By Frank Sabatini Jr.
The 12-story building in Bankers Hill that was technically on record as the Fifth Avenue Financial Center is celebrating its 50th birthday with a new name and fresh look designed to attract a greater portion of the community into the mid-century structure.
The center’s recent acquisition by San Diego-based BBL Commercial Real Estate and the San Francisco branch of Westbrook Partners has resulted in a current remodel to the building’s lobby and common areas. Some of that space is earmarked for two ground-level restaurants yet to be announced.
In addition, the building has been renamed to Fifth & Laurel.
“We liked Fifth Avenue Financial Center, but it sounded more Downtown than Uptown. And we also came away from that because of the diverse mix of tenants,” explained BBL President Casey Brown, who spearheaded the purchase of the property for $42 million from Bud Alessio, son of the late, original owner, John Alessio.
The 160,000-square-foot building is currently 74 percent leased to a variety of commercial businesses that include Mister A’s, the acclaimed rooftop restaurant that opened when the tower first appeared on the landscape in 1965.
Brown acknowledges that San Diegans have long referred to the property as the “Mister A’s building,” but he’s confident the new name will take root in the Bankers Hill community because it duly defines the area.
Mister A’s, he assures, will remain “the anchor restaurant” at Fifth & Laurel as it too has been making gradual upgrades independent of the building project.
“I was born and raised in San Diego, and everyone has experienced Mister A’s for one celebration or another,” he said, noting that the restaurant was named originally after John Alessio.
Other longtime tenants that occupy suites on various floors include Thorsnes Bartolotta McGuire law firm, ACE Parking and Heritage Escrow Co. And since the sale of building, businesses such as Carling Communications and North Island Credit Union are due to take residence.
Overseeing the redesign project, which focuses primarily on the main entrance, lobby and first floor, is Rapt Studio based in San Francisco.
“We’re bringing this to one of the best mid-century buildings in San Diego,” Rapt Studio CEO David Galullo said. “But we don’t want to go in and leave it looking like an architect renovated it. Our theory is ‘let’s not mess with what is right about the building.’”
Some of the changes include replacing the entrance ramp with a new set of stairs, and laying tiles in simple, geometric patterns on the lobby floor and walls in an effort to better capture the era in which the structure was built.
The original, custom-made chandelier, which has been a dramatic focal point in the lobby, will remain intact as well as the atrium skylights surrounding it. Renovations to the outdated elevator cabs are also underway.
“We’re reworking the entire first floor, which is all office space, although some of it will be developed for restaurant and retail tenants,” Galullo added.
One of those spaces will open to the outdoors at Fifth & Laurel streets with a patio deck for a potential restaurant tenant.
Brown foresees the first floor as housing two restaurants that will likely include a casual café. He’s currently in discussion with a few undisclosed prospects.
“We really want to activate these spaces in order to bring the surrounding community together,” he said. “And we didn’t want to go with a shabby chic look, but rather something tailored — a design that maintains the history of the building.”
Leo Wilson, director of Metro San Diego Community Development Corp. and past president of the Bankers Hill Community Association, lives across the street from the building and likes what he sees taking place.
“The changes will be for the better. It’s a quality building that has always been well-maintained and spotless. I feel that will continue. The most critical issue is keeping the Christmas lights,” he said, referring to the show-stopping display that drapes the building every holiday season.
Brown confirmed that he is indeed keeping them, along with the addition of new LED light enhancements that will be evident this year.
Mister A’s General Manager Ryan Thorsen also supports the renovation project and says it hasn’t infringed on business since work began in June.
“So far so good. In the long run, it will only be good for the neighborhood,” he said.
Fifth & Laurel is located at 2550 Fifth Ave. Construction to its lobby and common spaces is expected to be completed in three to four months from now. Until then, the main entrance has been shut down as visitors and tenants access the building through a temporary entrance off Maple Street.
—Frank Sabatini Jr. can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.