Pat Murphy …Usually City Council meetings and Planning Commission meetings are events that remind me of the boring meetings I had to endure when I ran Engineering labs for Aerospace companies. But, lately some of the development projects in Vista have stirred notable opposition and resulted in some dramatic moments. Such was the case this past Tuesday at the Sept. 6th meeting of the Vista Planning Commission.
The first sign that this was going to be an unusual meeting was the attendance numbers. At five minutes before the scheduled starting time of 6:00 pm the large City Council Chamber was packed with people. It was standing room only. The second indication that this was a special night came as Commissioner Garry Garretson passed me on his way to his seat on the podium and murmured “it’s a two water bottle night!” From my front row seat I glanced in the direction he pointed to and I saw what he meant. There at the working desk for City Staff sat two bottles of water. It was a sign that said, “it’s going to be a long night.”
All the Planning Commissioners took their seats and the audience grew quiet. The first order of business undertaken by Chairman Debra Cramer was to politely ask all the students in the audience to remove themselves to the lobby where they could observe the proceedings from several monitors. This, she explained, would help alleviate the Standing Room Only condition. She assured the students that someone would come out and sign off their attendance sheets by 7 pm.
After the Pledge of Allegiance, led by Garry Garretson, BIA (Building Industry Association) Sr. Public Policy Advisor Mr. Michael McSweeny, spoke to the Planning commission. His message was not directly related to any of the evening’s agenda items. He said that Vista currently has a 2 % vacancy rate which means the supply is constrained and prices are rising. This makes housing unaffordable for lower income levels and newly graduated professionals who can’t immediately go buy their first home. New housing development not only fills the housing needs but it can also pay for infrastructure improvements like road repairs.
City Planner Patsy Chow who by now was seated at the “two water bottle” desk, launched into a very detailed dissertation on the first agenda item, P16-0088. This item was a request for Planning Commission approval of a site development plan and it was what had drawn the large crowd. Social media had been buzzing about this development for several weeks. This is a proposed 41 unit apartment complex sitting along “Creek Walk” in downtown Vista.
Most of my readers are likely to be familiar with the Vista Village area where Frazier Farms, the Wave Water Park, and Cinépolis are located. Between these businesses the Buena Vista creek runs through Vista towards the ocean. This is where you find Creek Walk, a small park with trails going down along the water’s edge. This tiny park is beautiful but it is not listed as one of the city’s 17 parks. It contains the spectacular “Horses” sculpture by Ricardo Breceda and is often populated with ducks and an occasional egret.
As a result of Assembly Bill X1 26 (Blumenfield)(“AB 26”), which was signed by Governor Jerry brown on June 28, 2011 and confirmed by the Supreme Court (California Redevelopment Association, et al. v. Matosantos, et al. (Case No. S194861)) on December 29, 2011, all California redevelopment agencies were effectively dissolved on February 1, 2012 and successor entities became responsible for winding down the affairs of the former redevelopment agencies. When this happened many of the redevelopment efforts in Vista had been accomplished. There were, however, a few areas in Vista where property had been acquired with the State funds but no development had been started. When the CRA was dissolved, undeveloped properties in Vista and all over the State were dropped into the “Successor” agency and mandated by law to be sold. Along the Creek Walk there were three “pads” that to this day are still nothing more that dirt lots. These pads were designated as future restaurant sites.
Pathfinder Silvergate Creekside ,LLC acquired the 3 pad property from the successor agency and wants to build a four-building, 41 unit apartment complex on the 1.47 acre site. It includes private yards, common areas, parking and 37% landscaping with native plants. The Vista city code required 66 parking spaces and 67 spaces are part of the plan plus another 20 spaces that will be “shared” with the nearby retail businesses. Traffic studies have indicated that apartments will generate about 1/4 of the daily traffic trips that three restaurants would have created (246 trips Vs 1200).The development also meets or exceeds all zoning and Downtown Specific Plan requirements. The code allows up to 60 foot of height but the project will not rise above 35 feet. These apartments are not low income housing. They will be market value housing and because of direction from the Planning Commission at the Early Design Review, they will all have hook-ups for washers and dryers.
The Developer stated that plans for handling parking and traffic issue during construction had been reviewed and ok’ed by CDD, the Property Management Company for this newer part of downtown Vista. They had also agreed that the Developer would pay for 45% of the cost to rehabilitate and maintain the natural foliage along the creek that had been dying out due to bad water.
The presentation by the City Planner Patsy Chow and the Developer, Jim Reynolds, took the better part of an hour. The Commissioners had a few questions and then we started to hear from a long line of people who came to give their inputs. Most were just average citizens that were opposed to the project and a few represented the business community who in general were looking forward to seeing this project break ground.
The first person to speak was Kate Max who represented a group called “Vistans for a Livable Community”. This group had been responsible for a lot of the social media storm that had brought people to the meeting. I was prepared to hear a rant but she using a prepared slide show, she calmly and professionally stated her concerns and her group’s position. They are passionately anti “High Density” housing. They feel the development of what they describe as “box like structures” will take away the public’s view of the creek. They are concerned that the parking won’t suffice because of the existing parking shortage in the area. The group was asking the planning commission to cancel any agreements with Silvergate and stop the project from being built. “Save our public Park from being used for private gain.’ She said. She also recommended that the Commission determine the best use of the property because the Commission members are the “Stewards of Vista”.
Next to speak was Teri Collins who is a self-described Community Advocate. She would like to see picnic tables or a dog park there. She felt the apartment project was being pushed through and asked the Commission “Not to do something quickly”. Referring to the creek, she also said, “It’s a dangerous place without cameras”.
Tom Fleming, who owned a downtown business for over 30 years and is currently running for a seat on the City Council, was also opposed to the project because he felt it would further congest traffic at the nearby intersection of Santa Fe and Vista Village Dr. He felt that the distance to the transit station was not close enough to dissuade people from using their cars.
One by one they came to the podium to use their allotted 3 minutes. Daniel Carland, a 63 year resident express concern that development in Vista has taken away all the ballfields and places where kids can play. He doesn’t want to see more apartments until we first make Vista more livable. Nakita Hoffman said, “it’s not fair to incorporate public amenities” into building developments. She stated that our schools are overcrowded and parking is already aggravated. Angela Knight Roy Pearson, Dale Pilate (another candidate for City Council), Stormy Calvin, Molly Rubinstein, Pat Fellows, Russel Davis, Cliff Kaiser, and Jane Harrington also spoke against the project. Traffic concerns seemed to top the list of concerns. Accessibility to the creek was another common theme even though the Developer pointed out several times that the additional ADA compliant sidewalks and the elimination of “Dirt Lots” would actually improve the access.
Commissioner Michael Carroll re-raised the question of parking. He felt that the 66 sites imposed by the City of Vista is below the formula specified in the city code for mixed-usage development. He said he would approve the project only if they could add another 11 parking spaces.Several other members of the Commission agreed with him. It appeared for a minute that this could become a problem but after a quick consultation, the principals with the development company and the Property management company announced that this could be done.
It appeared that all the concerns voiced by the Planning Commission had been addressed. There didn’t seem to be anything left to discuss. But then, when it appeared that the developer was going to get a favorable decision, one Commissioner expressed a continued concern over traffic and parking. Other Commissioners, one by one chimed in and suddenly Chairman Debra Cramer, rapped her gavel on the podium several times and stated that she was just going to “step in and start this”. She made a motion that the Commission should deny approval of the project. Causing horrified looks to appear on the faces of the representatives of the developer, Garry Garretson seconded her motion. It was a tense moment, one of the quietest times of the evening. Then a quiet voice begged for attention. “Please let me inform you of something before you take your vote”. These words came from attorney Jon Stone who was representing the City of Vista. Attorney Stone then stunned everyone when he said, “According to State Law the Planning Commission cannot disapprove this type of project”. A groan of disgruntlement came from behind the front row of seats. “There is a section of the California Fair Housing Act that you need to see” continued Stone as questions started coming from everywhere.
A five minute recess was immediately requested and granted. Dazed looking attendees slowly stood and either milled around or followed me to the restrooms. I had immediately jumped up and headed to the big glass doors leading to the lobby. Pshew! It was finally break time!
By the time everyone had reassembled and the meeting had resumed the seven members of the Planning Commission had apparently been introduced to an unfamiliar State code of law. The calmly and without any preamble, made a motion to approve the development, seconded the motion and approved the motion six to one. Commissioner Stephanie Jackel was the one dissenting vote.
Didn’t I start my story by mentioning that these meetings had some dramatic moments? But, wait! There’s more.
The next agenda item P16-0324 was another development issue. It was about the property at 100 main Street. This is getting to be a well-known address in the Vista downtown even though there hasn’t been a structure here in decades. It’s at the corner of Main Street and South Santa Fe. It’s across the street from Mother Earth and across the street from the Wellness Center. It’s where the carnival sets up their rides during the Strawberry festival. It’s the corner where campaign elections bring out candidates waving signs that scream out…”Elect Me!”
This time John Conley sat at the Staff desk and Patsy Chow took John’s place up at a computer terminal on the end of the podium. This presentation was for a proposed development. It was an EDR Early Design Review”. The purpose was to gather comments, suggestions, and directives from the Planning Commission. There would be no vote for approval or disapproval of the project.
This project is much larger than the one previously discussed. It is for 14,881 sq. ft. It is a 5 story building with 2 levels of underground parking. 237 spaces are underground and the remaining are street level in the center of the property. The building contains street level commercial spaces and 7 town homes with 4 levels of residential units totaling 126 units. The building would include a swimming pool, a club house, and be 60 feet high.
This property has previously had two other development attempts over the last decade. Those projects were known as Grasshopper and G-8. This new developer, Streetlights Residential, is headquartered in Texas and has done work in San Diego’s Little Italy quarter. Michael Bonacelli represented the company and told the Commission that he had already contacted the Art community in Vista to engage their participation in the design work. He outlined the company’s plan to construct 90 new parking spaces in the downtown area before breaking any ground on the new construction. This is a big carrot because parking has become a premium in downtown Vista with all the new businesses.
How do you build 90 new parking spaces in an area starving for parking spaces. Well, this is how you do that and at the same time acquire the corner lot you want to build on. first you purchase property at the corner of Citrus and Broadway. (The old King and Queen Hair Studio). Then, you buy the adjacent property. Then, you approach the city and tell them that you will knock down the buildings on these properties and put in a public parking lot. You will then trade the new parking lot for the vacant dirt lot at Main Street and S. Santa Fe.
Bonacelli stressed the company’s commitment to long term relationships and their three pronged policy: Activation (bring new jobs to residents), Art (incorporating local art and artists), and Connectivity (implementing pedestrian friendly walkways and piazzas).
Bret Schanzenbach, the CEO of the Vista Chamber of Commerce was the first to speak when it was time for public input. He said he was “excited” about the project. Tom Fleming had intended to be opposed but he was “impressed” with the project. David Gordon, Teri Collins, Jake Miller, Steve Hays, Carol Jefferies, Jane Harrington, and others were adamantly opposed. Most were objecting to this project for the same reasons they had opposed the previously discussed project and it’s 41 unit complex. In addition, this project was just too big, they chorused. At five stories high, it would be the highest building in Vista except for the County Courthouse.
A request for a comparison to the height of other downtown businesses was given to Streetlights Residential and it was suggested that the design might be too modern looking for the historical downtown area.
The Commission would be hearing from this developer again in the near future. The meeting had started at 6 pm and it was now going on 9 pm. It was time to move on to the next agenda item and the monthly reports. Glancing at the Staff desk I saw that the two bottles of water were gone. That was my cue. I got up and headed for the parking lot. Enough drama for this reporter. I left the Planning Commissioners and City Staff there to deal with the amendment to chapter 18.88 of the Development code that deals with large family day care homes.