The Little Italy Blockbuster That Helped Shape the City's Growth - Voice of San Diego

Civic San Diego

The Little Italy Blockbuster That Helped Shape the City's Growth

A pioneering block in Little Italy inspired museum exhibits and worldwide praise. But the city said soon after it would never replicate the project.

In 1995, the city’s downtown redevelopment agency began working on something different from its typical projects.

Normally, Centre City Development Corp.—the nonprofit in charge of property tax-funded urban renewal efforts, now Civic San Diego— redeveloped whole blocks at one time.

Take an entire block, consolidate it into one property and hire one developer to construct a big, multi-use building there. That’s what’s common in most downtown areas, and it’s what Civic San Diego continues to permit today.

But in ’95, a group of architect-developers put together a single proposal to redevelop a whole block in Little Italy. The “Little Italy Neighborhood Developers” would conspire instead to build the “LIND block.”

They subdivided the block bound by Beech, Cedar, India and Kettner streets into six separate properties, for six independent projects that would complement each other to create a cohesive idea. Each project was built off of a public green area in the center that helped shape the distinct property lines.

The architect-developers who worked on that project — Jonathan Segal, Lloyd Russell, Ted Smith, Kathleen McCormick, Rob Quigley, James Brown and Robin Brisebois — have continued pushing innovative projects throughout the city.

The project won awards, was featured in architectural magazines and textbooks and had its own museum exhibit back in 1999.

It was often cited as the inspiration for other small, dense units in the city’s urban core.

Mike Burnett and Craig Abenilla, whose company Foundation for Form has built three mid-sized mixed-use projects in Golden Hill and North Park, said the LIND block sparked a lot of the ideas they’re pushing now.

“It is permeable space, focused on not fencing off the block; it’s just good urban planning principles, applied well,” Burnett said. “It showed what infill could do for a neighborhood.”

“It was a case study, pretty much,” said Abenilla, who recalled seeing it in an international architectural magazine while living in New York, long before he had ever thought of coming to San Diego.

Urban planner Howard Blackson, now a Civic San Diego board member, said it was a “demonstration project.”

“It made people think about how you could get things done without hassle, and headache,” he said.

LIND was different from projects at the time, but it’s also different in a lot of ways from what its creators are doing now. They’re not working together to develop a whole block with separate projects, but building similar types of buildings that fit into small, oddly shaped lots.

“What we’ve figure out is, it was made up of a bunch of independent separate little buildings that you could develop yourself just by buying little lots,” said Smith. “It attempted to show what you could create with a walkable density — 40 units per acre — which is what you need to build a real city. They ended up with what the profession had said for 15 years was the right density.”

And while they had CCDC to help streamline the approval process on LIND, they now try to build projects that are essentially preapproved by a lot’s existing zoning.

“You’re not going to have CCDC, but you’re going to have a zoning ordinance and you can build whatever you want, without dealing with naysayers,” Smith said.

“Yeah, LIND was an example, but that’s not what made it happen,” said Segal. Instead, he attributes the increasing amount of architect-developers following his lead to students from Barrio Logan’s Woodbury School of Architecture starting to graduate and build their own projects around the city.

“We still give tours of the LIND block to European architects and people from across the nation, but to say it had a big impact in San Diego, I’m skeptical, because you can look right across the street, and it’s like people just didn’t pay attention,” Russell said.

Despite the critical success of the project, CCDC said it would never do it over again.

“You’ve got bureaucrats who are pulling the same salary anyway, but they had to deal with five architects instead of one,” Russell said. “Fine, so it was more complicated, but you made the city a better place.”

Burnett attended a lecture on the project when he was a student, as part of an exhibit at the Museum of Contemporary Art, where one of the CCDC officials who worked on the project said the process was too hard.

“All I could think was, ‘Yeah, it’s a lot of work to build a city right!'” he said. “I think it’d be awesome to take that vision and take it to other urban outlying areas, which is their next step.”

Civic San Diego President Jeff Graham, who wasn’t with CCDC at the time, said the LIND template can’t accommodate the amount of density that downtown needs.

But he agrees with Burnett’s point that it’s a viable concept elsewhere in the city.

“The important point is, it would be challenging downtown, but it could definitely be a model for other urban areas that aren’t as dense, and want four- to five-story buildings and not a big, clunky mixed-use development that forces you to walk all the way around the block.

“Places like North Park, City Heights, transit-oriented projects in Encanto or San Ysidro, could also be suitable,” he said. “I think it really adds to the eclectic mix of Little Italy. It has been a great idea.”

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