SUPPORT THIS INDEPENDENT JOURNALISM
The article you’re about to read is from our reporters doing their important work — investigating, researching, and writing their stories. We want to provide informative and inspirational stories that connect you to the people, issues and opportunities within our community. Journalism requires lots of resources. Today, our business model has been interrupted by the pandemic; the vast majority of our advertisers’ businesses have been impacted. That’s why the SC Times is now turning to you for financial support. Learn more about our new Insider’s program here. Thank you.
By Jim Shilander
The San Clemente City Council voted 3-2 to approve an effective two-story height restriction for the downtown T-Zone area Tuesday, handing a victory to preservationists and disappointing a number of downtown property owners.
Councilmen Tim Brown and Chris Hamm, who were both members of the General Plan Advisory Committee that initially proposed the restriction, teamed with Mayor Bob Baker to form the majority, with councilmembers Jim Evert and Lori Donchak voting in opposition.
The council must still approve the final version of the plan before the restriction is implemented.
A number of Avenida Del Mar property owners and others spoke in opposition to the restriction at the start of the meeting.
Architect Michael Luna said the city’s founder, Ole Hanson, approved a number of buildings greater than two stories in his own time, and said the city would not see canyonization on Avenida Del Mar if it managed to preserve the current rules for setbacks set by the city. He also argued that if the city was planning on allowing people to have residential and commercial properties along Avenida Del Mar, it should give them the opportunity to be successful.
“Mixed-use, two-story development is not viable,” Luna said. “It just doesn’t leave enough room on just the second floor.”
Barbara Rojas, the owner of a Hanson-era building on Del Mar said the size of buildings was not reflective of what village character was, but instead the feelings people had about their city.
“At no point has anyone looked skyward to say ‘Let’s restrict our building heights to two-stories,’” Rojas told the council.
San Clemente Historical Society president Larry Culbertson, a proponent of the restriction, countered by saying the current mixed-use facilities in the area around Del Mar had “all failed to do what mixed-use is supposed to do,” either due to parking issues or difficulty in sustaining residential or commercial spaces.
Other property owners argued that if the council approved the restriction, it would be removing their incentive to improve their buildings just as downtown was staring at the challenge of competition from the Marblehead Coastal outlet mall. Others argued the city should continue to evaluate projects on a case by case basis.
Martin Schwartz said he owned “a couple of properties” on Del Mar, and said he intended to invest in the area, but that could be quashed if the restriction was in place, since his ability to make a profit on his property would be jeopardized.
“You can have a three-story building and make it an addition to the village character. The two aren’t in opposition to one another.”
Council Weighs In
When the council opened there own discussion, Hamm said he was open to allowing three-story developments on properties where topography allowed. He noted the former Cornet building, that housed Avila’s was a two-story on Del Mar but three stories on Avenida Cabrillo, due to the land’s make up.
Evert said he was in support of the language forwarded to the council by the planning commission, which allowed for three-story development in certain instances.
“I don’t think we’ll ever see canyonization on Avenida Del Mar,” Evert said. “We, as a council and a planning commission have the ability to say no to a project that just doesn’t fit.”
Brown countered those who voiced concerns about the outlet mall.
“You don’t beat the competition by replicating what they do,” Brown said. He also noted practical difficulties for three-story development in the area.
“The deck is stacked against us,” Brown said. “I’m concerned that when the rubber meets the road, you’ll have a hard time doing anything. The area’s strength is what it currently is.”
Donchak said she had worked to champion mixed-use development while on the council, since it allowed people to work and live in the city. The restriction, she said, seemed like “a solution in search of a problem.”
“(Our geography) doesn’t pencil out for us to become Huntington Beach,” Donchak said.
Donchak said she was also concerned about taking away property right currently enjoyed by property owners.
“We’re telling them what they can and cannot do with their property, and I don’t want to be the kind of government that does that,” Donchak said.
City attorney Jeff Goldfarb said, however, that in his opinion, the rule would not constitute a “taking” by the city.
Baker, noting the city’s encouragement of mixed-use in the past, said, to him, the lack of proof was in the pudding.
“Mixed-use in San Clemente doesn’t have a lot of examples of success,” Baker said, aside from the preexisting Hotel San Clemente.
“We’ve tried it, and it’s just not working,’” Baker said of the incentives. “They just don’t show up. All the folks here say they haven’t done it, so let’s be done with it.” Mayor Baker also said he “didn’t buy the argument” that the downtown would revert to a sleepy area without life after 5 p.m. as it was in former days.
“Let’s not forget how small we were,” Baker said.
As the straw poll seemed to show a support for the restriction, Donchak said she would like to see the issue put before voters next year, as other land use decisions had been. Hamm seemed receptive to the idea, but Brown opposed it, noting that the council couldn’t simply turn over difficult decisions to voters on a regular basis.
As a final motion, the council approved directing staff to come up with new language that might not explicitly restrict three stories, but would, instead, restrict building height to a level that would make a third story impractical in most cases, where topography did not allow.
Dennis Eckel said after the ruling he was “shocked” by the decision of the council, and said the property owners in the 100 and 200 blocks would be unfairly targeted by the city’s rules, and, if Marblehead proved to be a success, those who saw their properties an investment might well be out of luck.
In answer to Baker, Eckel said it was not fair to malign property owners for not building three-story buildings considering the economic climate. Eckel feared the city would soon see “one-story boxes all the way to Ola Vista” under the restriction.
Eckel also noted what he said was an effort to turn property owners into an “other in the city, but said he wasn’t sure if there would be a citizen initiative, at least through his property owners group, to put the issue on the ballot.
“We wish we could be sure that if we took it to the voters we’d win,” Eckel said. He accused some in the city of using “distractions, lies and falsehoods,” during past campaigns. “Most people know who those people are.”
On the other side, Culbertson and Historical Society predecessor Georgette Korsen were appreciative of the result.
“This is a victory for the citizens of San Clemente,” Culbertson said. “I feel like doing a victory dance.”
Korsen noted that the supporters of the restriction had collected 2,000 signatures in support of the proposal “with no effort at all,” which, for her, illustrated the broad support for keeping Del Mar as it stood today. The Olen project, she said, was far from being an example of the system working.
“It was the embodiment of what could have happened,” Korsen said. “That project was out of character for San Clemente.”
Both Culbertson and Korsen expressed confidence that if the issue were to go before voters, their side would win handily.
“This is a victory for the people,” said Korsen.