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When Old and New Mix Like Oil and Water

The new La Pensione single-room-occupancy hotel near downtown San Diego proves that it is seldom practical to re-create history. This building is an example of how not to preserve the historic character of San Diego neighborhoods.

At four stories, this $3.5-million, 80-room hotel at the intersection of India and Date streets, designed by San Diego architect Rob Quigley, is a highly visible landmark in the neighborhood known as Little Italy.

Project developers Barone Galasso had to tear down a Mission Revival-style building that housed a favorite local Mexican restaurant to put up their new hotel. Instead of saving the original structure, preservationists requested that the distinctive look of the original building be somehow incorporated into La Pensione.

Developer Michael Galasso has been a partner in four other downtown SRO projects, but this was his first collaboration with Quigley.

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“We wanted something that was historical yet had a little of the cutting-edge flavor to it,” he said. “It was very risky for us. At times, we were uncomfortable with the design, and we spent lots of time in redesign, especially the corner treatment, how to handle the development of two stories of hotel rooms on top of a ‘historic’ building.”

Quigley has become internationally known for his string of SROs in downtown San Diego. This is his third, and the first mixed-use SRO downtown. Along with the hotel rooms, it has space for two ground-floor restaurants, including Tres Amigos, the restaurant formerly located there.

To get their design juices flowing, Quigley and his staff architects imagined that La Pensione consists of two phases: an original corner Mexican restaurant (i.e. the architects’ re-creation) with a hotel added on either side and above.

The corner restaurant element is intended to capture the 1920s and 1930s-era Mission Revival mode of the old restaurant, while the hotel portions take a modern, hard-edged approach.

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But the result is a contrived pastiche that doesn’t do justice to either the revival or contemporary modes. Although Quigley has succeeded in the past at making a collage of architectural elements from different periods and styles, La Pensione comes off as awkward cut-and-paste.

Part of the problem was the budget. According to developer Michael Galasso, La Pensione was built for about $60 a square foot--slightly higher than some other SROs, but low for a commercial structure.

This meant, for example, that where the original Tres Amigos had wooden window frames, its successor uses inexpensive aluminum. There was little room in the budget for the kinds of decorative detailing such revival architecture requires: colorful ceramic tile, decorative moldings, stone.

The monochromatic color palette of La Pensione adds to the building’s austere appearance. Little Italy is characterized by colorful awnings, signage and trim, often done in Italian reds and greens. La Pensione’s walls are gray and white, its awnings black. The only traces of color are the red lettering high on the building and some pinkish trim along Date.

La Pensione has white ceramic tile on its corner street-level walls, but this doesn’t enhance the building’s appeal. Unless you’re right next to it, the tile reads as white stucco.

And the stucco work, along with much of the other craftsmanship on this building, is poor.

(The well-appointed lobby, with its black granite detailing, is the building’s high-quality exception.)

Functionally, too, the building is a disappointment. Quigley’s basic innovation in SROs, which pack a lot of people into a relatively compact building, has been the use of central courtyards at projects such as the Baltic and the J Street Inn downtown.

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The courtyards add light and fresh air to inner rooms, and courtyard water features add a calming effect, drowning the din of so many people so close together.

La Pensione’s courtyard, which will eventually be used by one of the restaurants for outdoor dining, is the building’s most valuable asset.

Water pours from a plain pipe into a long, narrow channel with a pleasant trickling sound. A tiny, triangular second-floor balcony gives a romantic effect reminiscent of an old Italian side street. The main entries off Date and India, which lead to the courtyard, and the courtyard itself, are paved with attractive terra-cotta tiles. Creeping vines spill over from rooftop planters onto a third-floor wooden trellis above the courtyard.

The rooms at La Pensione are Spartan but not as affordable as you might expect, given that slightly smaller rooms in earlier Quigley-designed SROs start at $80 a week (at the Baltic, 521 6th Ave.).

La Pensione’s 192-square-foot rooms are priced from $140 a week. These are basic, livable boxes, equipped with beds, built-in desks, closets, sinks, compact refrigerators and microwaves, as well as bathrooms with shower-tubs. Galasso estimates that 5% of his guests will be travelers, the rest locals in need of short-term, affordable housing, without a huge up-front cost.

Quigley, who has a reputation for his knowledge of energy-efficient design, has made some questionable design decisions here. With their large south-facing windows, rooms on the southeast corner of the building get stifling hot on mercury-blasting days like San Diego has experienced this week. Open windows and ceiling fans may help, but ventilation is in short supply, and sun exposures are poorly controlled.

Visually, La Pensione works best from a distance. As you drive north from the heart of downtown along one-way India Street, the building can be plainly seen above its one- and two-story neighbors.

A tall tower near the corner, which bears the hotel’s name, has been turned slightly out of alignment from La Pensione’s lower walls to address motorists like a billboard.

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Behind this corner tower, two smaller, tile-roofed towers add a quaint, vaguely Italian touch.

From a distance, you don’t notice the poor workmanship so much, and, for a moment, the building captures some of the pastel-colored romance that were in the architect’s renderings for the project.

There’s a lesson here, one already delivered on a much larger scale by Los Angeles architect Jon Jerde’s design of the Horton Plaza shopping mall, which opened downtown in 1985.

In order to clear a path for Horton Plaza, the Centre City Development Corp. had to demolish several of downtown San Diego’s signature period buildings, including the Lyceum Theatre and the Knights of Pythias building.

Small elements of these buildings were re-created within the new mall. But you have to know right where to look to find them. And, within the context of this heaping scoop of postmodern sherbet, these details don’t have anything approaching a quaint, historical effect.

If Tres Amigos was really worth preserving as an essential historic element in Little Italy, the original building should have been saved or renovated in its original two-story form. If not, Quigley should have been free to design an entirely new structure.

Historic preservation is an admirable cause but only when practiced with honesty and authenticity, not a cartoonish, Disneyland Main Street sensibility.


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