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Finest City Improv and the unbending landlord

Will Hillcrest see another shuttered activity hub?

Tara Johansen, Skyler Davis Lee
Tara Johansen, Skyler Davis Lee

Tara Johansen says improv comedy classes are the best way she knows for the introverted to meet other people. “I had just moved to San Diego a year earlier and I found it very hard to make friends. I had just gone through a bad divorce.” She says she took a chance with Finest City Improv. Johansen says that extemporaneous team efforts to pretend that you are riding kittens in outer space is a rare bonding opportunity. “It was the best feeling I ever experienced...All my friends came from there.”

Hardy Boys – Kat Dudly, Jesse Suphan

“It changed my life,” says Skyler Davis Lee. “I’ve met all my best friends here. Before that, I didn’t know anyone in San Diego. I never thought I’d be here five years later.” Lee, who is Finest City Improv’s general manager helped oversee some $17,000 in electrical, structural and disability improvements to the building. He built out the beer and wine bar. “Now that’s it’s ready, no one gets to use it.”

Finest City Improv is a combination comedy venue and comedy school where student/performers take six different levels of two-month classes to learn how to create comedy scenes with no props. The National Comedy Theater school on India Street focuses on creating short skits a la Whose Line is it Anyway. Finest City Improv students focus on long-form improvisation: think one-act plays created out of thin air.

Jackie –Brandon Hensgens, Joel Arriola

Amy Lisewski founded Finest City Improv at the Lafayette Hotel in 2012. She says she started looking elsewhere when her rent there was increased by 50 percent. She says the city of San Diego made it hard to find a new home. “Most commercial real estate is either zoned retail or office. There are very few places that can be permitted for assembly.” Her space at 3746 6th Avenue has a maximum legal capacity of 49.

Like other comedy venues, Finest City Improv went dark with the virus. But after paying full rent for five months, the Hillcrest comedy venue/school was given a pay-up-or-quit ultimatum that Johansen, Lee and Lisewski fear may permanently kill the laughter.

Sweet Puppy

“We paid 100 per cent of our rent ($4300) each month, April through August,” says Lisewski about her 2200-square-foot storefront. “I told the landlord we were paying it even though we were really only paying for storage space. He didn’t seem to show any concern for the fact that we couldn’t open and operate as usual. We have been getting ten percent of our usual revenue since March. Meanwhile, I have to pay taxes and insurance. Then the day after Thanksgiving we were given a notice to pay or leave in three days.”

Lisewski says Covid has everyone in a bind. “There is no way anyone can operate until at least next spring. We went to our community with a Go Fund Me campaign. Now we have to pay lawyers thousands to try and save what we have.”

We Crooked Swedes – Ryan Suffridge, David Presciado.

And what Lisewski says the landlord is demanding that the place be returned to its original state. “We spent like $7,000 just for an architect just so we could get our beer and wine license. We fixed a multitude of issues that the city required.”

“It was huge having them in the neighborhood,” says Benjamin Nichols, executive director of the Hillcrest Business Association. “The true sign of a diverse neighborhood is live venues. We used to have three in Hillcrest. Martinis Above Fourth was around for decades. When they closed that was a huge loss. And The Merrow, I assume, is still open, but it hasn’t had live music for months. The strength of a business district is the diversity of the types of its businesses. A comedy club or comedy school is an attraction for the entire community. If Finest City Improv goes away that will be a tragedy.”

"If Finest City Improv goes away that will be a tragedy.”

Nichols says many landlords in Hillcrest act as partners to make sure their tenant businesses can survive. “The story about Hillcrest is about how a number of property owners have stepped up to help save their tenants. I know of some landlords that have covered their rents through the entire Covid period.” He says that while some of the “big boys” including the Cohn Restaurant Group have closed eateries in Hillcrest (Tacos Libertad and BO-beau Kitchen and Cache) a number of independent bars and cafes are thriving in the midst of the Covid thanks to their landlords. “Uptown Tavern, Baha Betty’s and Number 1 Fifth Avenue have learned how to adapt. Breakfast Bitch goes crazy on the weekends. And their landlords, who are actually acting as partners, are part of the answer.”

Nichols hopes comedy stays in Hillcrest. “Landlords can be shortsighted in this environment when they force out a tenant as unique as Finest City Improv. They may end up with a crappy tenant.” He says Finest City Improv took over the space from a forgettable former tenant. “I cannot even remember who the previous tenants were.”

“It sat empty for up to a year before we got there,” says Lisewski. “A friend of mine who was a waitress at [the now closed, nearby restaurant] Pernicano’s told me that space was always empty.”

There are currently four commercial vacancies, directly across the street from Finest City Improv, on the 3700 block of 6th Avenue.

A call to Finest City’s landlord, Dr. Iman Mikhail, was not returned.

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Tara Johansen, Skyler Davis Lee
Tara Johansen, Skyler Davis Lee

Tara Johansen says improv comedy classes are the best way she knows for the introverted to meet other people. “I had just moved to San Diego a year earlier and I found it very hard to make friends. I had just gone through a bad divorce.” She says she took a chance with Finest City Improv. Johansen says that extemporaneous team efforts to pretend that you are riding kittens in outer space is a rare bonding opportunity. “It was the best feeling I ever experienced...All my friends came from there.”

Hardy Boys – Kat Dudly, Jesse Suphan

“It changed my life,” says Skyler Davis Lee. “I’ve met all my best friends here. Before that, I didn’t know anyone in San Diego. I never thought I’d be here five years later.” Lee, who is Finest City Improv’s general manager helped oversee some $17,000 in electrical, structural and disability improvements to the building. He built out the beer and wine bar. “Now that’s it’s ready, no one gets to use it.”

Finest City Improv is a combination comedy venue and comedy school where student/performers take six different levels of two-month classes to learn how to create comedy scenes with no props. The National Comedy Theater school on India Street focuses on creating short skits a la Whose Line is it Anyway. Finest City Improv students focus on long-form improvisation: think one-act plays created out of thin air.

Jackie –Brandon Hensgens, Joel Arriola

Amy Lisewski founded Finest City Improv at the Lafayette Hotel in 2012. She says she started looking elsewhere when her rent there was increased by 50 percent. She says the city of San Diego made it hard to find a new home. “Most commercial real estate is either zoned retail or office. There are very few places that can be permitted for assembly.” Her space at 3746 6th Avenue has a maximum legal capacity of 49.

Like other comedy venues, Finest City Improv went dark with the virus. But after paying full rent for five months, the Hillcrest comedy venue/school was given a pay-up-or-quit ultimatum that Johansen, Lee and Lisewski fear may permanently kill the laughter.

Sweet Puppy

“We paid 100 per cent of our rent ($4300) each month, April through August,” says Lisewski about her 2200-square-foot storefront. “I told the landlord we were paying it even though we were really only paying for storage space. He didn’t seem to show any concern for the fact that we couldn’t open and operate as usual. We have been getting ten percent of our usual revenue since March. Meanwhile, I have to pay taxes and insurance. Then the day after Thanksgiving we were given a notice to pay or leave in three days.”

Lisewski says Covid has everyone in a bind. “There is no way anyone can operate until at least next spring. We went to our community with a Go Fund Me campaign. Now we have to pay lawyers thousands to try and save what we have.”

We Crooked Swedes – Ryan Suffridge, David Presciado.

And what Lisewski says the landlord is demanding that the place be returned to its original state. “We spent like $7,000 just for an architect just so we could get our beer and wine license. We fixed a multitude of issues that the city required.”

“It was huge having them in the neighborhood,” says Benjamin Nichols, executive director of the Hillcrest Business Association. “The true sign of a diverse neighborhood is live venues. We used to have three in Hillcrest. Martinis Above Fourth was around for decades. When they closed that was a huge loss. And The Merrow, I assume, is still open, but it hasn’t had live music for months. The strength of a business district is the diversity of the types of its businesses. A comedy club or comedy school is an attraction for the entire community. If Finest City Improv goes away that will be a tragedy.”

"If Finest City Improv goes away that will be a tragedy.”

Nichols says many landlords in Hillcrest act as partners to make sure their tenant businesses can survive. “The story about Hillcrest is about how a number of property owners have stepped up to help save their tenants. I know of some landlords that have covered their rents through the entire Covid period.” He says that while some of the “big boys” including the Cohn Restaurant Group have closed eateries in Hillcrest (Tacos Libertad and BO-beau Kitchen and Cache) a number of independent bars and cafes are thriving in the midst of the Covid thanks to their landlords. “Uptown Tavern, Baha Betty’s and Number 1 Fifth Avenue have learned how to adapt. Breakfast Bitch goes crazy on the weekends. And their landlords, who are actually acting as partners, are part of the answer.”

Nichols hopes comedy stays in Hillcrest. “Landlords can be shortsighted in this environment when they force out a tenant as unique as Finest City Improv. They may end up with a crappy tenant.” He says Finest City Improv took over the space from a forgettable former tenant. “I cannot even remember who the previous tenants were.”

“It sat empty for up to a year before we got there,” says Lisewski. “A friend of mine who was a waitress at [the now closed, nearby restaurant] Pernicano’s told me that space was always empty.”

There are currently four commercial vacancies, directly across the street from Finest City Improv, on the 3700 block of 6th Avenue.

A call to Finest City’s landlord, Dr. Iman Mikhail, was not returned.

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1

I feel bad for the tenants being evicted. Loss of income, and still having to pay rent. The landlords have the right to be paid, but good luck renting to someone else during the pandemic.

Dec. 14, 2020

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