Jeff Clemetson | Editor
When Tony Gaipa bought the old Park Estates building at 8371 La Mesa Blvd. last year, he knew he wanted to put in something special for the city, but he wasn’t quite sure what yet.
“The initial thought was to put in a restaurant with a bar and music,” he said.
But by the time he moved in and gutted the building, several new restaurant projects were already underway in the La Mesa Village, so he enlisted the help of architect Stosh Thomas who worked with him on redesigning another building he owns, the old Sanfilippo’s Pizza restaurant that is now Farmer’s Table. The two brainstormed ideas as they examined the property, searching for inspiration.
“Then we walked outside and Tony noticed — which I didn’t even see —the La Mesa Emporium sign, the neon sign,” Thomas said. “And that’s when he said, ‘How about we do an open market for the people of La Mesa?’”
If all goes as planned, by 2019 the Village will see the return of La Mesa Emporium, an arcade of small businesses like juice bars, gift shops and art galleries. According to an historical review of the building by Urban Preservation & Planning, the original La Mesa Emporium — complete with that neon sign — opened sometime in the 1940s. Before that, it was regionally the Busch Garage and then a Pontiac dealership. According to the historical review, the original La Mesa Emporium had nine spaces occupied by “a rock shop, a yarn shop, and several antique and retail shops.” The plan for the new Emporium is pretty much the same.
“The idea is to leave the inside as is, kind of keep the rich history of the building and put in smaller tenants throughout the space,” Gaipa said, adding that he plans to have two larger “anchor” tenants by the front of the building where he is installing large roll up doors and patio seating. For the inside spaces, he imagines smaller tenants selling “things that the community would really enjoy having.”
“We’re hoping to get in an artist who would have a little studio and that studio would rotate with different art works every month or so, bringing different paintings, sculptures,” he continued.
In addition to the retail spaces, the plans include converting a currently unused loft space in the building to a 1,200-square-foot multi-use area.
“This will be more of a La Mesa locals space,” Thomas said. “It’s multifunctional, they can come in and rent the whole center area for a party. It’s one of those things we lost a long time ago and we’re bringing it back.”
“It could be used for a number of different things,” Gaipa added. “Yoga classes, it could be meetings for small companies, it could be events for parties, whatever people want to use it for. It would be available for rent on an hourly basis.”
In addition to creating an affordable event space for locals to rent out, Gaipa sees the retail spaces in the Emporium as a real deal for the future businesses that will operate there.
“Normally to rent a space like this, there’s a lot of taxes and construction costs and the cost really gets into at least $10,000 per month in rent,” he said. “But by breaking it down into smaller venues, the starting rent would be like $1,300, $1,400 for a small space or artist studio. That makes it much more affordable for the small businesses to get started and to have a La Mesa Boulevard exposure yet have low cost.”
Plans for La Mesa Emporium are currently under review by the city’s Design Review Board (DRB). Because the building space will only go through some minor cosmetic work on the walls, floors and the redo of the front façade, the only hurdle Thomas sees in holding up the project is a plan to add two parking spaces, one handicapped, as well as a covered trash bin and an SDG&E utility box at the rear building by removing a section below the multi-purpose loft space. Thomas said the parking spaces are not required as long as the square footage of the building remains the same, “but it’s the right thing to do.”
If the DRB doesn’t accept the proposal, Thomas said, he could find a way to keep the square footage the same by adding it elsewhere, or the idea could get scrapped altogether.
“I could still put in something else like a restaurant and not add any parking,” Gaipa added.
Gaipa and Thomas are hoping it doesn’t come to that and are optimistic that the project will get green-lighted because it is keeping so much of and highlighting the original building.
“Keeping the old building is, I think, the key to this — keeping the character,” Thomas said.
—Reach Jeff Clemetson at email@example.com.