The following is an editorial by Mark Zonarich, AICP, LEED-AP Project Manager Olen Properties Corp. The company pulled out of their proposed controversial El Camino Real project Wednesday.
Dear Citizens of San Clemente, the General Plan Advisory Committee, the Planning Commission and Members of our City Council:
‘Tis the holiday season, and in the spirit of giving, please allow me to give you a few kernels of truth amidst the rising tide of statistical nonsense and misleading arguments that have recently enveloped the General Plan Update debate regarding building heights downtown.
In case you haven’t heard, our City’s General Plan is in the process of being updated. Typically, this document is updated every five years; however, the last time it was updated was over twenty yeas ago.
What does this mean you may ask, and why does it matter?
The General Plan guides the future vision for our City and forms the legal basis for its ordinances. The purpose of the General Plan Update is to review and revise community goals and aspirations to ensure consistency with the legal framework that manages our physical and economic resources.
One of the most hotly contested issues surrounding the General Plan Update has been about limiting the number of stories of downtown buildings. A small, yet vocal, group of advocates behind a suggested and unwarranted 3-story ban have been utilizing misleading arguments and statistical nonsense to back their claims. This article is an attempt to bring light to the shadows of this debate.
Don’t be hoodwinked, this debate is not about preserving “village character” or 2 vs. 3-stories, it is about violating long-standing Property Rights.
In the words of Winston Churchill, “a lie gets halfway around the world before the truth has a chance to get its pants on.” While our City is no stranger to political controversy, we should at least allow the Truth the opportunity to step into a pant leg.
The following is an breakdown of many of the fallacies surrounding the 2 vs. 3-story debate in an attempt to debunk the myths.
MYTH #1: 3-story buildings are inconsistent with the “village character” of downtown.
FACT: Since the City’s founding in 1925, 3-story buildings have always been a part of the downtown’s “DNA.” In fact, along with requirements of white stucco walls and red tile roofs, Ole Hanson’s original architectural regulations included a 4-story height restriction, not a 3-story restriction.
In fact, nearly all of the civic and non-residential buildings constructed in the City prior to the Great Depression were 2 and 3-stories. It is very likely that had the Great Depression not occurred and had Hanson been able to complete his original vision of San Clemente, many more 3-story buildings would exist today.
If you ask 20 residents what “village character” means to them, you will get nearly as many different answers. What can be empirically demonstrated however, is what residents consider to be the “heart” of downtown.
Whenever I’ve asked a resident what the most iconic area of downtown is I have always heard the same response: “the upper 100 Block of Avenida Del Mar.”
What is it about this block that makes it so special?
Well, from a town planning perspective, it is four things: urbanism, architecture, landscaping and use.
While each of these four aspects are distinct, they are all interrelated. It is important to be able to understand their associated metrics as they form the basis of zoning.
Oftentimes, a City will catalog and analyze the metrics and physical characteristics of these most-loved places to inform future zoning decisions.
Urbanism: First, and most importantly, it is this block’s superior urbanism and massing. The block’s well-defined streetwall and its width-to-height ratio (width of the street to the height of the buildings) makes for a welcoming and enclosing outdoor room. Avenida Del Mar was purposefully designed by Hanson as a wider thoroughfare than surrounding streets to accommodate larger buildings in the heart of downtown.
Believe it or not, the upper 100 Block of Del Mar is composed of 40 percent 3-story buildings, with less than 10 percent made up of 1-story structures. It is these taller buildings that create a sense of enclosure that is not present in the urbanistically inferior lower blocks lined with only 1-story buildings.
Even a casual observer can draw a line between pre and post-Hanson eras across Avenida Del Mar at this point.
Architecture: Second, the upper 100 Block of Del Mar has authentic, high-quality Spanish colonial revival architecture (what the massing is “skinned” with). This consistent architectural “language” also helps to define and unify this space.
Landscaping: Third, the block has a variety of landscaping details that help to soften and animate the architecture including street trees, planted pots, wall vines, fountains, pavers, and planters.
Use: Lastly, the block is lined with pedestrian-oriented uses (restaurants, cafes, boutiques, etc.) that help to activate the ground-plane.
As you will notice, building height is merely one aspect amongst many that contribute to placemaking and “village character.”
In fact, the nuances of building height can even further be broken down when discussing setbacks and other three-dimensional massing regulations.
This distinction is significant because we experience the world in 3-dimensions, not 2-dimensional, flat drawings which can easily be distorted or misunderstood. Take the antiques building on Avenida Del Mar next to the Hotel San Clemente for example.
The Hotel San Clemente is undeniably one of the City’s most iconic buildings. Built in 1927, the hotel stands 3 and 4-stories tall. With a sheer, 3-story facade at the street, this structure could not be rebuilt under today’s current zoning.
The historic antiques building next door however, is a different story. I have overheard residents fiercely debate whether it is a 2- or 3-story building. This building is in fact, three stories tall, yet its 3rd story is set back from the street, giving the 3-dimensional perception of a 2-story massing.
This 3rd-story setback is consistent with the current downtown zoning and therefore any 3-story buildings built under our current zoning would be perceived as 2-story structures along the street.
MYTH #2: A majority of residents support a 3-story ban.
FACT: A number of General Plan surveys, visioning exercises, and workshops were conducted during 2009 in which residents voiced their concerns and opinions on a variety of issues facing the City.
While it is accurate that the True North Community Phone Survey published in July of 2009 did find that a majority of respondents (86 percent) prioritized the preservation of the “unique village character of San Clemente,” when this statistic is understood in its broader context within the study, its significance is quickly diminished as this is an inevitable and obvious finding.
Respondents were not asked to prioritize a limited list of options, but rather to simply identify issues that they felt were a priority. Every topic listed could have been considered a priority. What resident wouldn’t want to preserve the “unique village character of San Clemente?”
Frankly, one has to wonder why this statistic wasn’t 100 percent.
Not once were the words “building height” or “number of stories” mentioned in the survey or in its conclusions. In fact, nearly the exact same percentage of respondents (82 percent) also desired the “creation of economic development programs that strengthen the local economy and increase the revenues needed to provide City services.”
This is significant as it indicates a near equal desire for economic growth and fiscal responsibility as “village character” preservation.
During the Community Visioning Workshops of July, 2009 only one group suggested that development should be restricted to 2-stories in the “T-Zone.” Two other groups suggested that 3- and even 4-story mixed-use development should be encouraged. The remaining groups were indifferent regarding the issue of building heights.
Contrary to popular belief, one can infer from these findings that a majority of residents actually prefer taller mixed-use development.
While building height is undeniably one component of “village character” none of these studies definitively demonstrate a dominate correlation between building height and “village character.”
In fact, only a small yet vocal minority is seeking a 3-story ban, one whose motives remain unclear.
Ironically, this effort has been lead by the San Clemente Historical Society who claims that such a ban is consistent with City Founder, Ole Hanson’s original vision for the downtown. This is an outright fabrication.
Ole Hanson’s original architectural regulations dating back to the City’s founding included a 4-story height restriction, not a 3-story restriction. While the zoning has since been updated, when Bank of America repossessed the City from Hanson in 1937 following the Great Depression, this restriction and many of his architectural standards were abolished in an effort to incentivize economic growth, ushering in an era of more relaxed building height regulation.
MYTH #3: A majority of General Plan Advisory Committee (GPAC) members support a 3-story ban.
FACT: Commissioners concluded that 3-story, mixed-use buildings should not be prohibited. During the Planning Commission meeting of September 19, 2012, six Commissioners weighed in on this debate. All six concluded that property owners should retain their existing rights and many suggested that urban design tools exist that would result in a level of certainty that would be acceptable to both property owners and preservationists of “village character.”
If designed properly, property owners should retain their rights should they choose to exercise them.
In the legal system, courts will typically default to the more conservative of two options when faced with differing opinions in regard to the interpretation and/or applicability of a specific law or process.
While some claim that the GPAC is divided on the building heights issue, the mere fact that dissent exists and there is not unanimous support for a 3-story ban is evidence that property owners should be allowed to retain their existing rights.
Let’s be clear, no one is requesting an increase in development rights, merely to preserve existing ones. When stated differently, how does it make sense that such a low threshold could exist to enable the taking of property rights which have existed since the founding of our City, yet it takes a near herculean undertaking to defend them?
MYTH #4: 3-Story buildings should not be allowed in the downtown.
FACT: If taller buildings should exist anywhere, it is in our downtown, not in outlying lower-intensity and predominantly residential areas. Environmental and sustainable pedagogy emphasizes this as a superior alternative to suburban sprawl.
In downtowns, residents can live, work and play. It is well known that on a per capita basis, residents who live in downtowns drive fewer miles and consume fewer resources. Confining higher intensity development to outside of downtown is counterintuitive and contributes to sprawl and environmental degradation, not to mention creates significant economic implications.
A blanket 3-story ban would amount to a regulatory taking and violation of hundreds of property owners existing rights, not to mention a monumental loss of property values conservatively estimated at over $60 million.
This, in turn, would have a significant negative impact on long-term property tax revenues for the City.
With the sizeable Marblehead Outlet development looming on the horizon, let’s not further stifle economic growth in our downtown.
MYTH #5: Current zoning will ruin our downtown and result in vast concrete urban “canyons” that block out the sun and span as far as the eye can see.
FACT: Our current zoning has remained unchanged for the last 20 years, and during that time our downtown has become stronger than ever.
Although it may be hard to believe, urban design standards are already in place that have simultaneously prevented this hypothetical urban apocalypse from happening while encouraging buildings of varying sizes and authentic architectural detailing. This realization alludes to the old adage, “if it’s not broke, why fix it?”
Existing zoning already prohibits buildings over 2-stories in the downtown unless they meet a specific set of criteria aimed at creating true mixed use buildings that will serve as assets to the greater community.
The associated rigorous architectural standards are also aimed at enhancing the Spanish Colonial Revival identity of the City. Cases attempting to deviate from these standards should continue to be evaluated on a case-by-case basis.
Although downtown is everybody’s neighborhood, not everybody agrees on how to define “village character.”
“Village character” is as nuanced and unique as the people who live in San Clemente.
Considering this fact, I pose the following question: Is the correlation between the specific nuances of 2-story and 3-story buildings with a third-floor setback and “village character” strong enough to warrant a taking of property rights that have existed since the founding of our City and stifle the economic growth of our downtown?
The answer is clear.
The decision to take away property rights that have existed for nearly a century should not be taken lightly; both in light of the complex correlation that exists between building height and “village character” and especially when more sophisticated urban design tools exist to address common concerns and accomplish the same goals.
Despite being one of the best orators of his time, when Ole Hanson gave his inaugural “tent speech” before 600 prospective buyers standing in the mud at the founding of San Clemente on Dec. 6, 1925, he spoke of his dream for the City not in flowery prose but rather statistics, hard facts and common sense.
I urge both the GPAC and City Council to follow in Hanson’s footsteps and weigh all of the facts before making a decision on the building heights issue.
“Even if you are a minority of one, the truth is the truth," Mahatma Gandhi said.
For those seeking the truth and more information about our project, please find us on Facebook or contact me at any time.
Mark Zonarich, AICP, LEED-AP
Olen Properties Corp.
The San Clemente Mixed Use Project