It is no secret the busy Fifth Avenue in Hillcrest is susceptible to change, with businesses opening and closing often. Most recently, the 3800 block of Fifth Avenue between Robinson and University Avenues is experiencing a wave of change, as four local businesses recently closed their doors.
The businesses include French bistro Côté Sud located at 3805 Fifth Ave., The All Center at 3865, Caffe Vergnano at 3850 and Pita’s Mediterranean Grill at 3890.
One look at the reviews on Yelp.com and you’ll see customers of Pita’s and Caffe Vergnano – which opened in February 2011 and April 2011 respectively, both closed in December – are disappointed to see the short-lived eateries go. That sentiment is felt by neighboring businesses on Fifth Avenue as well.
Jay Whaley, who owns Whaley Studios, the custom jewelry shop above the former Caffe Vergnano location, said he’s baffled by the cafe’s eight-month stay.
“I think this location is fabulous, so it’s stunning to me that downstairs didn’t work out. They were such a cool place; [with] the décor and vibe, they had it all together. All of us neighbors stepped up our game to match them. I even painted,” Whaley explained.
Whaley, who’s been at 3848 Fifth Ave. for eight years, said he’s seen the downstairs part of the building change tenants multiple times. He also said he thinks the main obstacle for businesses on the block is parking, since the high-traffic street offers few options.
Erica Enos, manager of Which Wich at 3825 Fifth Ave. agrees. She said the small lots and parking meters on Fifth Avenue fill up fast, and potential customers get frustrated trying to find parking.
“Fifth [Avenue] can be intimidating. There’s mostly just parallel parking and that’s scary when you have traffic waiting behind you. People don’t want to go through the stress just to get lunch,” said Enos. “We actually validate two hours of free parking, but most people don’t know that.”
Due to the parking situation, Enos said she isn’t surprised at the recent vacancies on her block. “Sometimes I feel like we’re hanging on by a string too,” she said.
Hector Rabellino, owner of the closed Caffe Vergnano, said, “Parking here is killer. I got seven tickets in one month trying to park in front of my business.”
He added, “Customers would circle the block for parking and eventually, just not come in.”
Over his eight-month stay on Fifth Avenue, Rabellino said he poured half a million dollars into his Italian coffee house on rent, city permits and personnel. At its best, he said Caffe Vergnano was serving 140 customers daily in July but after summer, business plummeted.
In retrospect, Rabellino said he should have invested more money into advertising, solely in Hillcrest, to attract more patrons. He said he thinks future Fifth Avenue businesses must come in with a solid marketing approach that includes parking validation.
Chef and businessman Jass Singh said he is up for the challenge. His new Indian Restaurant, Tandoori Hut, has moved into the old Pita’s location at 3890 and he’s determined to make his mark on the block in 2012. He plans to cater to patrons with an Indian buffet and carry out service.
Singh already owns two other restaurants in San Diego and said he is confident his experience as a successful restaurateur will help him survive on Fifth Avenue.
Singh said, “The foot traffic in the area looks promising. We’ll have to see about the parking.”
Benjamin Nicholls, executive director of the Hillcrest Business Association, said, “Parking is the number one issue in Hillcrest right now. Plenty of people want to shop and dine in San Diego’s number one urban neighborhood but they can’t find a place to park. We’re losing businesses all the time because of it.”
Nicholls added, “Hillcrest has been working for the last year to get the Uptown Community Parking District back on its feet. I am excited about the potential projects. I challenge neighbors and political leaders to get involved in the new parking district to solve this do-or-die problem for Hillcrest.”