Morgan M. Hurley | Contributing Editor
Marketing strategy for Pernicano’s puts Hillcrest first
“It’s an eyesore.” “It’s a dump.” “It’s a magnet for graffiti, vandalism and vagrancy.” “It needs to be leveled.”
These are all common complaints from Uptown community members about a 25,000-square-foot development in Hillcrest that consists of four parcels and two addresses — one at 3840 Sixth Ave. and one at 3833 Fifth Ave. — that fall between University and Robinson avenues. These two connected and very dilapidated properties are finally on the market with The Savory Group – Berkshire Hathaway, a Downtown San Diego listing agent that has set a cool $12 million price tag on the property along with an Oct. 3 offer deadline for prospective buyers.
For over 30 years, the properties, also known as Pernicano’s and Casa di Baffi, have been the bane of Hillcrest. But that wasn’t always the case.
George Pernicano, a gregarious Detroit-born Italian with a waxed handlebar moustache and his chain of 12 family restaurants were the talk of the town back in his heyday.
Born in 1917, Pernicano moved to San Diego in 1946 after the war, bringing pizza to the region for the first time. His first upscale restaurant, Casa di Baffi (translated as House of Moustache), opened in 1960 in Hillcrest and quickly became a food and entertainment destination. A long list of celebrities and professional athletes, notably the Chargers, were also regulars; Pernicano was not only one of their biggest fans, he was also a minority owner who had helped bring the team to San Diego.
After decades of success, Pernicano closed the Hillcrest restaurants down in 1985, though three other locations around the county are still in operation today.
Over the years, despite being boarded up and surrounded by a chain-link fence and barbed wire, the property has been broken into for its copper wire, the building and its signs have been repeatedly vandalized and tagged with graffiti, and its outside accessories — ornate door lamps, classic neon lighting and the iconic moustache door handles — have been stolen or smashed beyond repair.
Residents, business owners and even those who call Hillcrest their “second home” have been weighing in on the abandoned property for decades.
In 2010, first-term City Councilmember Todd Gloria worked with various community groups in a successful attempt to get public access to the fenced-off parking lot. That summer, the lot was leased to a parking agency, freshly paved and lined, and 36 new parking spaces opened to the public to great fanfare.
“I am thankful to the Pernicano family for opening their property for public use,” said Gloria in a press release at the time. “The parking spaces will be well-used, and the positive activity will bring life back to this block.”
Since then, the future of the property has been a constant topic, but it seemed the family would never budge.
According to Jeannine Savory, potential brokers were interviewed by the family for over a year, with The Savory Group selected from a field of 15 different agencies just two months ago. Savory believes they were chosen because they did their due diligence not only on the property, but the surrounding community as well.
George’s sons — identical twin brothers Gary and Larry Pernicano — are now in charge of the family’s affairs. Savory said they want to do right by the Hillcrest community, a place they have been fond of their entire lives.
“They grew up in Hillcrest,” Savory said. “Hillcrest is a big part of their childhood and adolescent years. They used to run around its streets. They want to see something nice go in the spot, that the community will appreciate for years to come.”
What will encourage locals even more is the website Savory’s team put together to market the property. Called UptownPernicanos.com, it is every potential buyer’s introduction to the Hillcrest community, its development needs and the Pernicano legacy.
“We wanted to make whoever is looking at this property was as familiar as possible with what the community is going through with the [update to the community plan’s] design element and also what the needs are,” Savory said.
The website also puts any rumors to rest that the Pernicanos sat on the property due to the growing prominence of the LGBT community in the area. Three videos on the website explain in detail what a potential buyer needs to know about the thriving and culturally rich neighborhood that is Hillcrest.
“[The development should be] a place that is inviting, safe, open to all and in a word, extraordinary,” said narrator, managing agent for The Savory Group, and Hillcrest resident, Nelson White in one of the videos.
“Hillcrest is a place where people of all beliefs and lifestyles live together in harmony and mutual respect,” White said in another.
Without a historical designation or any entitlements endowed on the property, Savory said the developers will basically have a “clean slate” and could do whatever they wish, although she said the historical nature of the building would be something for them to keep in mind in their design phase.
Any new development would also have to follow the guidelines of the pending Uptown Community Plan update, Savory said, despite the fact that it is not yet approved.
Once Savory and her team get submissions Oct. 3 and see what potential developers have in mind, they will present them to community planners and other community groups and get a consensus.
“It’s got to make sense to the developer but we want to find a way where this works for everybody as best as we can,” she said.
As for the Pernicanos, Savory said they hope to leave behind some type of legacy at the future property, whether through a plaque or some sort of dedication, but their heart really is with Hillcrest itself.
“They want to contribute as much as possible in securing the buyer that has the best chance of coming up with a design that the community will appreciate or benefit from,” she said.
—Morgan M. Hurley can be reached at email@example.com.
What should happen with Pernicanos?
“It would be great to have a parking garage a la North Park which would help all of the surrounding restaurants and other businesses. Maybe put a restaurant on top with a great view … and an open roof area like Inn at The Park, so we can bring our Friday night happy hour back to the hood.”
—Meldon Merrill, a San Diego resident since 1960, a Hillcrest resident since 1993 and board member of Lambda Archives. Merrill never dined in the restaurant, but is quite familiar with its various states of being.
“I think the Fifth Avenue building should be preserved. It’s a Spanish-style building … and under that metal cover-up facade, I think everything should still be there.”
—Local resident and avid photographer Greg May has long been concerned with the historical aspects of the Uptown neighborhoods and not only volunteers time with SOHO and the Hillcrest History Guild, he documents photographs of the neighborhoods on his Facebook page: Gregory’s San Diego.
“I would like to see there something that connects Fifth and Sixth [avenues]. The preferred choice would be mid-rise residential housing, with retail on the bottom, perhaps a tiny corner green space with a nice fountain for workers to have lunch, like Little Italy … Talk of a boutique hotel? Blah.”
—Local resident and longtime GSDBA staffer Eric Carroll.
“I am thrilled that there is a possibility for a new project to go in on that desolate property. It has been a blight for too many years now in the heart of our neighborhood. We have all just grown up around it. I am hoping for a project that will add meaning to the unique place that is Hillcrest.”
—Luke Terpstra, Hillcrest Town Council chair and longtime resident.
“Think big … imagine incorporating the space underneath both of Pernicano’s properties along with the Rite Aid parking lot into a large underground parking facility with several access points including one from Highway 163. Rite Aid lot would retain disabled parking near the door, but the rest of the asphalt would be transformed into a community park or plaza.
“Across Robinson Avenue, a raised sidewalk would lead to another park and a mid-to high-rise tower of affordable housing designed with floors for seniors and service people who will commit to using public transportation. The penthouse will feature fabulous views and a rooftop garden for all to enjoy. At ground level Hillcrest’s finest restaurant will be featured near the corner of Sixth & Robinson with an entrance at the front door and (of course) valet parking.
“When exiting from the garage people may walk to the restaurant, into another open green space with fountains or through an alleyway that connects to Fifth Avenue. This is lined with storefronts available for first time entrepreneurs at affordable rents. Businesses grow, become established and relocate … opening up the opportunity for another.”
“Hillcrest can sustain a mid-to-high-end hotel … the market is there. This is an opportunity to get some cutting edge and happening hotel in Hillcrest. We lack accommodations. The interim height ordinance has given us flexibility.”
“I hope that this building becomes a destination mixed-use development with parking, active uses on the ground floor, such as retail or restaurants, and substantial residential or service uses on the second and third floors. A boutique hotel, as has been proposed elsewhere in Hillcrest, is a great idea.”
—Benjamin Nicholls, interim executive director of the Hillcrest Business Association. Nicholls also previously served as executive director of the HBA from 2007 – 2013.
And finally, Council President Todd Gloria, whose slight of hand finally got the family to negotiate public use for the property’s parking lot:
“I am excited about the Pernicano’s property being for sale,” Gloria said via email. “I hope that it will soon be transformed into something that activates the site and reflects the character of Hillcrest as well as the former glory of Pernicano’s at its peak.
“I have heard community preferences for a hotel or a mixed-use property, and my request for potential buyers is simply to work closely with Hillcrest neighbors when developing their proposals. This site has been the source of complaints over the years and it has the potential for being a hallmark project of great benefit to the area,” Gloria said.
For more information about The Savory Group’s marketing of this property, visit uptownpernicanos.com.