By Brian Park
The San Juan Capistrano City Council is scheduled to give final consideration to a developer’s plan to build a hotel and townhomes in the heart of downtown Tuesday.
Urban Village has proposed building a 136-room hotel on a 3.17-acre site, located at 31878 Camino Capistrano. Joshua Host, principal of Urban Village, will once again present revised plans for his San Juan Hotel & Villas project.
While the hotel remains unchanged, the number of villas has been cut back from 33 to 30. In decreasing the density, Host said he was able to address concerns about residences abutting Historic Town Center Park by creating a setback, ranging between 10 to 35 feet, and adding a buffer of 10 mature olive trees, a 4-foot-tall hedge and planters that could block up to 80 percent of the view of homes from the park.
The project also includes 2,700 square feet of commercial space and plans to extend Forster Street all the way through to Del Obispo Street.
Host, who moved his family to San Juan Capistrano last December, has been meeting with residences and downtown business owners to garner their feedback for over a year. On Friday, he will host an information session and is available to answer questions from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. at Mission Grill, 31721 Camino Capistrano.
The project has sparked much debate over the past year.
Although city officials, community leaders and business owners have mostly expressed a desire to add a hotel downtown, the project’s massing, size, residential component and its proximity to the park and the historic Egan House have drawn the most criticism from opponents.
Business leaders say the project and townhomes add much needed activity to a growing downtown.
The city adopted its Historic Town Center Master Plan in 2012, in an effort to create an “18-hour” downtown experience by managing growth, encouraging pedestrian traffic and keeping patrons in the area. The plan included an already-approved project, the 124-room Plaza Banderas hotel, across from the Mission San Juan Capistrano.
However, after struggling for five years to find a willing hotel developer, landowner Gretchen Stroscher Thomson abandoned the project last November in favor of building a retail center, called The Shops at Capistrano.
While some supporters have argued that the project would be built on one of the last viable spots for a downtown hotel, a group of opponents, many with backgrounds in architecture, development and real estate, have said Urban Village is undermining the HTC Master Plan by asking for too many exceptions. They point to the plan’s requirements to have an extended Forster Street bordering the southern edge of the park and that no buildings adjacent to the Egan House and Esslinger Building be taller than the historic properties.
“The development, as it is currently proposed, is contrary to so much of the master plan that we spent years developing,” said former city councilman Mark Nielsen.
Nielsen and other opponents believe the community has yet to see the full scale of the project’s size and have repeatedly asked the city to demand story poles or 3-D modeling from the developer.
“We’ve been asking for months and requested them during public testimony,” Nielsen said. “It’s never too late. It’s only too late once the project is approved.”
Architect Rob Williams, a former planning commissioner and potential City Council candidate in the November election, has created designs superimposing the Egan House onto Urban Village’s architectural sketches. Opponents plan on presenting Williams’ work to the council.
“I think it’s exactly why there’s been resistance to do story poles and 3-D modeling because the community will actually see how massive it is,” Nielsen said.
Following a joint City Council and Planning Commission workshop in March, Host revised his plans to scale back the hotel from the Egan House.
“Now, under our proposed plan, you can see the Egan House from Veterans Park, so from any angle you can see it,” Host said.
Host also worked with an ad-hoc committee to create a vision plan for the historic property, which currently sits vacant. Together, they created designs that add 1,000 square feet of useable space for the Egan House, although a future operator would not be required to build it. Host said his project will enhance the home, and he believes that its owners are awaiting the outcome of the council meeting before putting the property back on the market.
“Even though it isn’t our property, it gives them the opportunity to bring it back,” Host said. “It’s a 2-for-1 deal. Not only do they get our restaurant, retail, space, hotel and villas, but it also gives enough volume to the Egan House to bring that back.”
A key figure in the process is movie producer and San Juan Capistrano resident Steve Oedekerk, who owns the land the project would be built on.
The council was originally scheduled to vote on the project in June, but city staff discovered that zoning in its General Plan had not been updated to comply with the HTC Master Plan. The problem was addressed in July after the Planning Commission approved changes to allow residential homes in the area. The council will also consider approving those changes Tuesday.
But the delay in the council’s vote irked Oedekerk. He initially chose not to extend his purchase agreement with Host for the property but has since reaffirmed his commitment.
“By agreeing to this, I’ve had to empty the plaza. I still have a few remaining tenants, but that’s it. There’s no revenue going into it,” Oedekerk said. “I have slowly gone out of business over the last two-and-a-half years.”
When the HTC Master Plan was being studied, city officials told Oedekerk that his property was key to the revitalization of downtown. For years, he has allowed the city to use his land as free public parking, but to secure the lot financially and from problems caused by a growing homeless population and drug use at the park, Oedekerk said he may privatize the lot and no longer consider his land for future development.
“If this project doesn’t go through, this particular property is going to be off the list,” Oedekerk said. “I definitively will not be entertaining any new development from a new developer, from scratch.”
At the meeting in June, Oedekerk told the council that before he had committed to Urban Village’s project, he had been approached by several developers interested in building homes and that none proposed a number lower than 125 units.
“Nothing felt right. The plans I was approached with were predominantly all housing, a little bit retail,” Oedekerk said. “(Urban Village’s project) was astronomically the opposite of anything anyone else has brought me because it’s not a greed-based plan.”
Within the past month, Oedekerk said he had been approached by one opponent of the project who expressed interest in buying his property, local real estate developer Bill Griffith.
Griffith confirmed that he had interest in the property and attempted to purchase it from its previous owners years ago. He also addressed rumors that he wants to buy the property to build “hundreds” of homes, which he called “absolutely untrue.”
“The fabrications are humorous. I don’t think high-density residential should be in that location,” Griffith said. “If this thing falls apart, I’d be the first in line to talk to Steve, as I’m sure others would … I still want to buy it, and I’m prepared to pay top dollar for that property, but I can’t get in the way of what’s going on.”
Griffith said Williams’ designs would put the project into the proper perspective. He also said adding residential units could hurt the city in the long run by raising the price of land and forcing out potential developers interested in building much-needed commercial and retail properties.
“We need to create a critical mass in downtown that’s either business related or commerce related,” Griffith said.
When asked what he would do with the property, he said he would like to rehabilitate the Birtcher-Pacific building, a brick building constructed in 1966 that was used by Bank of America. He noted his own office, the Esslinger Building, a former medical office that he restored and is on the National Register of Historic Places. The Esslinger Building is located directly across from Oedekerk’s property.