Filippi’s Pizza Grotto in downtown Escondido has been a fixture on Grand Avenue for 46 years. Its owner warned last week that the popular restaurant’s days may be numbered.
Bobby DePhilippis said if the city allows a proposed condominium project to be built on a city-owned parking lot behind his establishment that is used by most of his customers, it would likely mean the demise of his business.
“If you take (the parking lot) away from us, I know my business will fail,” DePhilippis, 68, said. “I’ll have to look for another spot or just close it.”
Last week, the City Council voted to enter into a purchase-and-sale agreement with developer Touchstone Communities to sell the parking lot should the six-story, 106-unit condo project known as The Aspire win approval.
David Ferguson, an attorney representing Touchstone, said an appraisal of the land will be made within the next 30 days. A preliminary appraisal came in at about $1.4 million, he said.
DePhilippis and other Grand Avenue business owners say parking is already at a premium in the area and eliminating the parking lot could cause economic calamity.
“You can’t take parking away and not think about what it’s going to do to other people,” said Jim Crone, owner of two buildings on Grand Avenue. He said Touchstone will do well if the project is built. “He’ll make money and go back to Newport Beach and have a good time with it … but businesses will crater.”
The Aspire project is just one of many residential projects that have either been approved or are in the planning pipeline in the downtown Escondido area. The city’s plan is to bring far more residents into the area who in turn will be likely to walk and shop in the historic business district.
But many business owners are concerned about what is already, and has long been, a parking problem downtown. They say the elimination of the 180-space parking lot across W. Valley Parkway from the California Center for the Performing Arts and the City Hall complex will hurt their businesses because people just won’t come by if there isn’t somewhere close to park.
On Friday, standing outside the restaurant, DePhilippis estimated that 80 percent of his customers park in the lot behind his business.
“We’re scared,” he said. “I think if the people in the city of Escondido knew what was going on,” they wouldn’t put up with it.
DePhilippis said should the condo project be approved, he will go to court to try and stop the development. He told the council the Escondido store was his first and favorite. He owns five Filippi’s in all: in Escondido, Poway, Santee, Jamul and Imperial Beach. Other family members are involved with 10 other restaurants in the county and California.
“I worked 20 hours a day without taking a day off trying to build the business,” he said. “It’s been a great restaurant for me.”
He said if forced to close, 50 people would be out of work.
Members of the council agreed parking is an issue, but said that it will be addressed when the project comes before them. Ferguson said Touchstone has hired a parking consultant to address such issues, which will be aired out during public hearings.
Part of The Aspire project calls for 71 public parking spaces and members of the council said some sort of temporary parking during construction would have to be provided if the project is approved.
There are also long-term plans to increase parking along Grand Avenue, they said.
The council voted 3-1 in favor of the conditional sale of the parking lot with Councilwoman Olga Diaz voting no and councilman John Masson not participating — which played a part in Diaz’s negative vote.
Masson’s civil engineering and land survey firm has worked on The Aspire project and Masson & Associates has worked as a consultant for Touchstone in different capacities for decades. He recused himself from the discussion and has done so during all closed session meetings regarding the possible sale of the property.
Diaz said even though Masson did the right thing by not participating, and even though she thinks the condo project could well be a good thing for the city, there is still in her belief a serious conflict of interest. Were she to agree to the sale, she would be partly complicit in what she said, based on her training, is an ethical breach.
“When you have an elected official who stands to profit … off of the city’s sale of an asset, you’re doubling down on the conflict of interest,” Diaz said. “It’s not just him doing business in the city, it’s him doing business in the city with the city. That’s the issue I have.”
Diaz said she was not accusing anybody of wrongdoing.
“But we can do better than what were doing with this particular scenario,” she said.
Masson was not in the chamber’s to defend himself, but Mayor Sam Abed did so for him.
“Council member Diaz’s comments will not go unchallenged,” he said. “According to the city attorney, we have followed the laws of conflict of interest. We have gone beyond the conflict of interest requirements in what is legally right. He’s abstaining. He not on the dais. You keep bringing this trust issue and secrecy up as if we are doing something behind the scene.”
On Thursday, Masson said he doesn’t understand Diaz’s concerns since he has always recused himself from matters involving clients.
“In terms of somehow me profiting from the sale of the land, I don’t know how that could even happen,” he said. “Whether or not Touchstone buys the land, there is no way for me to profit from that. I’m not part of the deal. I’m a consultant helping them with their entitlement process. My company is. And I get paid for my consulting services and I have to bid against other consulting engineers to get the work.”
Masson said even if his company wasn’t working on The Aspire project, he still would have abstained because he has worked with Touchstone for so long.