Fat City / China Camp site gets approval for hotel, retail use

Posted: July 2nd, 2012 | News, Top Story | 2 Comments

Decision ensures iconic landmark will be incorporated into final design

By Morgan M. Hurley | Downtown News

After almost two years of challenges, the future fate of the corner of Pacific Highway and Hawthorne has been determined.

On May 30, the Centre City Development Corp. (CCDC) approved a six-story, 364-room dual-hotel project, 3-0. The approval was the final hurdle for GLJ Partners, who will redevelop the site. The hotel will encompass 239,000 square feet and incorporate 2,500 of that for retail space.

Architect's rendering of approved design. (Gene Fong Associates)

The prime location, just one block from the San Diego waterfront, once housed the popular Top’s Nightclub and Motel, built in 1941.  Restaurateur Tom Fat bought the property in the 1970s, changed the name to Fat City and doused the building in bright pink paint. The restaurant operated as a steakhouse until last year.

Other tenants of the building over the years have been China Camp (also run by Fat and now closed) and Denny’s, which is expected to shut its doors before redevelopment starts, sometime in early 2013.

GLJ, along with previous architect Jonathan Segal, first proposed 232 apartments for the site to much contention. The newly CCDC-approved hotel plan will keep the primary facade reminiscent of Top’s and will now be overseen by Gene Fong Associates.

Ever since news first hit the street in early 2011 that a developer had plans to level the entire corner and build apartment buildings, residents and historians alike have been in an uproar. Some wanted to preserve the building, others wanted historical designation and another restaurant, while neighboring Solar Turbines officials didn’t want apartments – and all the codes that go along with them – built on the site.

Although often deemed an “eyesore” to some, the bright pink art deco-style building with neon lights has become an iconic image of San Diego to many.

The landmark Fat City facade, as it stands today. (Photo courtesy Save Fat City Facebook page.)

Soon after the news broke, websites ( and Facebook pages (Save Fat City/ Top’s Nightclub) — urging support for both reuse and preservation of the landmark — began to sprout up and both the San Diego Historical Resources Board (HRB) and Save Our Heritage Organization (SOHO) got involved.

After a great deal of work, a compromise was finally reached and the final plan became one of restoration, instead of demolition.

Last October, Bruce Coons, executive director of SOHO, sent a letter to the Centre City Development Corp. (CCDC) urging them to allow the project to move forward. A copy was also sent to Mayor Sanders and the entire San Diego City Council.

“SOHO is very pleased to announce that our board has unanimously supported this project having arrived at a design solution with GLJ Partners and Jonathan Segal Architects that incorporates the historic Top’s / Fat City building into the project and will restore the exterior night club portion of the building to its 1941 appearance in accordance with the Secretary’s Standards for Restoration,” Coons said in the letter.

“Your action to approve the Coastal Development Permit will ensure that this prominent and beloved historic location will continue to serve the community and will help preserve the cultural heritage of Little Italy and San Diego.”

Solar Turbines had also thrown its hat in support of the hotel project, although not everyone has fallen in line.  A local hotel union group is rumored to be appealing the CCDC’s decision by lobbying the San Diego Planning Commission.


  1. Pat McArron says:

    Great news. Thanks for the report Morgan. What is a dual hotel??

  2. roman says:

    does that mean Fat City will open as a restaurant or is it just a fascade?

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