By Frank Sabatini Jr.
Rarely are residents and nearby businesses given a voice in helping property investors choose commercial tenants for their renovation projects. Yet the newest landlords of a long-neglected Hillcrest structure dating back to 1916 are tapping into the community at large for creative suggestions as to who or what should fill 5,000 square feet of prime rental space in the building’s ground floor.
“We’re very open-minded and all ears,” said Brandon Blum, who earlier this year purchased the two-story structure at 1253 University Ave. for $2.7 million with business partner and longtime friend Daniel Shkolnik under their real estate investment company, SBMI Group.
They have since commissioned local design firm Tecture to give the building a much-needed makeover. The upstairs, which was home in part to a Flapper-era dance hall in the late 1920s, will be converted into office suites and a communal mezzanine. Work is scheduled to begin in about 30 days and will take several months to complete.
“The downstairs could be a restaurant or something fitness-related or any cool concept that uplifts the neighborhood,” Blum said. “We can divide the space or keep it whole.”
Shkolnik, on the other hand, doesn’t rule out “something interactive” going into the space. “Maybe a store where customers can make soap, or a flower shop that allows patrons to create their own bouquets,” he said.
Blum and Shkolnik recently named the building, The Wall, inspired by its expansive east-facing wall that has prompted a search for a muralist to replace the existing riot of psychedelic images spray-painted by unidentified artists over the past few years.
“We want a mural that will become a staple in the community,” said Blum, who is encouraging community members to submit suggestions about the artwork and tenant possibilities through the website thewallhillcrest.com, or by calling his office directly at 858-332-2480.
San Diego Uptown News asked several Hillcrest business owners for their input regarding potential tenants and received a range of answers.
Chris Shaw, founder of MO’s Universe (Baja Betty’s, Hillcrest Brewing Company, Gossip Grill and Urban MO’s) said he was approached by the building’s new owners for putting a restaurant into the space, but said he declined because of “something else we have in the pipeline that has yet to be announced.”
Shaw added, however, “It would be great to see some retail shops go in there, which would give pedestrians more places to browse.” Ken Mills of Wine Steals, located two addresses west of The Wall, had his ideas.
“I think it needs to be something food and beverage related, something with a solid model like Snooze that does breakfast and lunch, and with a healthy, organic approach,” he said. “It would be nice to see Hillcrest compete more with North Park.”
Simon Wolujewicz of Bull & Grain, a restaurant and craft cocktail bar due to open Sept. 19 one storefront east of the project, said he’s amendable to more competition. “But I’d like it to be something that isn’t already around here, like a Polish restaurant or a barbecue place,” he said.
Lance Crile of Uptown Pets, which adjoins The Wall, will be excited to have a new neighbor.
“I’m happy seeing anything go in there because it’s been dark and empty for so long,” he said.
David Michael, the project’s lead designer from Tecture, points to several design enhancements that will breathe new life into the building. His company’s portfolio includes work for The Patio on Goldfinch, The Patio on Lamont, Kettner Exchange (in conjunction with Blue Motif), West Coast Tavern and George’s at the Cove.
“We’re bridging an older building into the neighborhood, but without overwhelming it with some modern piece,” he said.
The exterior will be painted white, allowing greenery cascading from the roofline to visually pop. The bulky, concrete overhang in front will be replaced by a geometric awning system, likely made of lumber and steel for providing controlled shade and sunlight to a built-out sidewalk patio.
Inside, the wood flooring throughout the entire first level will be retained, as well as two wide staircases, a few skylights and the original front windows on the second level. Michael says if the budget allows, solar tubes and panels will be incorporated into the overall design.
“We look for buildings that we can add value to,” Blum said, referring to student-housing rentals in the College Area and a few commercial properties in other areas of San Diego County that his company has acquired.
“This is our first project in Hillcrest, and it is our objective to put in the best possible tenants that fit the neighborhood,” he said. “Community feedback will open us to ideas we haven’t heard yet. We’re listening.”
—Frank Sabatini Jr. can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.