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Developers work to preserve Fat City property in Little Italy

New apartment complex envisioned

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The Fat City Lofts project in Little Italy is designed to do two things: Preserve and reconstruct a portion of what many consider to be an iconic building, and create what co-developer and architect Jonathan Segal says "is some badly needed work force housing."

While the property failed in late July to garner historic designation from the Historic Sites Board that some preservationists had sought, Segal has pledged to preserve and restore as much as possible.

"We're going to rebuild the building as it was, not as it is," Segal emphasized.

Segal is teamed up with GLJ Partners of Carlsbad, both of which in turn have been working closely with the Save Our Heritage Organisation to ensure that what little remains of the original pink-hued Fat City/China Camp building is protected and successfully incorporated into the 237-unit development. GLJ Partners acts as its own general contractor as well as a co-developer.

Along with the housing, the six-story project calls for 4,282-square-feet of retail/commercial along with 303 parking spaces.

In order to facilitate the project, the front of the building will be moved about 35 feet closer to the corner of Hawthorn Street and Pacific Highway before it is reconstructed. In keeping with historical accuracy, the pink paint scheme may give way to a light blue or a silver -- the original color of the building when it was constructed in 1941.

The China Camp restaurant has been permanently closed. The Denny's on the property is being closed as well, but may return in the new project that may have a nightclub.

As for why the building should be preserved, Bruce Coons, SOHO executive director, said "it is an excellent example of Art Deco style."

Coons noted the building has been used as a car-hop restaurant, a steakhouse and a nightclub that reportedly hosted the likes of Rowan and Martin, Nelson Eddy and Nat King Cole.

"This was part of an entertainment district where a lot of people met their wives, saw Bing Crosby and Frank Sinatra," Coons said.

Coons, who said the building would be difficult to remove, said the preservation and incorporation makes for a much more attractive and better project. Like Segal, Coons concedes that it is too late to preserve a lot of the property.

"A lot of damage has happened over the years," Coons said.

This isn't the first time GLJ Partners has worked with SOHO to incorporate a historic element into a new development. Luke Daniels, GLJ Partners development director, noted that his firm worked closely with SOHO on the 61-unit 1 Mission development, also known as Paseo at Mission Hills development in Mission Hills.

The one- to three-bedroom floorplans ranged in price from the $400,000s to $1.3 million according to a project website.

In the 1 Mission case, GLJ, working with SOHO managed to preserve major portions of a Mission Hills structure that dated back to the 1920s, while maintaining the viability of the new portions of the development.

What was known as Paseo de Mission Hills was the vision of Robert Lawrence (who developed the Park Laurel development in Bankers Hill) and CLB Partners (Daniels' former company). Lawrence and CLB handled both the adaptive re-use and new construction components of that project.

"What we were doing at Paseo is similar to what we're doing at Fat City," said Daniels.

Given the ongoing demand for rental housing, both Daniels and Segal expect Fat City Lofts will remain an apartment project

"The idea is to keep this for rent," Daniels said.

Daniels and Coons said both in the case of 1 Mission and Fat City Lofts, the developers will have proved that as in the case of the Western Metals Building and Petco Park, historic preservation and new development can co-exist. More than that, Daniels insists the project also has the chance to be transformative.

"Fat City Lofts will serve as a gateway redevelopment project which will connect Little Italy to the North Embarcadero and will be a catalyst in the transformation of what currently is a 'dead zone' along Pacific Highway in North Little Italy," Daniels said. "Fat City Lofts sits at the front door of our city for visitors traveling in and out of Lindbergh Field, and we strongly believe that this urban infill project represents another huge step forward in creating the best 24-hour livable downtown community in the country."

Other GLJ Partners projects include Stella, a development of 244 residences, 9,000 square feet of ground floor retail space, 578 parking stalls and a collection of resort-style amenities in Marina del Rey; Oak Springs Ranch, a 312-unit luxury apartment development in Wildomar, Calif.; The Paseos, 385 residences in Montclair, Calif.; and Biltmore Colony, a transformation of the old Palm Springs Biltmore Hotel into 19 single family homes and 133 condominiums.

Segal, who acts both as a co-developer and architect on the Fat City Lofts, has developed or has in process no fewer than 20 projects from downtown to La Jolla.

The Charmer is a newly-completed 21-unit apartment complex in Mission Hills, Kettner Row is 16 row houses at Kettner and Beech in Little Italy, and Moto Villas is a 34-unit development in the East Village district. A large private residence in La Jolla is also among Segal's many projects.

If all goes as planned, construction on the Fat City Lofts project could begin during the first quarter of next year with completion about two years later.

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