Citing a prevailing ant-growth attitude in San Clemente, the company overseeing one of the city’s most high-profile development projects has backed out of plans to redevelop the property next to the historic City Hall El Camino Real.
Olen, the developer, notified the city Wednesday the company was stopping work on the project. The project manager cited arbitrary approval processes and "long-standing anti-growth tendencies" for the decision.
The project would have been a three-story Spanish colonial-style mixed-use building, including restaurants and retail space on the ground floor. The top stories would have been set back, with frontage on Avenida de la Estrella, which is above and parallel to Camino Real. The project had been in the design and environmental review stages and had been set for review by the planning commission earlier this year. However, the meeting was delayed and never happened.
In response to demands from the San Clemente Historical Society -- which led the opposition to the project -- architects modified the design to include an open patio directly adjacent to the historic City Hall.
Historical Society leaders argued that the building, which would replace a low, one-story line of retail spaces, would dwarf the historic building.
The opposition started off a firestorm of controversy, with residents led by the society on one side and architects, downtown business and property owners on the other. The argument was the genesis of a proposed two-story limit in the downtown area that's still working its way through the general plan process (The general plan is a package of zoning and land use decisions that will provide a blueprint for growth in town over at least the next decade).
With the November election of Councilman Chris Hamm and the re-election of newly appointed Mayor Bob Baker, it's now more likely the three-story ban will become law. The two were supported by Historical Society leaders.
Baker, however, said he viewed the issue as more complex that simply limiting stories. He cited height concerns, floor area ratios (how big the building is compared to its lot size), density, architecture and a host of other issues.
"If you have a two-story building that's 40 feet high, what have you accomplished?" he said.
As for the specific Olen development, he said plans were too premature to make a judgement as to whether he would have voted to approve it, had it come before the council.
"You don't have all the information," he said. "The devil certainly resides in the details."
Historical Society President Larry Culbertson said he and the members were pleased with the decision.
"We are committed to maintaining the small town, village character that we all enjoy in our historic downtown," he said in an email. "We support and encourage development in the downtown that fits in with the mass and scale of the existing buildings. The Olen project was just too big. We felt that it would have completely overwhelmed the historic building and seriously diminished its visual prominence at the top of Avenida Del Mar."
The following is the email that Olen Project Manager Mark Zonarich sent to the city Wednesday afternoon:
Cliff, Jim, and Jim,
In light of both recent developments and the City’s long-standing anti-growth tendencies, Olen has made the decision to withdraw our mixed-use project.
As a professional planner, I must admit that this process has been extraordinarily disheartening and excessively laborious. I have worked for municipalities across the country as a consultant and never have I experienced such blatant opposition when a project has complied with and exceeded the ordinances as much as this project has. Typically, a city would “roll out the red carpet” and fast-track projects in instances such as this, not throw-up roadblocks at every turn.
It is extremely disappointing that the citizens of San Clemente and the downtown have lost out on such an incredible project, but, on a more global scale; it is unfortunate that the City’s broken and arduous discretionary approvals process will invariably result in many of the very consequences which they are intended to prevent, including encouraging suburban sprawl and negatively affecting the City’s level of affordable housing.
When I first inherited this project, I had hoped that the Community Development Department would have been our biggest ally during this process because they, if anyone, would be able to appreciate and comprehend its merits. This was a project that personally, I was very proud of.
If this project was unable to advance, what project will be able to? Things must change.
Please stop work on the project immediately and return our EIR retainer check as soon as possible.
Mark Zonarich, AICP, LEED-AP
(Article updated with Baker and Culbertson quotes 3:30 p.m. Dec. 20)