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Should San Diego pay to upgrade this Little Italy park?

San Diego Union Tribune logo San Diego Union Tribune 2/1/2023 Jennifer Van Grove
Amici Park in Little Italy San Diego. (Adriana Heldiz/The San Diego Union-Tribune) © Provided by San Diego Union Tribune Amici Park in Little Italy San Diego. (Adriana Heldiz/The San Diego Union-Tribune)

The city of San Diego is contemplating spending more than $3 million to upgrade Amici Park in downtown's Little Italy neighborhood even though it does not own or operate the 2.8-acre facility.

The proposed monetary contribution, several years in the making, was last week floated before San Diego City Council’s four-person Active Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, which voted to send the matter on to the full council without a recommendation.

One block removed from the popular Piazza della Famiglia at 350 West Date St., Amici Park is a lesser trafficked, hardscaped public space on the southern edge of Washington Elementary School grounds. It is perhaps best known for its two bocce ball courts and dog park, although its most visual landmark is the outdoor amphitheater at the corner of State and West Date streets, which is semi-permanently fenced off to prevent people from sleeping on the steps.

The property is owned by the San Diego Unified School District and is leased on a long-term basis to the not-for-profit Little Italy Association through 2080. The association is responsible for Amici Park's upkeep and improvements, as outlined in a 2014 lease agreement that also spells out necessary improvements. The nonprofit completed the 13,000 square-foot dog park on its own dime, raising around $140,000 for the project, Marco Li Mandri, who is CEO of the Little Italy Association, told council members.

"But the other part of the park, which was dedicated in 1997, was really never completed," he said at last week's meeting.

The steps of the outdoor amphitheater at Amici Park, which have been fenced off to prevent people from sleeping on them. (Adriana Heldiz/The San Diego Union-Tribune) © (Adriana Heldiz/The San Diego Union-Tribune) The steps of the outdoor amphitheater at Amici Park, which have been fenced off to prevent people from sleeping on them. (Adriana Heldiz/The San Diego Union-Tribune)

Now, the city of San Diego is proposing to enter into a compensation agreement with the Little Italy Association to cover $3 million in upgrades to Amici Park, reimbursing the nonprofit for costs as downtown development impact fees become available.

The planned improvements call for an overall flattening of the property to improve access, extending the State Street curb line into the street to add more square footage, all-new landscaping, fencing to secure the perimeter of the park at dark, better lighting, and a long, linear fountain just east of new bocce courts that can be covered for additional pedestrian space during events. The big-picture vision seeks to extend the success of the Piazza della Famiglia, also managed by the association, up West Date Street, creating a civic square book-ended by the two public spaces.

"Amici Park is at the east end of one of the most dynamic neighborhoods in the county. The growing density of Little Italy requires that we stay one step ahead of the public space needs of the neighborhood, the school, the church and downtown residents in general," Li Mandri told the Union-Tribune. "Though small, the upgraded Amici Park will have a dramatic and positive impact on the people who live in, work in and visit Little Italy."

The city's proposed financing arrangement appears to be unprecedented. The city has not, as far as anyone can recall, ever entered into a reimbursement agreement with a nonprofit agency, Brian Schoenfisch, who heads the city’s Urban Division, told the Union-Tribune.

"It may not be owned by the city or managed by the city, but (Amici Park) is a publicly accessible park, so it serves the needs of the residents in the surrounding community," he said.

Development impact fees are a one-time charge, collected by the city at a project's completion and assessed based on total units or square footage. The fees, in essence, represent a fair-share contribution toward public facilities — streets, fire stations, libraries and parks — needed in a community.

The downtown developer impact fee fund has been wiped out, with East Village Green still awaiting earmarked money as it becomes available and the proposed North Central Square Park second in line. However, the fund is due to be replenished over a years-long period by an estimated 15 downtown projects that were in the pipeline prior to the city’s new impact fee policy, with the money restricted for use downtown.

Little Italy is deserving of its share of proceeds, Li Mandri said.

"(Little Italy) has contributed millions of dollars in developer impact fees. (The money) has not come back here," Li Mandri said, citing high-density residential projects like Trammell Crow Residential's Simone tower at 1401 Union St. "If we're contributing a lot of developer impact fees, we should be able to tap into that."

The bocce ball courts in Amici Park at Little Italy. (Adriana Heldiz/The San Diego Union-Tribune) © (Adriana Heldiz/The San Diego Union-Tribune) The bocce ball courts in Amici Park at Little Italy. (Adriana Heldiz/The San Diego Union-Tribune)

The singularity of the proposed agreement received pushback from the Downtown San Diego Partnership, a nonprofit business association that often advocates on behalf of developers. The group voiced concerns about the city using development impact fees to pay for improvements to a property it does not own, the public's limited involvement in the park's design, and the prospect of losing the investment should the school district sell the land.

"Frankly, there is a laundry list of more fully accessible, public space improvement projects that the entire city could benefit from that are more in line with the changing conversation related to (development impact fees)," Josh Coyne, who is the partnership's vice president of policy, said during public testimony.

Council members discussed the Amici Park deal in brief, as it was presented alongside proposed agreements for North Central Square Park. But there were questions about the city's plan to reimburse a nonprofit, and not a developer, as is typical.

"This is, I think, a pretty big policy shift," Councilmember Joe LaCava said. "Reimbursements for developers who build public facilities at our demand is a different story, I think, and so I have a little bit of a problem with that."

The Amici Park agreement will go before the full council in the coming months. It may also come back with a larger ask. The $3 million price tag is a dated estimate, with the actual cost of improvements likely between $3.5 million and $4 million, Li Mandri said.

Even with approval, the upgrades could still be years away from being constructed. Amici Park is behind others in the queue slated to receive reimbursement from downtown's development impact fee fund as it is replenished.

This story originally appeared in San Diego Union-Tribune.


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