20 years later, why the LIND project is still a triumph in Little Italy

Originally published at San Diego Union Tribune
Link to original article

The LIND development project, which helped revitalize the neighborhood 20 years ago, earns architecture group’s Legacy Award.

BY Dirk Sutro
JULY 3, 2022
Probably no San Diego community has undergone a more dramatic transformation in the new millennium than Little Italy. Its modern history is a sort of American classic: founded and grown during the early decades of the 20th century by Italian immigrants in the fishing industry. Fallen on hard times due to the intrusion of Interstate 5 in the ‘70s, when 3,000 homes were razed, followed by the demise in the ‘80s of commercial fishing. Redeveloped beginning in the ‘90s. Today, there are thousands of new homes in low-, mid- and high-rise buildings and a lively street scene fed by some 500 businesses, especially Italian restaurants. It’s become a place where you’ll gladly devote a day to Il Dolce Far Niente — Italian for “the art of doing nothing.”

In the course of this revival, no project is a finer example of the power of architecture than the mixed-use Little Italy Neighborhood Developers block (LIND): six buildings designed by eight architects, bounded by Kettner Boulevard and Beech, India and Cedar streets. With its thoughtfully combined forms, materials, proportions and spaces between buildings, it looks cool from any point of view and its edges almost vibrate with activity.

Two decades after its completion, LIND was recognized with a Legacy Award from the American Institute of Architects San Diego in a May 19 ceremony at the Guild Hotel downtown. Twenty-three awards were presented, along with special recognition for several projects that included LIND.

Architect Kevin DeFreitas was on the AIA committee that singled out LIND. Not only is the architecture powerful, but “what’s remarkable is that it combined all the elements the design community thought were valuable. There is affordable and market-rate housing, retail, and adaptive re-use of the Harbor Marine building, brought together by a thoughtful plan.” DeFreitas said LIND also pioneered the concept of architect-as-developer, adopted by him and many other architects.

When Little Italy hit rock bottom in the 1990s, the block that became LIND was seen by Centre City Development Corp. (the city’s redevelopment arm) as an opportunity to launch the area’s revitalization in a big way. CCDC tore down neglected buildings, consolidated lots and began to plan for a major project.

At the time, architect Rob Quigley lived and worked nearby in a building he designed and was one of the people concerned that a full-block project by a single developer would ruin a traditional neighborhood of small businesses and single-family homes. Concerned residents couldn’t prevent demolition, but as CCDC prepared a request for proposals, Quigley was hired by developers Barone Galasso to design affordable apartments on half the site. The other half would be devoted to rowhomes by architect Jonathan Segal.

In search of the fine-grain variety that gives a neighborhood its character, Quigley pushed for a proposal that would sub-divide the project into six buildings of various sizes. More architects were invited to join him and Segal. The plan that eventually emerged was a winner. In an effort to try something fresh, CCDC chose the LIND team and the buildings were completed between 1997 and 2001. The sum ended up even greater than its parts.

Quigley’s Villa Maria (47 apartments), along India, is the largest building, anchored by Allegro bistro at the corner of Cedar. Segal’s Kettner Rowhomes, 16 of them with a few freestanding granny flats in back, lines most of the block along Kettner.

Next to Villa Maria is Kathleen McCormick’s Little Italy Lofts, four units above Isola Pizza. Ted Smith’s Harbor Breakfast anchors the corner of India and Beech and preserves a 19th century building, which had been slated for demolition, that formerly housed Harbor Marine Supplies. Atop the breakfast joint is Robin Brisebois’ Harbor Arms apartments, four units including a pop-up third-floor that resembles the captain’s bridge on a ship. Farther down Beech are Smith and Lloyd Russell’s 12-loft Merrimac (Smith is a fan of Civil War-era ironclad warships) and, at Kettner, Public Architecture’s Dutra Brown building (named for architect Jim Brown’s daughter).

Along with varied shapes and sizes, the six buildings make inventive use of standard materials. Quigley’s gray stucco three- and four-story Villa Maria, with its overhanging slanted roofs and pop-out balconies, is quite a contrast to McCormick’s tall, narrow, vine-covered lofts, made of concrete block, with a checkerboard back wall facing the development’s interior.

Down Beech from Harbor Breakfast, Smith and Russell’s Merrimac and Public’s Dutra Brown bring an industrial-strength blast. Merrimac’s base of colored concrete block is punctuated by modest entry stoops beneath a sheet-metal upper level with tall, narrow window bays. Public’s Dutra Brown features 15 large steel-and-glass windows salvaged from an old Navy building, a nod to Little Italy’s warehousey maritime origins.

Though constructed as one project in a short time frame, LIND has the feel of an enclave that matured over decades.

The architects credit landscape architect Martin Poirier, who came last to the LIND team, for a site plan that knits the buildings into whole cloth. He was responsible for two narrow alleys that invite you in from Cedar and India, and for tying buildings and people together with a park-like center.

An essential goal, according to Poirier, was to create the kinds of “surprises” one finds in walkable cities like Venice or Florence, where wandering narrow streets reveals ancient wonders in nooks and crannies. At LIND, walkways pass among narrow and broad spaces, patios and modest entries, grassy areas, hedges that conceal pocket gardens for the rowhomes and a mini-forest of sycamores whose fallen leaves mark the arrival of autumn. The impact of two parking courts is softened by the landscape. An additional 49 spaces for apartment dwellers are concealed underneath Villa Maria.

Poirier has lived in one of the rowhomes since they opened, and he is seemingly the only resident who makes full use of the double-height garages Segal tucked under his granny flats. With a built-in hydraulic lift, two cars can be stacked inside and it’s only a matter of minutes if you need to use the one on top.

As for security, a full-block development this size typically has one or two keyed or coded entrances. LIND was designed to accommodate gates, but they haven’t been necessary, since the steady stream of people around and within the buildings communicates that these spaces are semi-private. Walk through the center and with all those windows and balconies looking down, you may hesitate, but residents are friendly and the area feels safe.

LIND and a few other early projects in the neighborhood did indeed serve as catalysts. Little Italy’s revitalized 48 blocks now include 4,000 to 5,000 residential units and at least 6,000 residents. It’s an aria of activity. In a sense, what’s old is new again: rowhomes inspired by the originals in places like Brooklyn and New York City, mixed-use buildings where homes above shops are sometimes occupied by the shop owners. Of course, revitalization has also meant the loss of dozens of original homes, including stately Victorians, along with several small buildings that contained the neighborhood’s original shops. In the opinion of many, it was worth it.

Happily, Little Italy retains its Italian essence, as evidenced by chimes that ring out hourly from the circa-1925 Our Lady of the Rosary Catholic Church on State Street, where a $2.5 million renovation includes new stained glass and restored frescos. Dozens of bars and restaurants make Little Italy one of San Diego’s most popular locales: Solunto’s Ristorante & Bakery (1950), Assenti Pasta (1981), and the Waterfront Bar & Grill (1933, billed as “San Diego’s Oldest Tavern”), along with newer spots such as eye-catching Born & Raised steakhouse and “Blade Runner”-y Underbelly restaurant and bar, plus Italian bistros like Bencotto and Buon Appetito. Other businesses include Blick Art Materials, hair and nail salons, galleries, offices, microbreweries, espresso cafes, a holistic pharmacy and a pet grooming salon with a name Snoop Dogg might appreciate.

Would LIND be possible today? In a word, no. After California ended redevelopment in 2012 and 400 redevelopment agencies shut down, cities no longer had the means to offer land in “blighted” neighborhoods at little or no cost to developers. At LIND, free and low-cost land gave the architects a chance to build low-rise people-friendly residential rather than the current spate of much bigger buildings justified by developers who say size is necessary to turn a profit.

If many of the newer projects are considered blockbusters, their impact has been mediated where architects break those big boxes into smaller components and line the sidewalk with storefronts.

Also, big developers such as H.G. Fenton Company deserve credit for incorporating friendly features. Fenton’s six- to eight-story Piazza della Famiglia at India and Date incorporates a 10,000-square-foot plaza, where a block of Date was closed. The plaza is lined with umbrella-shaded tables outside restaurants such as Farmer’s Table, in the old San Diego Reader building, and Not Not Tacos, owned by television’s Sam “The Cooking Guy” Zien.

In a broader downtown context, though, LIND has not had the broad impact Quigley and his peers had hoped for.

“Despite some very good architectural design work, the scale and vitality of downtown has been compromised over the years by the standard solution of gated communities in the form of large, single designer super blocks,” he told the AIA awards audience. “On the other hand, a new generation of architects, developers and planners is coming of age and maybe they will see fit to implement some of these ideas.”