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Visions for the future collide in historic San Gabriel

Inside a Chinese restaurant on a narrow street, a grapevine grows.

More than 50 years old, its thick, gnarled trunk sits in a courtyard beneath an open sky. At night, when strung with lights, the limbs make for a pretty canopy under which to dine.

And dine they did at Mission 261.

Foodies and restaurant critics and tourists once packed into the San Gabriel restaurant to feast on Peking duck and dim sum that came in fanciful shapes of birds and fish. Within the labyrinth of private rooms and banquet halls, birthdays were celebrated, brides and grooms were toasted, elders were honored.

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Harvey, York and Lewis Ng were proud to own a business that drew customers to the Mission District, home to the San Gabriel Mission, founded in 1771. Their purchase, the brothers believed, proved that even recent immigrants from Hong Kong could carve a place for themselves in historic American soil.

It felt like a natural move to draw up plans to expand their restaurant into a $25-million four-story, 54-room hotel with a condominium complex and retail stores.

They didn’t expect hundreds of opponents.

The Ngs’ project is now on hold after residents complained that the development would ruin the look and feel of the Mission District, a sleepy collection of Spanish-tiled businesses, and outshine the mission.

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In some ways, the debate centers on the identity of San Gabriel, one of the region’s oldest communities, which in recent decades has seen a surge in immigration from Asia. Although the proposed Mission Village is tiny compared with the 451-room Holiday Inn the Ngs built in Macao, it is taller and larger in scope than is allowed in the Mission District Specific Plan, a set of bylaws adopted in 2004 to maintain the integrity and historic nature of the area.

“We want Mr. Ng to build his development; we just want it to remain in the district plan,” resident Eloy Zarate said. “The plan is an expression of what the community feels is appropriate and keeps with the tradition and history of the changing community.”

Zarate, 42, and his wife, Senya Lubisich, are known for galvanizing the community when it comes to preserving and using its landmarks. The two history professors have lived in Italy, France and Australia, but returned to Zarate’s hometown a few years ago. They knew they wanted to raise their four children in San Gabriel.

The city 10 miles northeast of downtown Los Angeles has changed since Zarate was a boy riding his bike around the neighborhood.

Called the birthplace of the modern Los Angeles region, it was once inhabited by Tongva Indians who helped a Spanish priest build the mission. Mexican settlers later flocked to the area, which became one of the county’s first townships.

Once overwhelmingly white and Latino, the city experienced an influx of Chinese immigrants in the 1980s and is now more than 48% Asian.

The evolving diversity of San Gabriel is welcomed, Zarate said. He and his wife’s main concern is preserving the past.

San Gabriel may be a city of less than 45,000, but its historic core, the couple say, deserves the same kind of respect given to Old World cities like Paris, where skyscrapers in the city center were banned after the 689-foot-tall Tour Montparnasse arose, and, many felt, ruined the skyline.

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Constructing something outside San Gabriel’s Mission District Specific Plan would be disregarding the painstaking efforts residents made to maintain the heart of the city, the couple say.

“In a historic district you have to be very careful, especially with developments, because there’s no second chance,” Lubisich, 36, said. “One of the things the development is lacking is a survey of what residents want.”

Eileen Leiva, 49, lives down the street from the proposed development, and if she could design the area, she’d make it look like the painting her father commissioned back when he owned and operated Panchito’s, a lively Mexican restaurant where customers praised the marinated steak and albondigas soup. Frank Ramirez’s vision for the future of the Mission District was a row of quaint, one-story shops with red roofs and mission bells.

Now that he lives in a rest home, his daughter feels a responsibility to speak for him, especially because Mission 261 was once the home of Panchito’s, which was shuttered in 1993 after its clientele dropped. Leiva was grateful when the Ngs kept the property’s grapevine and invited her father to teach them how to care for it.

But Leiva admits she rarely ventures out to the Mission District. The through traffic that clogs its two-lane artery keeps her away, as does the fact that the district offers few attractions. Although the historic San Gabriel Mission Playhouse, formerly the Civic Auditorium, has a robust schedule of dance and theater performances, she’d be more likely to walk over if there were a Jamba Juice or Starbucks -- something a little more everyday.

Pulciano’s Deli and Cafe has been able to survive in the district since the business opened in 1994, but its owner was in favor of the proposed village and thinks more foot traffic would allow him to expand his hours.

“We’re strictly 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. -- the area’s pretty dead after that,” Michael Pulciano, 48, said. “We have a nice lunch crowd, all local people. But I do have a banquet room on the side I could turn into a dinner hall easily. And I have a beer and wine license I’d like to put into use one day.”

On Saturday, Mission Drive was alive with food vendors, entertainers and families enjoying the annual Grapevine Festival, an event that pays homage to the three aged grapevines in the Mission District. “They are tangible pieces of our history -- it has to do with a sense of continuity,” explained Ellie Andrews, co-president of the San Gabriel Historical Assn.

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But organized celebrations won’t tide over business owners. And Councilman David Gutierrez thinks Mission Village -- with some tweaking -- ultimately holds the answer to revitalization.

“It really did hit the nail on the head,” he said. “I’m hopeful the Ngs don’t get frustrated to the point where they throw their hands up in the air and don’t do anything, because that would be a big loss.”

The Ngs will present a revised design to the City Council in August, but the opposition from residents has stung -- especially when they see fliers that read “Save the Mission District.” That’s what the brothers thought they were doing.

“We’re in love with this space,” Harvey Ng, 46, said. “It’s our dream. If we go somewhere else, it will be totally based on economics, but this project was about passion, not profit. It was a long-term investment. But if you give someone a first-class ticket and they say, ‘No, give me economy,’ what can you do?”

In the meantime, Mission 261 will remain a ghost of its former self. Bought by the Ngs in 2002, it closed Feb. 10 in preparation for the construction whose start date has yet to appear. Leftover paper lanterns from a Chinese New Year celebration still hang from overhead lamps. Its ballrooms are empty, its kitchen silent.

The grapevine in the courtyard continues to grow.

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corina.knoll@latimes.com


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