,” Marco Li Mandri said.

Li Mandri is president of New City America, which manages the affairs of Little Italy. He’s been a leader of the area’s redevelopment since it began, in the late '90s. He spoke to me at a café table on the sidewalk of India Street as food delivery trucks idled in front of nearby restaurants. He said the improvement of Little Italy began in very simple ways.

“You know, our first goal was just to get trash cans. In the 48 square blocks of Little Italy we had one trash can. So we had no trash cans. We had no trees,” he said, adding that the neighborhood had become home to a lot of parking lots for downtown office buildings.

But even though they had moved out, many of the old Italian families had kept their property in Little Italy. As redevelopment got underway downtown, Little Italy created assessment districts to raise money and channel redevelopment dollars. On India Street, they calmed traffic by narrowing it from three lanes to two. Parallel parking changed to angle parking. They got trash cans. They got lots of investment in their restaurant trade, much of it from residents of old Italy, and they got housing. Lots of multi-story housing.

“As land went from being parking lots to vertical, it added a tremendous amount of money to our assessment district,” Li Mandri said.

Photo by Matthew Bowler

Men gather on the sidewalk of India Street in Little Italy to play a game of cards. Aug. 24, 2016.

A new Convoy District?

The vision for improving the Convoy District comes as Kearny Mesa, its surrounding neighborhood, is beginning a Community Plan Update, something that hasn’t been done since 1992. Convoy advocates like Ping Wang see the process as a springboard to reinventing the area.

But that reinvention has been talked about for a long time. Li Mandri, whose New City America has engineered redevelopment in cities across the country, recalls talking with Convoy boosters six years ago about remaking the place.

Photo by Matthew Bowler

A car waits at an intersection on Convoy St. in Kearny Mesa, Aug. 25, 2016.

Of all the potential uses in Convoy, creating housing is the biggest question mark. Ping Wang talks about the subject cautiously. So does San Diego City Councilman Chris Cate, who represents District 6.

“We understand we are growing as a city. We are going to demand housing as a need. It’s a critical need in the city. But how do you balance that with other types of businesses that are close by?” Cate said.

To build housing you’d need a zoning variance for one thing. Convoy District is now zoned for only commercial and industrial uses.

Sue Peerson is a member of the San Diego Planning Commission who taught a planning class at UC San Diego that focused on redeveloping Kearny Mesa. She questions the very possibility of developing housing in Convoy due to the proximity of the Montgomery Field airport, with its crash zones and flight patterns. It’s a concern Li Mandri dismisses, pointing out that Little Italy virtually lies beneath the landing traffic of Lindbergh Field.

Still, when you look at the Convoy District it takes a limber imagination to see it as something similar to Little Italy, with its cozy streets, active foot traffic and views of San Diego Bay. Convoy, by comparison, is flat, full of cars and downright scary for anyone on a bike or on foot. Among other things Convoy has a serious parking problem to solve; something that restaurant patrons are eager to complain about.

Li Mandri is optimistic for the area, saying Convoy has the “content” — a critical mass of Asian restaurants and businesses — it just needs the “form,” a better way to manage car traffic and create a livable, walkable place.

His optimism is shared by Allen Chan, the owner of Jasmine Seafood Restaurant who goes by the moniker “Dr. Chan.” (He’s trained as a chiropractor.) Dr. Chan grew up in Shanghai, went to college in the San Francisco Bay Area, working his way through college in the restaurants of Chinatown.

Photo by Matthew Bowler

Allen Chan is the owner of Jasmine Seafood Restaurant located on Convoy Street. Aug. 25, 2016.

What does he want for San Diego?

“My goal is to have an ‘Asiatown,’” he says as his restaurant bustles with a lunch crowd, “where people can live, work and shop and do everything there.”

One customer of Dr. Chan, who was waiting in the lobby of the restaurant, was Phil Lam. An Asian-American himself, he remembers back to the days when he first patronized Jasmine Seafood in the Convoy District in the 1980s.

“When I first came here it was strictly all Asians,” Lam said. “Probably about 10 years ago or so I’d see American people here with — I called them “Asian guides” — Asians who were showing their non-Asian friends around. But in the last five years or so I’ve just been seeing American people coming here on their own. So it’s kind of funny how this place as grown.”

We’ll see if Convoy can grow even more.

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