LIVING IN THE CITY: Design VIPs Kathleen Hallahan & Rob Quigley

Downtown San Diego's urban history is captured in the live/work story of this architecture super couple

“Living In the City” is the San Diego Sun‘s feature Q&A with downtown San Diego residents. It’s a way to get to know the city by meeting the people who live here. This is an ongoing series.

Names: Kathleen Hallahan and Rob Quigley

Locations: Lived in Little Italy for 25 years; living in East Village for the last 10 years in a self-designed-and-built, mixed-use building named Torr Kaelan.

Personal deets: Both are principal architects of their own firms. Kathleen is a San Diego native. Rob is a refugee from Los Angeles.

Professional acclaim: Architectural resumes list dozens of industry awards. Notable local buildings include the San Diego Central Library, New Children’s Museum, Ocean Discovery Institute, Solana Beach Transit Station, Bayside Fire Station No. 2 and Fire Station No. 5 in Hillcrest, Balboa Park Activity Center and the Sherman Heights Community Center. Rob’s three SROs in the 1980s for the working poor started a nationwide trend. He’s a co-founder of the San Diego Commons project. Kathleen is currently president of the East Village Residents Group.

Why Rob chose San Diego: “After graduating and working in South America, I returned with the intent of practicing architecture and urban design. It was clear that Los Angeles would never be very interesting from an urban standpoint. San Diego, on the other hand, was a blank slate beckoning!

San Diego’s Central Library in East Village. (Getty Images)

Rob recalls the early days: “We started construction on our first downtown home and office in 1986. It was likely the first new residence in Little Italy since World War II. It was also downtown’s first legal mixed-use building. In those days you weren’t allowed to work and live in the same building.

“Downtown had been abandoned during the 1960s. The possibilities of helping to rethink and rebuild it were seductive. My first office at State and G Street was a wasteland in the late ’70s. There were no residents or tourists. At least parking was a non-issue!

“Grant Grill (which we couldn’t afford), Rancho Chico in the warehouse district (now East Village) and a Chinese restaurant in a creepy bordello were the only three places to eat that were open after 6 p.m.

“There were no resources or culture, but it was a great time to be downtown. Creative types from all over came to our street parties. We would block off State Street with barricades and invite everyone we knew. The police were glad to see some activity and would join in.

“Kathleen and I met at one of those parties.”

A 1980s downtown street party at State and G Street, attended by creative types and a motorcycle cop. (Courtesy photo)

Kathleen on Little Italy in the ’80s: “People thought we were crazy to move there, much less build there. My father (who says he was the only Irishman in Little Italy) grew up a block away from our place.

“Little Italy was an authentic community, with a wonderful and colorful past and, I thought, a rosy future. It was a real working community, but many of the Italian families moved out when the I-5 freeway was built.

“When the tuna-fishing industry was profitable, there was enough of the emigrant culture left to make the neighborhood unique and special. Italian San Diego was centered on the church and community center, as it is today.

“There was the Italian church behind our house, where we were married. There was a welding shop, tire shop and a furniture store. Mike Daniels’ art store. Neilson’s photo supply. An Audi dealer.

“Restaurants were few but significant: With Mona Lisa, Filippis and the Italian Village (where waiters suddenly burst into opera). Fresh Guinness at a new pub called Princess of Wales complimented the historic Waterfront Bar. There were only a couple of cappuccino machines. The one at Solunto’s Bakery never worked. Assenti’s Pasta was all I needed.

“There were more overhead telephone and power lines than people, though. When the businessmen exited for the suburbs at 5 p.m., the kids took over the streets with soccer games under dim street lights. It felt like a small town within a small town back then, not so much like an entertainment district.”

In the 1970s, Quigley and Hallahan dreamed of a more vibrant downtown San Diego. (Courtesy photo)

The Little Italy Focus Plan: “A small group of local activists were concerned that the coming gentrification of the neighborhood would unintentionally ruin Little Italy,” Rob says. “Led by Betty Slater, we got together in evenings and put together a plan. It overlayed ideas about character preservation in our neighborhood on the existing downtown general plan. It was presented to the Redevelopment Agency and accepted.

“For the most part, it’s been followed. The largest departure from the plan has to do with architectural style. Other than Our Lady of the Rosary Church, the rich and colorful culture of the neighborhood came from the people and their traditions. Not from the architectural style of the buildings.

“The plan emphasizes the importance of perpetuating an honest, working-class aesthetic. Unfortunately, fake Italian styles in many new developments have introduced an element of kitsch that was not there in the beginning.

“Interestingly, the architecture that has really enriched the community is contemporary in nature. San Diego’s best architectural talent (such as Ted Smith, Jonathan Segal, Lloyd Russell, Kathy McCormick, Jim Brown, Robin Brisbois, Sebastian Mariscal, Brett Farrow and others) have done some of their best work in Little Italy.”

India Street in Little Italy.

The Battle of Little Italy: “We were all looking forward to the trolly being built through Little Italy,” Rob says. “But we were dumbstruck when the Transit District announced that it would run through our neighborhood as an elevated track, like the Chicago L.

“In those days public input was not particularly valued or requested by government agencies. No one had spoken to the community about this. It would block the views and connection to the bay by creating a physical and psychological barrier. Because of the historic tie between Little Italy and the fishing industry, this proposal was especially offensive.

“We were told by our councilman and Senator Jim Mills, head of the Metropolitan Transit District, that the decision was made, funded and irreversible. We were also told Senator Mills never loses a political battle.

“It’s a long and interesting–but forgotten–story. I have a binder about three inches thick of newspaper clippings on it. But because of a group of about 10 people, the trolly is now at or below grade. The historic views are intact and it works wonderfully for both transit and community.”

Breaking ground on Torr Kaelan in East Village, with Rob pushing and Kathleen at the controls. (Courtesy photo)

Two mistakes: “In most ways, the rebirth of San Diego exceeded my expectations,” Rob says. “It’s much more lively and vibrant than I thought possible. I do have two regrets…”

  1. “The still-current trend to consolidate small lots and develop an entire block into a single mega-building. These vertical gated communities are especially happening in East Village. They’re ruining the walkable, pedestrian scale found in areas like the Gaslamp Quarter. The reason Little Italy is so popular is not only the food, but because the old Italian and Portuguese single-family ownerships made full block consolidation difficult.”
  2. “The second big mistake was allowing a few big hotel developers and the convention center to block the city from its biggest asset: the bay. How much more wonderful would our city be–for locals and tourists–if the city fabric touched the water? This exercise in diminishing our potential (‘urban suicide’) is why I fought so hard to keep the Spanos Stadium Plan from creating a five-city-block wall between East Village/The Barrio and the bay. From my standpoint, it was never about football or even a greedy billionaire taking our tax money, it was about making a great city.”

Torr Kaelan. (Courtesy photo)

Living in East Village: “At Torr Kaelan, we have all of the advantages of working at home and none of the disadvantages,” Kathleen says. “But what’s really the best are our neighbors. Delightful and interesting folks have gravitated to this building.

“Also, we’re three blocks away from Park & Market (UCSD Downtown Hub). And one block from the Central Library. In May, our daughter was married there.

We’re also close to our favorite East Village cafes, restaurants and bars. The Mission restaurant is right next door. We’re only two blocks from the best smoothies (Jai Juice) and best bread in town (Izola).”

Inside The Church by The Lost Abbey.

Dinner spot: The Church by The Lost Abbey. Their tofu tacos (with fresh tortillas), and Board Meeting (dark beer) make the perfect relaxing evening under the stars.

Coffee shop(s): TapShack has fresh-brewed kombucha and the best matcha latte. Cafe Virtuoso is great for fresh beans and coffee.

Go-to bar: Storyhouse Spirits. The distillery is on view and is like a great piece of stainless-steel art. Nice view of the library from the second floor. Love the way it opens out to the sidewalk and brings the street alive. They need to bring back the grilled Brussels sprouts.

The Carly Ealey mural outside Storyhouse Spirits.

City infrastructure: “The roads here are the worst,” Rob says. “Especially at the exit off the freeway at Imperial between Fourteenth and Seventeenth streets. This is a major entrance to downtown and Petco Park. Embarrassing for all San Diegans–and hard on our cars.”

Homelessness: “It’s a national, not just a hometown issue, and unfortunately part of the culture that our country has created for itself,” Kathleen says. “That doesn’t make it any easier to see such poverty, mental illness and addiction. The situation has definitely gotten much worse in the last five years. What would help the most, other than housing, is care for the mentally ill and more working public restrooms.”

Doo-doo and decibels: “Dog owners that don’t clean up after their pets is an issue,” Kathleen says. “Plus, the lack of a system for enforcing the city’s rules regarding noise pollution. We have reached a residential density where noise and music (outside of the Gaslamp entertainment district) need to be monitored and the source shut down when it exceeds allowable decibels. It is not fair to businesses or residents when the enforcement is haphazard.”

Scooters: “They’d be a positive addition to downtown if used as transportation by responsible riders,” Kathleen says. “But they’re used for entertainment by many who do not know how to control them or have been drinking too much. The situation has improved. We thank Safe Walkways and David Gapp for diligent work.”

Sunset on San Diego Bay.

Transportation breakdown: The couple walk everywhere downtown. They bike to the bay, Balboa Park, Barrio Logan, Sherman Heights and Golden Hill. They’re fans of the new, dedicated/protected bike lanes.

Funny moment: “It was a warm summer evening and we were sitting on the grass at Fault Line Park, watching Movies in the Park,” Rob says. “The lawn sprinklers suddenly turned on during the movie. Total panic and chaos and lots of laughter.”

Best insider tip: Don’t forget how wonderful the sunset view is from the waterfront.

The future of East Village: Kathleen and Rob are both upbeat. “We moved here because it is the last downtown neighborhood that is still becoming what it wants to be and it is fun to be a part of that,” Kathleen says. “We can’t imagine living anywhere else.” SDSun



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