san diego
Universal Hillcrest closes
Future of the property is uncertain
Published Thursday, 28-Jan-2010 in issue 1153
Universal Hillcrest, one of the newest additions to Hillcrest’s night life scene, closed its doors on New Year’s Eve after 21 months in business.
“We were faced with a number of unforeseen problems including a delayed opening at a time when the economy was just starting to unravel,” James Brennan, CEO and partner of EnDev Enterprises, LLC, said of the 15,000 square-foot venue. “Unfortunately we were victims of the times and we were faced with the perfect storm.”
The economy has affected California businesses with small-business bankruptcies up 81 percent in 2009, according to the Los Angeles Times. About 19,500 small businesses filed for bankruptcy, an increase of 10,500.
“I am disappointed about the closure of Universal Hillcrest,” said Councilmember Todd Gloria, who represents the areas contained by District 3 on the San Diego City Council. “The global economic recession has taken an unfortunate toll on many local businesses, and Universal was not immune to the downturn. I am hopeful that we will soon have another landmark business in this prominent location.”
Universal battled to stay afloat over the course of its freshman and sophomore years in business as neighborhood residents complained about patrons noisily walking to their cars, cleaning vomit from their yards, as well as lawsuits and construction delays that plagued the business.
“We spent a lot of time fighting lawsuits and spending money on attorney’s fees,” Brennan said.
Universal faced another setback when lawsuits and liens on the complex caused a lender to back out of the project, costing $2 million.
“It’s been an uphill battle from before we opened the place,” Brennan said.
Benjamin Nichols, executive director of the Hillcrest Business Association, cited two reasons for the failure of the business, the poor economy and Universal’s lack of community support.
“McDonald’s is doing great while some of the higher end restaurants aren’t doing so well,” Nichols noted as a comparison. “People wanted to go to their local bar rather than going to some fancy nightclub and get bottle service.”
Nichols agreed Universal could have worked in a better economy and a similar business would work in the space.
“They would have to build a destination that fits the neighborhood, engage with the neighborhood and build a local trust and customer base that will keep them going through the hard economic times,” Nichols added. “I would encourage anyone who moves into the neighborhood to engage with the community, with the business association and get connected early on.”
In addition to the other problems the business faced around its opening, rumors spread that Universal was pretentious and had dress codes. Patrons complained about paying a cover charge as well as rude staff.
“To try to bring a downtown sentiment, that’s not the Hillcrest I’m familiar with,” Nichols said. “The management didn’t really get the vibe of the neighborhood like some of the other nightlife destinations do. They tried to be good neighbors at some point but it’s hard to dial that back especially in an unforgiving economy.”
While many rumors are afloat regarding the future of the property, many believe the owners of the Abbey Food & Bar in Los Angeles plan to make a similar nightclub in Hillcrest.
“It’s one of the many rumors floating around,” David Cooley, founder and president of the Abbey Food & Bar said. “But if and when it happens, you will be the first to know!” Cooley replied in an email.
“The venue is for sale and we have multiple people looking at the property,” Brenner said, adding he thinks the space will remain a nightspot and restaurant once sold.
Nichols expressed concern for the property saying he hopes it does not fall into a state of disrepair.
“I would hate to think because Universal failed in that location it ended up reverting back to what it looked like before James Brennan spent all his money on it,” Nichols said. “I hope somebody can pick up the ball on it and put in a nightclub that works with the community.”
Brennan developed prominent Gaslamp hotspots, Stingaree and Sidebar as well as Pacific Beach’s Bar West.
While the situation with Universal may be bleak, Brennan is looking forward to opening a Gaslamp restaurant and lounge with famed chef Brian Malarkey. The duo’s venture, called Searsucker, is projected to open in the spring or summer and will feature Malarkey’s twist on American comfort food as well as an open kitchen and front row bar seating to evoke the “Top Chef” experience.

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