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EYESORE:Why does George Pernicano drive Hillcrest Folks Crazy?

Posted: September 18th, 2009 | Hillcrest | 12 Comments

By Dave Schwab

Pernicanos Cover small

Art by Court Jones

People have long driven by abandoned Pernicano’s Restaurant in the heart of Hillcrest and wondered, “Why can’t they (the city) do something?”
Now after 25 years, they just might.

A groundswell of local support may finally be spurring the city into finding creative ways — subtle or not — to pressure owners of the extinct pizzeria (the first in San Diego built after World War II) to redevelop the 25,000-square-foot building, or divest themselves of it.

The building takes up one-third of a block on Sixth Avenue between University and Robinson avenues, and includes a fenced-in unused 80-space parking lot. Since its closure, it has drawn the ire of local businesses and residents, who complain about grafitti, vandals and the space the structure is taking up that could be used for parking or new businesses.

Until now, the city has been operating under the assumption that nothing can be done to compel a business owner to operate if, as is the case with George Pernicano, they do the minimal upkeep needed to avoid code violations on the property. But District 3 Councilman Todd Gloria thinks times may have changed. He said he’s willing to carry the torch to see what can be done to redevelop Pernicano’s.
“That restaurant has become a black eye in Hillcrest and it’s been that way for nearly a quarter-century,” Gloria conceded, noting the Pernicano family always maintains they “don’t have any immediate plans” to do anything with the site.
As chair of the City Council’s Land Use and Housing Committee, Gloria has been working with foreclosure properties. “It occurred to me, there might be some parallels with properties like Pernicano’s,” he said. “I’d like to work with the City Attorney to find a way to legally compel the owner to improve this property and put it back to productive use.”

The councilman offered one alternative that might be tried to “resurrect” the historic restaurant site: changing the municipal code to classify structures as a public nuisance if they’ve been vacant for an extended period of time and been subject to other code or tax violations. Said Gloria: “The idea would be to give our city Neighborhood Code Compliance Department an additional tool to work with, with property owners in buildings like Pernicano’s.”

A blight on the landscape today, Pernicano’s and its sister eatery, Casa di Baffi (House of the Mustache) were once the talk of the town. Handlebar-mustachioed restaurant owner George Pernicano, now in his 90s, was nicknamed “Road Warrior” because he never missed a Chargers home game and because of his passion for, and part ownership in, the team (3 percent bought from Chargers founder Barron Hilton in 1961).

Casa di Baffi gained quite a reputation in the early days of the Chargers as a watering hole for team members and a haunt for movie stars and famous athletes who frequented the establishment from 1946 to 1985. Notables like “Hollywood” Joe Namath were honored restaurant guests. The Super Bowl-winning quarterback, the story goes, loved Pernicano’s cuisine so much he referred to the eatery as “Pork Chop Hill.” Pernicano himself is said to have once run out onto the Lindbergh Field tarmac to halt the New York Jets’ quarterback’s plane because Namath “wouldn’t leave without Pernicano’s unique veal cutlet sandwiches.”

But the restaurant’s glory days are just a vision in the rear-view mirror. In 2009, residents, neighbors and visitors see only the shell of the once-proud pizzeria, adequately-tended still, but vacant nonetheless.

Why has George Pernicano been so recalcitrant about hanging onto to the property without doing anything with it for so long? It’s been speculated the notoriously feisty owner doesn’t want his ex-wife to profit from its sale, or that he’s keeping it closed as a sign of his displeasure over how the character of the neighborhood has changed since he opened it in a different era in 1946.

One thing’s for certain: George isn’t talking about it. Nor is he about to, said said his brother John, who, in his 80s, is still active in the family business in Pacific Beach, playing piano for restaurant guests there. “It’s a crime, he’s (George’s) been closed 25 years,” said John Pernicano half-jokingly about his older brother.”It’s looking good — I just passed by it yesterday.”

John noted the city’s been on his brother’s case, but added he’s been living within the rules. “You’ve got to keep the place looking like it’s operating,” John said. “But he’s keepin’ it clean. It looks pretty damned good.”

John Pernicano added that money is not a factor with his sibling. “He’s 92,” John said. “He doesn’t need the money. He just pays the taxes and lets it go.”

John Pernicano admits his brother is stubborn. “He don’t talk to nobody,” he said. “Not for sale, at any price. No one can buy it. His boys inherit it.”

What does John Pernicano think his brother George’s sons Larry and Gary will do with the former restaurant site? “They will dump it, sure,” he said. Larry and Gary Pernicano could not be reached for comment.

Carol Shultz, executive director of Uptown Partnership, said her group would like to see something done about changing Pernicano’s status. “Our board Sept. 3 acted to write a letter to Mr. Pernicano to ask whether we could discuss opening up the existing parking lot on his property as a paid public parking lot,” she said, adding maybe this new partial approach may prove more fruitful. “Previous approaches have been to deal with the whole property,” she added.

The long-dormant Italian restaurant leaves many residents frustrated and the community as a whole feeling disinherited. Some are angry.

“I have a real low tolerance for these people taking advantage of the system, doing spiteful things that don’t benefit the community,” said Erik Hanson, whose wife owns a business two blocks from Pernicano’s. “It’s all about him (the owner) and his memories: He can’t have the memories without the physical object.”

Hanson knows what he’d like to see done with the property. “The city needs to take it away by eminent domain,” he said. “I was inside that place about 1990, after it had been abandoned about five or six years, not the decades it’s been now, and even then the mold was so thick and the place so damp and swampy smelling that you could tell there was no way the place could ever be opened again. Obviously, he has some friends at City Hall that allow this. They could, at least, enforce the ‘abandoned sign structure’ laws. If you don’t run a business for 25-plus years, that defines abandoned to me.”
Hillcrest Business Association executive director Ben Nicholls said it’s a shame that such a valuable property is allowed to lie fallow, which “brings the whole neighborhood down.”

“It’s a wonderful location right in the heart of HIllcrest that should be redeveloped to have a great result like it once did,” he said.”I hear a lot of neighbors talking about how they wish somebody would buy it and redevelop it. I think the whole site would need to be redeveloped.”

“You could do a lot with that parking there and the building — residences up above, office space,” Nicholls said. “It’s an ugly building the way it is. It is a permanent eyesore on the neighborhood. It’s costing us money. It’s certainly an image problem.”

Mike Wright, longtime owner of City Deli near Pernicano’s, agrees that the time has long since passed when something should have been done to compel the Pernicanos to take the old Italian restaurant site out of mothballs. “I personally don’t know George at all,” he admitted. “What I pick up is George has held to his strong Italian obstinacy. It (Pernicano’s) is an empty space that doesn’t attract people to Hillcrest.”

Wright has owned and operated City Deli for 25 years. “As long as George has been closed,” he noted.

Wright said it’s always been a contention of local businesspeople that George could at least allow the community to use his vacant parking lot. “He’s not interested,” Wright said.

Wright appreciates that George Pernicano is personally attached to his restaurant site. Yet he feels it’s unfortunate he doesn’t quite grasp the financial implications to the community of leaving the site unused so long. “He could have moved when property values were high, worked on developing something for the neighborhood,” Wright said. “He’s had many opportunities. My landlord approached him years ago. Many other landlords have tried. He has closed ears.”

Dave Schwab has been a journalist in San Diego County for more than 20 years and has worked on several publications including the San Diego Business Journal and the La Jolla Light. He resides in North Park and may be contacted at: dschwabie@journalist.com.

12 Comments

  1. Judith O'Boyle says:

    George Pernicano and Family have for decades turned their backs on our City and this Hillcrest Neighborhood. While he may have a right to do what he is doing, I’m encouraged that Councilmember Gloria is looking for solutions — this property is a prime example of “demolition by neglect”.

    Instead of public ridicule he deserves, George Pernicano, who is also a minority owner of the San Diego Chargers, is inducted in the Chargers Hall of Fame. Time to turn the tables and amp up the public outrage on two notorious institutions out to screw the people of San Diego: Pernicano’s and the San Diego Chargers.

  2. michael says:

    Leave Pernicano alone! It’s his property and he should have the right to do what he wants with it. Did they give him any extra rewards for the days when his restaurant provided indirect benefits to the neighborhood? No. Pernicano had to run his business well and profit from it as best he could. He EARNED the right to leave it as-is to his children.

    Can’t the city vultures and neighborhood busybodies even let the old guy die in peace? He’s over 90 for goodness’ sake.

    -Michael Christian

    p.s. What the hell does it mean for the Pernicanos to “turn their backs on our City?” They don’t owe anything to the city. And besides, it’s MY city and I say leaven ‘em alone!

  3. Luke Terpstra says:

    What’s wrong with the character of Hillcrest? I like it.

  4. michael says:

    I like Hillcrest too. I particularly like walking by Pernicano’s and know that the real reason he won’t sell is to put off paying tax on the gain. He will be able to leave the property to his children without paying income tax on the capital gain. Good for him!

  5. luna w says:

    i agree. let the staunch individualist have his way for his own reason. he doesn’t own the city anything and the community should stop sniveling. you’d be hard plussed to find a more interesting back story on any
    redevelopment that takes it’s place.

  6. Scott Gilmore says:

    michael, while I respect your opinion, I think you’ve neglected a very important aspect of a community – pride.

    As a long time resident of the the area, when walking past Pernicano’s I am reminded viscerally that the property owner clearly doesn’t share that sense of pride in this community, and I am naturally insulted.

    You’re right, of course, that there is no law requiring Mr. Pernicano to improve the property beyond the bare minimum despicable condition it’s presently in, but you’re wrong if you think a community of deeply involved people will just sit back and do nothing.

    The premise that one can do whatever one wants with a piece of property in spite of the obvious fact that neglect of this kind has a real and immediate impact ($) on the surrounding properties, as well as the community as a whole is at best naïve, and at worst disingenuous. According to your logic, we should be allowed to open an adult establishment right next to a child care center or a liquor store next to a school.

    Community planning to reflect the value of community pride (amongst other goals, of course) is a proper and good thing. Careful, wise administration of such efforts is critical, and granted, not always forthcoming, but in this case, the long-term neglect of city government is so obvious that the contention that Mr. Pernicano either has undue influence or dirt on someone is a natural assumption. Something is fishy somewhere.

  7. Rob says:

    As much as I’d like to see this property developed, I agree with the above that a property owner, working within the system that was adopted BUY THE COMMUNITY, should be left alone.

    Todd Gloria is pimping himself to special interests and it’s one reason why I (as a real estate investor who one woudl think would be “in bed” with him…) did not vote for him. I have attended fund raising house parties where he has public said he supports “taking” of the property for public good. Sorry folks.. that is just wrong.

    Public nuisance……ok we can talk. Vacant, kept up building.. HANDS OFF ..

  8. Erik says:

    Rob: of course its a public nuisance. Have you ever walked by the 5th ave side of the building. All the addict panhandlers congregate right there. Its so bad at times that the store across the street installed a webcam to show everybody what happens there. And don’t tell me that you think there is a more likely building in Hillcrest to burn down in a fire, arson or otherwise, which would take a few other people’s buildings out at the same time. Not to mention the possible rats, etc. that more than likely are there, just wating for the chance to sneak over into the other restaurants.

  9. Rob says:

    uhh huh………. ok than lets start taking all the private property that the police aren’t “policing” ….. by allowing vagrants to hang nearby …… thats good …. condemnation in the name of fire prevention…

  10. sharisse says:

    so much for privacy and personal freedom, constitutional rights…the man can do what he wants with what is his…geez…

  11. sunia says:

    Private property is just that, PRIVATE. As long as it’s not being used for illegal enterprise, mind your own business. People don’t like it being empty…,how about a strip club? Would that make everyone happy?

  12. Kelly says:

    As long as he’s obeying the rules and paying his taxes, leave the man alone. He has a right to do what he wants with his own property. The greedy developers in San Diego just can’t stand to see a piece of prime real estate left alone. And as for creating more parking, how about encouraging people to walk the fat off or bike in and around Hillcrest?

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