Thursday, June 25, 2009 | In place of what was once a Super 8 motel at the corner of Fir and Columbia streets in downtown’s Little Italy, a dramatically remodeled 193-room hotel — now called the Porto Vista Hotel and Suites — is drawing considerable buzz.

In its first year open, the hotel’s fourth-floor restaurant with a striking view, The Glass Door, shone in the media spotlight, snagging a recent mention in a local magazine as one of the top five new restaurants in San Diego. The hotel is revamping its rooms’ interior design to feature wall-size murals of black and white vintage photographs of beach-going coeds and sophisticates riding scooters. It has introduced a rooftop happy hour and has landed a snazzy future tenant for its commercial space: a Vespa boutique.

But the property was never supposed to have 193 hotel rooms. It was approved by the Centre City Development Corp., the city of San Diego’s downtown redevelopment agency, in 2004 as a mixed development — an expansion and revamping of the former motel, alongside the construction of studio residential apartments.

At that time, the neighborhood’s official growth blueprint called for 80 percent of all new development to be residential, with 20 percent designated for commercial uses like a hotel. The original 84-room motel was allowed to stay and expand because it fit an earlier plan for the community, but the developer needed to add apartments as well as the new rooms in order to be approved under the community plan, said CCDC spokesman Derek Danziger.

The official architects’ plans on file at the city’s Development Services Department reflect that apartment-hotel mix. The most recent version of the plans, from 2006, shows 74 studio apartments and 119 hotel rooms — 193 units total.

That’s the same number of rooms that hotel staff says are now available for nightly rent. There appear to be no apartments available.

If the property’s use has indeed shifted since the building opened, the situation is more than a paperwork snafu. Community plans aren’t just guidelines; they are zoning laws that help a neighborhood plan and control its long-term growth.

If developers break with the vetted plans, the city can act to bring their properties into compliance. The project was approved based on the assumption that it would fit the community’s blueprint for development. Among other benefits, like an improved façade for the property, the hotel/apartment project was touted as helping to bring affordable living to a neighborhood that had seen a significant number of apartments converted into condos during the housing boom.

The city is investigating the project’s compliance and expects to have results in two weeks. Once a plan has been vetted and built according to those plans, the local agencies rely on inquiries from community members to alert them to potential violations.

“Nobody’s out there everyday going from project to project determining when someone’s doing something unscrupulous,” Danziger said.

If the project is found to not be in compliance, the developer would be given a chance to voluntarily fulfill the originally planned use for the project. After that, the city could issue daily fines until the project is changed, said Bob Vacchi, deputy director of the city’s Neighborhood Code Compliance Department.

The economy and development environment has completely changed in the five years since the project was approved. There might be some reasonable debate about what is better for Little Italy in this economy — renters or hotel guests. But any development change still must be permitted by the city, Danziger said. If the project has been arbitrarily used as just a hotel, without apartments, that would significantly change the population of that part of the neighborhood.

“Just because the economy is bad for a short time you don’t throw out the window all of your policies and plans and zoning,” Danziger said.

Repeated calls over the last week to Moe Siry, the contact listed on the project plans for developers Siry Investments, were not returned. Chenais Siry, who works for the developer, said the project has both hotel rooms and apartments.

“Yes, we have apartments,” Chenais Siry said. “I don’t know how many there are. You would need to deal with Moe. We just handle the hotel side. Moe handles the apartments and everything.”

Chenais Siry said she could not describe what part of the building the apartments were in, but she confirmed that the hotel has 193 rooms.

Despite repeated attempts over the last week to locate apartments at Porto Vista, a voiceofsandiego.org reporter was unable to do so.

A tour of the property last Thursday with Grace Harrison, Porto Vista’s guest services manager, included no mention of any apartments. The developer’s website lists apartments for rent in three other downtown properties, but makes no mention of apartments at the Porto Vista.

The physical differences between a studio apartment and a typical hotel room are not great, Vacchi said. Along with a way to heat the space, there must be a place to store food, like a mini-refrigerator; a place to cook food, like a microwave or a stove; and a place to prepare food, like a counter, in order to make a space an apartment. If these units are being rented as hotel rooms instead of apartments, it is not likely that anything would have to change in their physical structure to convert them to apartment use.

“They may be for all practical purposes exactly the same, but you know, the way they operate is completely different,” said Pete Lynch, a development project manager for the city who focuses on downtown.

Even though the developer has technically followed the code for what was required in terms of construction, it’s up to the developers or operators to comply with whatever land use they’ve agreed to comply with. A developer is not permitted to build something to match a technical building code requirement but use it for something else, Lynch said.

“It’s that simple — you can’t do that,” he said.

The project — originally named Bayview Motel and Apartments — started construction in November of 2004 and was completed in May 2008, according to CCDC records. The CCDC staff report issued on June 16, 2004 highlighted the project’s mixed uses. Little Italy and downtown plans encouraged a variety of housing types and price ranges, the report mentioned. “The project … will add to the diversity of affordable and market-rate apartments and condominiums being constructed in Little Italy,” the report says.

At the time of the report in 2004, two major nearby high-rise projects, Acqua Vista and Palermo, had been converted from apartments to condos while they were being constructed. The neighborhood had just lost a number of proposed rental units.

But now, with foreclosures in downtown condos attracting investors who want to buy units for cheap and rent them out, the rental stock is hearty, said downtown real estate broker Jim Abbott.

“What has happened in recent years ensures that we will have adequate rental opportunities for anyone who wants them for years and years to come,” Abbott said.

This hasn’t been the only debate about the Porto Vista, even as the hotel gains prominence and attracts dinner guests to its hyped restaurant.

Some neighbors in Little Italy have raised concerns about the noise from the outdoor portions of the restaurant and rooftop party space. At a recent meeting of the Little Italy Association, the neighborhood planning and oversight organization, the residents with concerns were encouraged to work the issues out individually with the hotel developers, said Marco Li Mandri, the association’s executive director.

Li Mandri said he didn’t know anything about whether the Porto Vista project has been implemented according to the plans the neighborhood approved several years ago. That’s between the city and the developer, he said. But he said the association would not be inherently upset if the project has been shifted to be entirely a hotel.

“We’re always pleased when we see hotels come into Little Italy,” he said. “But we don’t weigh in one way or another. It’s not a negative to us if apartment buildings are used as hotels. From the standpoint of the businesses it’s probably a positive. From the standpoint of the residents it’s probably not. In theory we’re supposed to represent everybody.”

Sherm Harmer, a prominent downtown developer, said it doesn’t matter if the property’s use as a hotel only is favorable in the community. He said it’s a subjective call for whether a developer earns more profit from a hotel than from an apartment building. But the city receives tax revenue from hotel rooms that it doesn’t get from apartments.

“The city’s better off (with a hotel), but that’s not really the issue,” Harmer said. “The issue is, are they using the building for something it was not entitled for? And if it has been then they need to come into compliance.”

Please contact Kelly Bennett directly at kelly.bennett@voiceofsandiego.org with your thoughts, ideas, personal stories or tips. Or set the tone of the debate with a letter to the editor.

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