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

Sculptured lions guard the front of Jasmine Seafood Restaurant on Convoy Street. Aug. 25, 2016.
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
Convoy District Looks To San Diego's Little Italy For Inspiration
Convoy District Looks To San Diego's Little Italy For Inspiration GUEST:Ping Wang, co-founder, Convoy District Partnership

Turning an old at the neighborhood into a destination for others and a nice place to live in hangout has been done in San Diego. Little Italy is proof of that now there is another part that aspires to do something very much a same. Tom fudge has the story of the convoy district. The convoy street corridor in Kearny Mesa is a flat traffic filled section of San Diego that is industrial buildings and car dealerships and big-box stores. There is also a critical mass of Asian business mostly restaurants that make it the closest thing San Diego has to a true Asiatown. Ping Wang is a founder of the convoy district. You've got dessert places like -- Icekimo. You have revolving sushi so that is a great starting basis. He said convoy can do better. If you can imagine and just hop from one shot -- shop to another without having to drive and with nicer sidewalks and a little bit more green and some trees the central island beautifying that and having banners to sort of tell you where you wore. He says add to that some crosswalks and bike paths and maybe some housing developments on convoy can turn into a walkable place where people want to stick around for a while. A place that's on the map for locals and for tourist. The place that comes up again and again is Little Italy North of downtown San Diego. By the 1990s Little Italy, had become little more than a field a parking lots for downtown office buildings. No stop sign so people would use an on-ramp to Interstate 5. He has managed abysses affairs of Little Italy for quite a while. Today after years of planning Little Italy is restaurants, new housing, cozy streets and plenty of tourist. The transformation of the district involved a complex web of assessment districts and plenty of of available land. He says it started with the most modest of goals. Our first goal was to get trash cans. We had won trashcan for 48 blocks. We had no mechanism for sweeping sidewalks of picking up trash. In the convoy district it is similar start with the small stuff but there are plenty of challenges on the horizon. Of all uses it is creating housing that was the biggest question Mark. The district is zoned commercial industrial. That means creating mixed use of elements would require zoning variances. Chris Cate is the city Council. We understand that we are growing as the city and that we will have more demand for housing. So how do you balance that with other types of businesses that are close by? You said whatever path it takes he agrees the convoy district is often a great start. I think the advantage of convoy is the content. They have become the center of Asian capital and Asian food in the County of San Diego. Back at the Jasmine Seafood Restaurant a customer is waiting for a table. Abuses is RE same convoy district change when he first came here the restaurant patrons were strictly Asian people. Soon he noticed Asian people started bring in their non-Asian friends. The last five years or so I've been seeing people coming here on their own so it's funny how it has grown. We will see of convoy can grow more. Joining me now is Ping Wang . Welcome to the program. Thank you for having me. Last time we talked it was a couple of years ago and we were starting a special night market event in the convoy district to bring people and interest to the area. I'm wondering the that boost a profile? Absolutely. In fact, we were expecting somewhere about a couple of thousand and in the end almost 20,000 or more -- we actually lost count. That brought attention to convoy district, which helped our efforts but also to the greater community in general. Tom explain how little Italy gained their status about a go to destination. What lessons are you using from that experience? I think what they did at Little Italy is a fantastic. So we are taking a lot of those lessons whether it be really organizing the neighborhood, creating consensus, and also taking just simple steps like beautification and having a voice and making yourself known and having a vision to work towards it as well. How do make the district more walkable? That is a real problem. We have been working with city staff and local businesses to do a number of things. Doing banners and fixing signage and improving parking situation. We've also reach out to other people to improve the mobility of transportation. We heard a term in his piece some of people he spoke to refer to this area as Asiatown or trying to create a Asiatown . Would you like the area to start being referred to as that? I think that is already in formally the people referred to. I think we also of the convoy district would like having a geography and where the largest of Asian businesses in the city. In that regard we RE -- we like the name convoy the district because of the geography in that regard. We are welcoming anyone to come and explore. What you think the significance is of having a cultural epicenter for Asian Americans in San Diego? We have one of the largest pan Asian businesses whether be Chinese, Japanese, Korean. That is RE fairly unique. We are also the largest city in the United States and there is almost one in Fife San Diegans that has Asian groups. All of this adds to having an important cluster for people to come and participate in understand because we are here at the gateway to the Pacific rim. It is bettering communication, understanding of the cultures and it is helping both culturally as well as economically to improve small this is is and it will expand tourism. Not only are we a Navy town and have great places like this but we want to have cultural gems like Little Italy. Finally, what would you say is the biggest challenge to being able to establish the convoy district the way you would like to? First and foremost, what of the things is a diversity so not only are we not seeing ethnic groups and we speak different languages and especially a month older generations. There are still language gaps. So we are working through that. Will be able to associate with each other and a lot more cohesive and we love working with each other. There's I diversity there but there's also I diversity and types of businesses. We are not just restaurants. We also have car dealerships and other businesses. There all part of the community and we want to build consensus. We want to continue to build that momentum in a Tweet we that respects everyone in all the different groups. I have been speaking what Ping Wang. He is cofounder of the convoy district . Thank you very much. Thank you.

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.

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.
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.

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

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

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