By Shawn Raymundo
In 2013, Nick Buchanan, a local developer, purchased the site of a long-shuttered gas station at the corner of El Camino Real and Avenida Santiago. It was on that deserted property where he hoped to capitalize on the city’s incentive for property owners to construct mixed-use developments.
“This particular part of town is just great real estate: southwest San Clemente, near the I-5 freeway, across the street from Ralphs,” Buchanan described. “Just a very well-located area and for the longest time, it’s suffered from neglect.”
Fast-forward to today, and his vision is just about complete.
The development, referred to as the Ten10 Santiago Project, includes seven single-family condominiums, each with ocean views, office space for subleasing, and two spots for retailers facing El Camino Real.
The seven homes, located on the second and third floors, ranging in price from just north of $1 million to about $1.9 million, recently went on the market, with one already sold. And on the ground floor, two eateries, a gelato shop and a restaurant are preparing to set up shop.
For Buchanan, who lives in San Clemente and has developed properties up and down the coast, the project is not only an investment to improve the area, but to also show how this type of development—referred to as infill housing—could solve the state’s housing crisis.
“To me, I think this is a much more sustainable way of providing housing, meeting California’s housing needs. You can live here and walk across the street to the grocery store,” Buchanan said, adding: “This is the future of housing development, I think.”
When Buchanan purchased the property seven years ago, he didn’t anticipate the project taking as long as it did to be completed.
Around the time, the city was in the process of updating its General Plan, which would initially include an allowance for landowners of mixed-use projects to build up to 45 feet. The General Plan was adopted by the city council in February 2014.
The update, Buchanan said, was intended to incentivize developers to invest in property along San Clemente’s main highway and refurbish certain areas, particularly where abandoned gas stations sat.
“There’s a handful of abandoned gas station sites in the area … this was an old Thrifty Gas Station,” Buchanan said when he gave San Clemente Times a tour of the property. “They closed the gas station in 1986; it was just sitting here, abandoned, with graffiti on the wall in the alley.”
“So, when the city decided to amend the General Plan, they wanted to incentivize development down here,” he continued. “This was, in my mind at least—based on the wording of the plan—the type of development I thought ultimately they visualized or contemplated.”
Based on the updated General Plan, Buchanan began to conceive his initial proposal for the structure, which was set at the 45-foot height limit. It also included the seven homes, which he had hoped would have offered 10-foot vaulted ceilings.
However, in 2015, after hearing the council was looking to drop the height limit back down to 33 feet, he adjusted the project to fit within 35 feet in the hopes the city would grant him the extra two feet through a special permit.
The council in early November of that year officially reduced the allowable height to 33 feet, believing anything more would eclipse a motorist’s view of the ocean while traveling south on Interstate-5. Property owners, however, could apply for the special permit of two additional feet if the project called for it.
In Buchanan’s case, the council didn’t feel the exemption was justified, instead voting to deny the zoning change that would have allowed him to move his plans forward.
“I was hoping to have 10-foot ceilings. Human beings are inherently ergonomic, so we feel more comfortable with bigger spaces, so I was hoping to have 10-foot ceilings, something to have a little more space in here,” Buchanan said.
“I would’ve been fine with them dropping to 35 feet, just to give us that extra 24 inches, but because we dropped it to 33 feet, I had get creative and find ways to get that volume,” he said.
Buchanan had told the council at that time that he already made previous concessions on the project, including lowering the height from its original design and omitting amenities in order to make more space for parking.
But councilmembers said it still wouldn’t conform to the city’s prescribed zoning and could cause commercial overflow of traffic in the area.
Eventually, Buchanan said, he found the volume and was able to vault the ceilings. He noted that he would have still liked at least an extra six inches, but “we did the best we could with what we have.”
In early 2017, when Buchanan “finally got all of our approvals,” he went to pull the building permit, only to encounter a new hindrance.
“We had an issue with the city because the city’s housing element wasn’t in compliance with state laws, and the city had been sued by the homeless coalition, and they had gotten a judge to prevent the city from giving building permits,” Buchanan said.
That lawsuit, filed by Emergency Shelter Coalition, alleged that the city failed to comply with the state’s homeless shelter law, Senate Bill 2. The law, enacted in 2007, requires cities to create zones, referred to as SB2 zones, where groups can establish shelters for the homeless.
In February 2017, the Orange County Superior Court issued an order barring the city from approving building permits and zoning changes, among other things, unless it came into compliance with SB2.
Buchanan said he was shut out from getting his permit until about July 2017, when he signed an agreement with ESC.
“After that, we started construction,” he said, noting that it took “a fair amount of work in getting that done, but once we started, everything went pretty smoothly.”
That is, until the coronavirus pandemic hit the U.S.
Buchanan said that in March, he got his certificate of occupancy, but then the state issued its stay-at-home orders, preventing him from showing the condos to potential buyers.
“I couldn’t do open houses or anything like it to sell the condos, so, yeah, that impacted us,” he said, before expressing a more optimistic outlook.
“But not withstanding that, we have been able to lease it up,” he said, referring to the Lucky Dog Gelato, which “stuck with us even despite the coronavirus.”
During the council’s meeting in early November 2015, former Councilmember Lori Donchak had voiced opposition to limiting the project to 33 feet, making the case that the extra two feet was an imperceptible difference.
Councilmember Chris Hamm, who was mayor at the time, pushed back against Donchak’s remarks on the imperceptibility of the additional feet, stating that it “isn’t a fire sale of San Clemente and our community.”
“It’s not the 1960s, when we allowed whatever development they wanted. It’s not 1999, when we developed Fort Knox on the hill,” the Orange County Register had reported Hamm saying. “Stuff doesn’t happen anymore. We have a more informed City Council that takes into account the integrity and heart of the community.”
Speaking with SC Times last week to address the length of time in getting the project done, Donchak acknowledged that she hadn’t had a chance to see the (mostly) completed building in person yet, only online, but called it a “very thoughtful project.”
She also stressed that “development is not for the faint-hearted.”
Asked whether she had any concerns with how long it took to get done, she said she didn’t, explaining that councilmembers are tasked with evaluating projects on the merits, so the process should “reflect the unique characteristics of that parcel.”
“I think it’s incumbent on any councilmember to evaluate projects on their individual merits, and the Ten10 Santiago Project was arguably an infill project. It was near historic properties, and it was in a view corridor,” she said. “So, the process, and I believe the developer, went into it with eyes wide open.”
Hamm last week echoed Donchak, explaining that the town wants to see that projects stay in line with the rest of the city’s aesthetics, as well as the 90-year history of San Clemente.
“Ultimately, your job as councilmember is to make sure every project has your stamp of approval for the next 90 years, so it’s not just your four-year term, your eight-year term,” Hamm said, adding: “Those are the things you need to be thinking about when you’re putting your name one someone else’s development.”
In terms of what the project will mean for the South El Camino Real area, Hamm said he hopes it can help get similar mixed-use developments greenlit and moving forward.
“I think ultimately, at the end of the day, while the project was messy and took time, we have a project that’s going to fit in the community for the next 90 years that we’re all going to be happy with,” Hamm said.
As for Donchak, she said she supported the project because she believes mixed-used developments allow for residents to both live and work in San Clemente.
“Mixed-use paves the way for that vision, because you’ve got jobs being created on the first floor and housing being created above it,” she said. “I would hope it sets an example that mixed-use can be a successful idea in San Clemente.”
Don Brown has been on the city’s planning commission throughout the length of the project. He noted that there was support from many local businesses, as well as neighborhood members, who wanted to see the unused gas station property get developed.
However, he added, the project was a hard one to get completed, and one made difficult by a number of issues, including Buchanan’s push to accelerate the zoning change and opposition by neighbors.
One such neighbor is Sandra Maring, who lives on Santiago. She did state that since 2015, when she first was made aware of the project, she thought Buchanan’s draft was beautiful. However, her main concern has centered on parking and how it will be impacted when more restaurants open and more tenants move in.
“My concern has been that it’s a little too big for southwest San Clemente and not designed in a way to support itself, parking-wise, without creating a parking impact on the community,” she said.
According to Maring, there’s currently a concern that Buchanan will ask for a parking waiver, which would allow the businesses in the project to accommodate more customers without implementing additional parking stalls on-site.
“We would encourage that he would lease that section out to a type of business that could be successful at a 20-customer capacity, as opposed to asking for more,” she said. “We really do want him to be successful. We think the building is beautiful, but we really do want him to not negatively impact our standard of life that we’re accustomed to.”
Buchanan told SC Times on Tuesday, Oct. 27, that he currently does not have a request to the city for a parking waiver.
According to the city, Buchanan previously requested a parking exception in December 2018, but it was withdrawn.
Buchanan had previously noted that during the process of getting everything approved, the city required him to create additional parking spaces on-site, because it felt he wasn’t providing enough, as required under the mixed-use regulations.
Hamm briefly touched on the subject of how mixed-use developments often collide with the nearby residents, noting that such projects “have a clash of actions the first day it opens.” He said while the businesses want to thrive, the residents want to continue living quietly.
FUTURE FOR INFILL HOUSING
When talking about his mixed-use project, Buchanan emphasized the hope that it will set an example for what the General Plan update was trying to accomplish.
But he has also often referred to the project as an example infill housing—a method in which already developed areas that have gone unused get repurposed and turned into new housing.
“I’m a firm believer this infill housing is a good way to build housing in California,” he said. “It’s much more sustainable . . . you’re close to the beach, close to restaurants; you can live much closer to all these amenities.”
Brown said that “other developers are watching” how the Ten10 Santiago Project wraps up, as it “will be a litmus test for other properties along that stretch” of El Camino Real. He noted there are currently two similar developments on the city’s list of projects that aim to repurpose existing sites on the highway.
One is a two-story office building for Shoreline Dental, which is proposing to demolish the existing Tommy’s restaurant. The other project, referred to as the Valencia Building, looks to redevelop the former Top Tune site, on the corner of Camino Real and Avenida Valencia, and construct a two-story commercial building.
The ground floor, according to the city, would be used as restaurant space with outdoor dining, while offices would be located on the second floor.
“Going forward, things are happening on South El Camino Real,” Brown wrote in an email.
Hamm acknowledged that he hasn’t always been a fan of mixed-use housing because of the potential for clashes he had referenced earlier. But he added that he thinks there is an opportunity and places in San Clemente that would support them.
“There are councilmembers and people in the community who think it’s a great idea,” said Hamm, who’s wrapping up his second term in office and isn’t seeking reelection. “I would hope that any councilmember,” who supports infill housing projects, would make sure “that it’s going to be built to the same standard this was built to.”
Shawn Raymundo is the city editor for the San Clemente Times. He graduated from Arizona State University with a bachelor’s degree in Global Studies. Before joining Picket Fence Media, he worked as the government accountability reporter for the Pacific Daily News in the U.S. territory of Guam. Follow him on Twitter @ShawnzyTsunami and follow San Clemente Times @SCTimesNews.