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Long boarded-up Pernicano’s has sold — really

 The Pernicano’s, Casa di Baffi building  in Hillcrest on Thursday.
Pernicano’s, which has been closed since 1985, would be redeveloped in the near future now that the family-owned site has been sold to a development firm.
(Hayne Palmour IV/The San Diego Union-Tribune)

Long considered an eyesore, the prime Hillcrest site has sold following multiple failed escrows

After several aborted attempts to sell the long boarded-up Pernicano’s in Hillcrest, the property has finally changed hands, raising expectations that the gritty site on Sixth Avenue may now be redeveloped.

Details on plans for the nearly 25,000-square-foot property are sparse, but real estate agent Jeanine Savory, who represented the Pernicano family in the sale, said Monday that some sort of mixed-use development combining housing and ground-level commercial uses is likely.

Purchasing the property for nearly $8.5 million was Carmel Partners, a San Francisco-based real estate investment and development firm with multiple offices in the U.S. Representatives of the company did not return emails or phone calls seeking comment on plans for the site. The selling price was considerably less than previous offers in the $12 million range.

News of the October sale, which the family and the buyer have largely kept under the radar, marks a major milestone in the long-running, on-again off-again attempts to redevelop the Hillcrest site. Earlier efforts repeatedly stalled amid litigation and conflicting visions for how the prime location should be developed.

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Over the last five years, three prospective buyers have come and gone, the most recent one backing out of escrow in April of this year after a favorable ruling on a lawsuit challenging zoning changes in the Uptown communities — including Hillcrest — was appealed.

Now that the sale is complete, whatever emerges on the Pernicano’s site will no doubt be an improvement over what has long been regarded as a community eyesore, said Urban Housing Partners President Sherm Harmer, who previously worked with the Pernicano family on future development possibilities.

“The prospects of it being developed are now very good,” Harmer said of the sale. “It gets rid of the eyesore and it could add some public parking. Hillcrest is ripe to be developed as soon as we get some of the legal stuff out of the way. It’s really sad that the retail businesses are very marginal and they could really use a shot in the arm.”

Savory said that based on the allowable density under a City Council-approved community plan update in 2016, about 61 multifamily housing units would be allowed — the equivalent of one unit per 400 square feet.

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“This latest buyer decided to close escrow because they’re comfortable with the community plan and they see the value in the investment in Hillcrest,” Savory said. “Whether they start building before the lawsuit is resolved, I don’t know.”

Gary Pernicano, 73, whose later father George Pernicano started the Hillcrest restaurant when he was just 2 months old, said he had pushed for a plan that envisioned a boutique hotel, apartments, affordable housing and a shopping promenade between Fifth and Sixth avenues. But he said pushback from the community over the project’s height ultimately foiled those plans, despite an ultimately successful years-long fight to preserve density in the Hillcrest area.

“The outcome wasn’t what I was looking for,” said Pernicano, who runs the Pernicano’s restaurant in El Cajon. The longstanding Pernicano’s in Pacific Beach closed just a few months ago. “We gave it our best to give the community something back. Our project would have been the centerpiece, the gateway to downtown on Sixth Avenue. But now it’s finally done, and it’s sad to leave because there’s a lot of history. I started washing dishes when I was 6 years old and I was cooking when I was 12.”

His father first opened Pernicano’s pizzeria in 1946 on University Avenue and four years later moved Pernicano’s to its current location on Sixth Avenue. He opened the adjoining Casa di Baffi steakhouse in 1960.

In the decades after Pernicano’s closed, the vacant building became increasingly run-down and unsightly. Pernicano complained that vandals frequently burglarized the interior, stripping it of its wiring and plumbing.

“I had wanted to open it back up 10 years ago but it kept getting broken into, which cost us about a million and a half dollars,” Pernicano recalled. “But now it is what it is and we got the right price for this time.”


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