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