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Little Italy makes mark as model of urban redevelopment

A church may not be the first thing that comes to mind when you think about what it takes to successfully redevelop a community. But some who have been instrumental in transforming a once rundown and weary Little Italy into one of San Diego's most vital and eclectic urban neighborhoods say Our Lady of the Rosary Church has played an important part in its dramatic makeover.

The construction of Interstate 5 in the late 1950s displaced 3,000 residents in the downtown neighborhood that rises above San Diego Bay. Many were Italians whose families had lived in Little Italy for generations. Still more Italians left the area when the local tuna industry suffered in the 1970s. But their connection with the church continued to draw them back to their old neighborhood on a regular basis.

Making change happen

" The community had a spiritual heart and soul -- the church -- which has been in Little Italy since 1925," explained Marco Li Mandri, a leader in the area's ongoing redevelopment efforts and president of the Little Italy Association. "It was critical to Little Italy's revitalization. In one way or another, the community is tied to the church."

In addition to the church, there were other links that kept Italians who no longer lived in Little Italy deeply connected to it. Because many of them still owned property there, they had a vested interest in helping to breathe new life into the area. This fact, said Li Mandri, was key to Little Italy's redevelopment success.

Understanding how redevelopment works is second nature for Li Mandri. Born in Little Italy, the San Diego native's company, New City America, specializes in helping urban centers promote smart growth.

In 1996, he helped establish a business improvement district (BID) and formed the Little Italy Association, a nonprofit group of local business and property owners. Working closely with the city of San Diego's redevelopment agency and Centre City Development Corp. (CCDC), the Little Italy Association has been busy making its vision of a vibrant ethnic neighborhood-rich in history and character-where people will want to work, live and play a reality.

"Working with leaders in the community, we asked 'how do we go back and re-embrace the culture, heritage and architecture of Little Italy and make it a special place with a strong identity?'" said Peter Hall, president of CCDC.

One of the first revitalization projects involved making major improvements to the streets, particularly India Street. The project took about four years to complete and included restoring sidewalks, repairing gutters and adding traffic lights. These improvements, combined with enhancements such as the eye-catching Little Italy sign and trees planted specifically to provide touches of fall color and spring blossoms, have transformed India Street into an inviting place that draws locals and visitors and is helping new and established businesses to thrive.

Tables and chairs purchased by the Little Italy Association and placed along the sidewalk invite people to linger and soak up the atmosphere. Among those who regularly take advantage of this opportunity are Jennifer and Jimmy Ayala. Although their condo in Treo is technically in the Columbia District, one of the main reasons the young professional couple chose to live there is the ability it affords them to walk to the shops and restaurants of Little Italy.

"I buy pasta at Assentis and cold cuts and cheese at Mona Lisa," Jennifer said. "We like it here because it's not as heavy and touristy as the Gaslamp District -- it feels more like a real neighborhood."

Other important projects that have made Little Italy a desirable place to live include the re-building of Washington Elementary School and the development of the adjacent Amici Park. The park, which includes a bocce ball court, serves double-duty as a playground for the school and a gathering spot for the community. The recently completed Piazza Basilone, a privately funded war memorial on the corner of Fir and India streets, offers views of San Diego Bay and features a fountain and amphitheater.

Attracting developers

The CCDC's innovative Little Italy Neighborhood Development (LIND) helped motivate more developers to invest in the area. Completed in 2000, LIND involved purchasing a block of land bound by Beech, Cedar, India and Kettner streets. CCDC then selected a small group of architects and developers, including local architect Jonathan Segal and developer Barone, Galasso & Associates, to design the mixed-use project. The joint venture resulted in 16 row homes; 12 affordable rental lofts; 37 low and moderate income apartments; and retail space.

"It was an aggressive and ambitious project, but we knew we had to make something happen there," Hall said.

In the last couple of years, there has been no shortage of developers and architects eager to make their mark in Little Italy. A variety of stylish new mid-rise and high-rise residential, mixed-use and commercial buildings have sprouted in former parking lots and old industrial sites.

"We look at building urban projects in areas where there's already a sense of place," said Russ Haley, vice president of CityMark Development whose projects include the award-winning Doma mid-rise on Kettner Boulevard. "Little Italy definitely has that. I can't think of another community in San Diego that's more historically grounded."

While Doma takes up an entire block, Haley said it was designed to look like individual buildings constructed at different times so it would blend in with the surrounding neighborhood, not overpower it.

Completed last year, the 121-unit development combines lofts, townhomes and retail space as well as a restored electrical supply building with a clock tower that makes an attractive historical landmark. Doma also features eight "shopkeeper units" with separate retail and living areas.

Managing the challenges of growth

While projects like Doma have been well-received, Li Mandri said it can sometimes be difficult to find developers who are sensitive to the needs of the community and understand how the size and scale of a building will affect it. Part of the problem stems from a lack of formal design standards for the area, something the Little Italy Association is in the process of finalizing.

Other challenges Little Italy faces include problems such as cars speeding through the neighborhood to get on and off the freeway and a lack of parking. And while Little Italy has gained local and national recognition as a model of urban living and smart growth, not everyone is pleased with the changes.

"Some people say Little Italy has been gentrified," Hall said. "But if you have to choose between supporting blight and supporting progress, I'm in favor of progress. When people want to live in a place, the value and prices of property throughout the area goes up. Ours is the second largest Little Italy in the country. All of a sudden, it has a cache. By creating great places that people embrace, you create great cities."

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