Definition of what makes downtown special in dispute
By Jim Shilander
As the San Clemente City Council finalizes a decision on the future appearance of Avenida del Mar through its consideration of the draft general plan, one phrase is likely to be on members’ minds, “village character.”
The phrase, which originated from a 2009 study conducted by True North Research, has largely been used by supporters of a proposed two-story height limit for the downtown area known as the “T-zone.” This area includes the 100 and 200 blocks of Avenida Del Mar and the intersecting portion of El Camino Real—between avenidas Palizada and Presidio. “Village character,” for some, has become shorthand for the kind of small-scale businesses and buildings currently found on the street.
However, those looking to keep the city’s current allowance for three-story developments in limited circumstances, including downtown property owners, believe their opponents have read too much into an open-ended idea. That interpretation, they say, could strip them of their property rights.
The city’s current zoning regulations allow for three-story, mixed-use developments in the area. In this case, mixed-use refers to allowing for multiple uses, such as residential blended with commercial or retail in the same complex. Such buildings are able to stand up to three stories tall, or 45 feet in height, while two-story developments are restricted to 33 feet.
The new draft general plan requires Spanish colonial revival architecture for new developments or significant changes to a building. In order to combat fears of “canyonization” negatively impacting views, the city has proposed encouraging property owners of one- and two-story properties nearing the end of their lifecycle to maintain their current size, or growing to two stories. These efforts could include a streamlined approval process.
The mixed-use allowance for three stories has been in place since 1996, however, no such structures have been built in the area, though it has been proposed. The Olen Development Corporation had approached the city with a proposal to put a large-scale development next to the Historic City Hall on El Camino Real. The proposal would have put a more than 7,000-square-foot project in the former Easley building for retail and residential uses. The company withdrew the project last December by the company and accused the city and opponents of “throwing up roadblocks at every turn.”
Concerns about that project led the General Plan Advisory Committee to vote to restrict building heights in the area to two stories. Nineteen members of the 25-member board were present for the vote, with 10 voting in favor, seven against and two abstaining. The Planning Commission removed the limit from the draft general plan last fall after contentious debate swirled between the two sides.
Conclusions provided in the True North survey provide ammunition for both sides.
When the question, “What do you like most about San Clemente that the city government should make sure to preserve in the future?” was asked, the highest level of response was reflected in the quality and proximity to the city’s beaches. The answer was given by more than 32 percent of respondents. More than 12 percent of those surveyed said the city’s small-town atmosphere should be preserved—the next highest answer.
However, when asked about goals and priorities of the city, to “preserve the unique village character of the city” was the highest answer recorded, with 86 percent of respondents noting it as a high or medium priority. A plurality of those who responded to the survey, 43 percent, stated they had lived in the city for more than 15 years.
The conclusions section of the study included the statement, “The dominant theme of the survey results is that residents are focused on maintaining—rather than changing—the character of San Clemente.” The conclusions also noted a large percentage of respondents saw attracting new businesses and providing economic incentives to improve the city’s tax base as vital. Both were rated as higher priorities than restricting growth.
The debate continued Tuesday night in front of the City Council. Those supporting the height restrictions, which included members of the San Clemente Historical Society, argued their position represented the popular will.
Alan Korsen, a member of GPAC, said business downtown had “flourished” without construction of three story buildings in the last two decades. He termed the desire to restrict height as “corrective action.”
Larry Culbertson, president of the Historical Society, told the council that two years ago, he conducted an informal survey of the properties along Avenida del Mar, and found that of 54 sites in 100 and 200 blocks, 33 were single story structures, and 17 were two stories. Two buildings, the Hotel San Clemente and the former Cornet building at the corner of Ola Vista, were three stories. Culbertson said the latter was only three stories along a side street.
“That’s what we call pedestrian scale,” he said. Culbertson also argued the smaller lots on Del Mar “simply do not work” for vertical mixed-use.
Historical Society board member Mike Cotter was not at the meeting, but said the GPAC’s decision making ultimately reflected what people wanted.
“What San Clemente residents want is what there is now,” Cotter said. “Whatever that is, they want it to stay the same. You can stand on the street and decide what you see. That’s the best way to go.”
Cotter said in his mind, this meant Spanish colonial revival architecture and “human scale” buildings. Cotter said the notion of trying to define what “village character” is was a distraction.
“If you want to see village character, just walk down Avenida del Mar and open your eyes,” Cotter said.
On the other side, Don Prime, a former planning commissioner and downtown property owner, said he would have acted differently on the survey if he had known what it might have brought.
“Nowhere was ‘village character’ or ‘small town atmosphere’ defined,” Prime said of the survey. Had it been made clear that banning three story construction as a choice, Prime said, he never would have checked that box.
“Village character has very little to do with building height,” he said. “I think it has to do more with being pedestrian friendly.” He cited the Hotel San Clemente as an example, with its large courtyard serving as a gathering spot.
Prime said he felt he and other property owners had been unfairly maligned during the process. He said he felt proponents of the height restriction had tried to make the process about “out of town” property owners against residents.
“Someone called us, ‘the needy and the greedy,’” he said. Prime estimated 41 properties on Del Mar were owned by locals.
City Councilmen Tim Brown and Chris Hamm, who were both members of GPAC, made proposals to restrict building heights in the area to two stories during initial discussions of the proposal Tuesday. Hamm actually proposed eliminating mixed-use from the area entirely, but his proposal died for want of support from other council members. There was no further discussion on the height restriction amongst the council members during the evening’s session.
At the close of the meeting, Mayor Bob Baker said he expects the council will resolve the height limit issue by the end of discussions over the General Plan at the council’s October 1 meeting. Even with the approval of a draft plan, the council must still endorse a final version of the General Plan later in the fall.