Guest Opinion: Retaining San Juan Capistrano’s Character

Our city has a unique brand, developed over centuries, that needs to be protected

Mark Nielsen

By Mark Nielsen, former San Juan Capistrano City Councilman

As I look around town at commercial development projects recently approved or going through the approval process, I am struck by how momentum seems to be building to abandon our historic, small-village character in favor of being “business friendly.”

There’s the multi-story storage building right next to the freeway, an approved medical building by Marbella against the freeway with a 50 foot tower, the Trader Joe’s strip mall next to the Mission and the hotel project with 33 town homes on only 3 acres with inadequate parking next to Historic Town Center Park and the Egan House.

It is always a balancing act between strict adherence to planning guidelines and not strangling a sustainable business and retail community. However, the pendulum often swings too far one way or the other. I am afraid we may be in the midst of a swing too far away from our city’s motto, “Preserving the Past to Enhance the Future.”

As I mentioned last issue, San Juan Capistrano has a very unique brand that is unlike any other community in Orange County. Our historical, equestrian and small village-like character creates an oasis that steps one back in time, in the midst of the modern planned communities that surround us.

Our historic town center, with the Mission as its linchpin, is born of the 18th century and reflects a European flavor that attracts people from around the world. Enjoying an evening concert in the Mission courtyard or dining at one of the restaurants across from the Mission in an outdoor seating area transports one to a place more akin to a European village or 19th century ranch setting than the crowded metropolis of Southern California.

To trade this unique brand for a “me-too” retail setting that tries to compete with other similar retail projects in surrounding communities detracts from our uniqueness. The result is a loss of that which gives us a competitive advantage to attract visitors and residents alike to our town center. How many other downtowns even exist in south Orange County, let alone ones that can boast over 15 quality restaurants, a movie theater, wine bars, live music, coffee houses, a zoo, parks, 18th century adobes, train station and historic Mission, all within walking distance? Unlike modern California that relies on a car to get around, we have a truly walkable town center with a master plan to expand the pedestrian accessibility.

In business, companies spend fortunes to protect their brand. We have a brand that is known worldwide and is the reason many of us moved here from bigger metropolitan areas or other “modern” California cities. Why would we be so quick to abandon this unique brand that literally took us centuries to develop? Business friendly does not mean giving in to anything a business wants. While I and others certainly want key businesses in our town, there are right and wrong places for them.

Instead, we should do as we originally intended with the Historic Master Plan—provide clear guidelines as to what development is acceptable and enhances our historic village character. Encourage businesses that follow those guidelines and remove barriers to efficient approvals (thus being business friendly). However, be just as quick to shut down a developer that is trying to detract from our vision and brand.

Just because one developer states a project that meets our vision “does not pencil out” is no reason to believe them or abandon our principles. There are many developers that will embrace projects that others avoid due to differing business models. Once vacant land is built out, we are stuck with it. Many times leaving land undeveloped results in a new project that meets our vision and guidelines. However, if we turn our back on those guidelines, we send the message to all developers that we are not serious about our vision. This only guarantees that no one will step up to deliver on our vision. All they must do is say they need something different and we will change our rules.

Cities are not like businesses. They need to take the long view and plan for 25 or 50 years, not just the next one or two. We do not need to approve some kind of development for all locations as soon as someone is willing to offer a project. If it takes years to get it right, so be it. The risk to our future is far greater if we lose our unique character and thereby forfeit the soul of what has brought residents and businesses here in the first place.

Mark Nielsen is a local business executive who served on the City Council from 2006 to 2010, including one year as mayor. He is a member of the Open Space Foundation’s board of directors and has lived in San Juan Capistrano for 25 years.

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5 Responses to “Guest Opinion: Retaining San Juan Capistrano’s Character”

  1. Joanna Clark
    May 25, 2014 at 11:02 am #

    He has my vote if he will:

    1) Lower the speed limit on all city streets to 35 mph or less, so that residents can operate neighborhood electric vehicles (NEV);
    2) Mandate that public parking lots be covered with solar panel arrays similar to what Kaiser Hospital has done;
    3) Mandate recharging stations for both NEVs and Electric Vehicles like the Tesla, Nisson Leaf or Chevy Volt, etc.
    4) Mandate that all new residential and business construction must include solar arrays on their roofs to offset their carbon foot print.
    5) Mandate that every residence install at least four 55-gallon water barrels to collect water during the rainy season to use for watering plants during drought spells.
    6) Mandate that all lawns be replaced with drought tolerant plants until such time as the drought is declared over;
    7) Mandate automatic water faucets in all public restrooms to prevent the unnecessary waste of water, our most precious resource.
    8) Mandate a minimum wage of $15.00 an hour to alleviate poverty; and
    9) Push for the Capistrano School District to adopt the Finnish public school system.

    Put the above in writing Mark, and you will have my vote.

  2. David Bartholomew
    May 26, 2014 at 5:08 am #

    Hi Joanna, hello Mark!
    Joanna says, “He has my vote if he will:” Well dear Joanna, people will not want to visit the downtown area you speak of when Land Baron’s complete their maximum-profit misconduct-design criteria.

    Wow Mark, great article: Every thinking SJC citizen should wake up to read your warnings, for it will be far worse than you describe. This insanity is also or now a curse to Dana Point area citizens. What we describe is a moral White Collar Crime for the investors are not just out of state, but out of country. You identify the freeway massive ramp plus commercial build out, (auto parts store insanity), the list goes on, you name just a few of the very sad developments.

    “There’s the multi-story storage building…” Well we have this same monstrosity right in the harbor blocking views and removing inspiration to come to the DP Harbor. This SJC plan is outrageous, and I thought the Dana Point squamous-overdevelpment disease was becoming epidemic proportions.

    You say accurately, “To trade this unique brand for a “me-too” retail setting that tries to compete with other similar retail projects in surrounding communities detracts from our uniqueness.” So true! I say, we don’t need another strip mall in the harbor, twice the size of the existing stores … they can get that in Mission Viejo.

    Yet, the same rape-of-the-environmental origins or thing is going down in Dana Point Harbor, putting in a strip mall, raising rents to fund ‘County Worker Pensions’ we must roast the GOP (99% of blame / party) who undermines our unique, historical God-like creations. Creations we must instead, draw self restraining parameters to step back from, to protect ‘as-if’ a national park, to take city money to by 2x, 3x setbacks – like the behavior of Hollywood Art Gallery artistically framing these post card like Kodak memories, locatiions.

    It does not make sense, it is horrible, it occurs before our very eyes, yet CUSD bought ‘Dump High School’, parents send their susceptible children there enduring long term health impacts. In Dana Point, the Save Headlands group saved their own ass, yet let the Stands Beach be taken and covered up for the elite billionaires; thanks to L..A. Times ‘Land Barons’ and their ‘profit-maximums building goals.

    DaveBartholomew@cox.net / Save the Headlands, / Artist / Teacher, to RecallCUSD, Superintendent Fleming and Trustees, stop government White Collar corruption by voting in the Primaries! Stop American’s from wrecking the Promise, etc.

    • Joanna Clark
      May 27, 2014 at 10:49 am #

      David, I do not support more strip malls or even a hotel in downtown San Juan.

      I do support everything that Lincoln andRocklin have down to allow NEV operation on their streets. The streets are safer there. Businesses realized that NEV operators bought local, so they took the initiative to put in charging stations. It’s been a “win-win” situation for all.

      I do support what Lancaster and Sebastropol have done by mandating solar on all new residential and business construction to lower their carbon footprint.

      We have to make the break from fossil fuels, beside we have already reached peak oil, and it is all downhill now. What are your children going to do when that last drop of oil or liter of gas is recovered and the wells go dry? Wouldn’t it be better to start preparing for that day now? NEVs and EVs can go a long ways towards lowering our carbon foot print. Putting an end to fracking in California can save more than 90 BILLION gallons of water.

      And, by-the-way, going green will create more jobs than fracking or building the Keystone XL pipeline.

      Our reservoirs, rivers, and aquifers are running dry, and we can not afford to waste our water. It is our most precious resource. We can live without coal, gas and oil, but we can’t survive without water.

      People here are complaining about their increasing water rates, but they have no problem buying bottled water at more than 900 times the cost of an equivalent amount of water from their tap. And they keep calling for Desal. Desal is an extremely polluting process requiring enormous amounts of energy, and if you think water is expensive now, wait until all we have is desal water.

      Look at the photos of Lakes Powell and Mead taken annually by the Landsat satellites since 1985. It is possible that we will lose the Hoover Dams’ electrical generating facility this summer, presenting us with yet another problem to overcome.

      I do agree with you, however, that putting our high school next to the dump was incredibly stupid, and I would not oppose shipping those responsible off to Gitmo for a long vacation in the sun. But, what’s wrong with improving our schools? Over the past 20 years Finland has created the best public school system on the planet. Free quality education for every child from pre-school through technical school or a university doctorate degree.

      During the same time our public schools have been failing. “We’re seventh in literacy, twenty-seventh in math, twenty-second in science, forty-ninth in life expectancy, 178th in infant mortality, third in median household income, number four in labor force, and number four in exports. We lead the world in only three categories: number of incarcerated citizens per capita, number of adults who believe angels are real, and defense spending, where we spend more than the next twenty-six countries combined, twenty-five of whom are allies.” according to Will McAvoy.

      • David Bartholomew
        May 30, 2014 at 3:25 am #

        Dear Joanna Clark: I notice that we like a lot of the same ‘high standards’, smart education practice, driving local, scooters around town, etc. IMHO we are becoming more like European rural – cosmopolitan communities. Your article is well written, ‘think globally, act locally’ and don’t fall asleep at the moped.

        In favor of both the water and the power campaign, we should get together and plan on buying San Onofre ASAP, to protect Lakes Powell and Mead, to build desalination plant, open a college for teaching and engineering the products the utility standards your article implies, all 23+ of them.

        As for SJC new development plan, the citizens of community are more complacent than ever, the Mission Viejo Ranch Co. and propaganda powers are not argued in City Council meetings; my concern is the tourism and environmental impact will hurt Dana Point as well. We must focus on the local issues and matters, to see the tree, now, decide to help the global forest late. DaveBartholomew@cox.net will help you So Cal folks to stop political corruption. Got attorney?

  3. Dusty
    May 26, 2014 at 11:57 am #

    I come from one of the oldest families,in this valley,my great,great grandpa was Jose Canedo,he was a spanish guard at the sj capo mission,and his brothers and sisters were on all of the california Mission era projects. His father married full blooded Indians,and at age 14 he made them his wife,,,So now into todays modern world,we have private property owners,with so many land restriction.

    I don’t know why people find these old dirt adobe converting grounds so sacred,every time I hear the mission bells ring,I sometimes think of all the punishement,and slave labor that went into these adobe missions.it must of been a living hell for many native Americans,,and spanish soldiers kids,,working so hard as the lazy prest crack the whip..very tuff life,,and why not build a strip mall,there was a gas station,on that corner before all of you newbies moved here.

    Not every property owner can hang on this long on a vacant piece of there land..I say build what ever this property owner wants,next to this old dirt ugly mission building..

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