"Rent increase was like 50%."
Earlier this year, news broke that a longtime eatery in North Park, The Red Fox Steakhouse and Piano Bar, was going to vacate its current location in the Lafayette Hotel. It came as a surprise since the Red Fox Room has occupied the same space for over half a century. Finest City Improv has only leased space in the hotel for half a decade, but they are on their way out as well. According to founder and CEO Amy Lisewski the new rent was too damn high.
3746 Sixth Avenue, San Diego
“We had a good relationship with the owner, but we have a four-year lease with a four-year option. When the option came over last year to renew, they said ‘We’re gonna raise the rent this much’ and I was just like ‘Woah.’ It was a huge amount. I thought it was going to be 10-15% and it was like 50%. I said, ‘We can’t afford that at all,’ Amy said.
Finest City’s arrival at the Lafayette was a happy accident from the start. While looking for a location for the theater, Lisewski was hoping to land somewhere near the hotel.
“I was about to give up, but the hotel owner’s broker actually contacted my broker because we had met him at another space, and he had heard about what we were trying to do. He told the hotel about that and they were looking for some sort of entertainment to come in there. I think we signed our lease around May of 2013, and construction happened over the summer. Then we opened up in the fall of 2013,” she said
After the four-year lease ended, Lisewski was able to negotiate an extra year at their original rate, but still knew a move was imminent. She was on the lookout for a new location that would be self-contained, have more classroom space, and, for the first time, their own bar. She found a building that fit the bill one neighborhood to the west. The new location of Finest City Improv will be 6th Avenue, between Robinson and Pennsylvania, near the heart of Hillcrest. Besides the aforementioned improvements, other advantages here include increased walk-up visibility and, believe it or not, better parking.
“Parking has been really tough here. It wasn’t too bad five years ago, but the past two years, with all the construction around here, we have people tell us almost every weekend that they came, but they left because they circled the neighborhood for so long but found nowhere to park—so they finally left. There’re actually not even any lots that you can just pay to park at here, or any garages or anything. It’s just street parking. Hillcrest will be the same, but at least there’s lots of paid parking all around,” Lisewski said.
Even though she had studied improv in Los Angeles at Second City, Lisewski was more interested in opening an improv theater in San Diego than L.A. She knew the scene up there was vibrant, but it was packed. Finest City Improv centers on “long-form improv”—a type of improvisational theater in which one audience suggestion (as opposed to many) can form the basis for an entire show. According to Lisewski, “there really wasn’t a long-form improv scene in San Diego” before Finest City opened its doors.
“There were a couple of groups around town. Once we were able to have a home for it, we’ve had hundreds of students come through. Now we have over 50 people on our ensemble teams. We have a lot of teams that come down from L.A. to perform and watch, and we have the San Diego Improv Festival that we work on,” she said.
So, the relocation to Hillcrest will not only save the theater, it may save the scene. Meanwhile, The Red Fox Room is interested in moving across the street into a building on the north side of El Cajon Boulevard. No new restaurant or business has been announced for what will soon be the former location of the steakhouse as of yet. If you are looking to enjoy one last Red Fox meal on the south side of El Cajon Boulevard, their lease ends in March, 2019. The loss of both businesses will usher in a new era for the Lafayette Hotel.