By Erin Kutnick, San Juan Capistrano
I was disappointed but hardly surprised to see a column from former Councilman Mark Nielsen criticizing the proposal for a new downtown shopping center in the last edition of The Dispatch.
Mr. Nielsen began his political career fighting against the public high school attended by so many of our children, and he continues to oppose projects that our community not only wants but also needs.
I’ve been a resident of San Juan for 16 years and have learned to do my grocery shopping at the nicer stores in nearby cities. I don’t like the inconvenience or that my tax dollars go to another city, but our markets are outdated and do not offer the quality I want for my family.
Now, a nice retail plaza is proposed for the vacant parcel east of the Mission. Since I’ve been in town, the land was home to a family restaurant and a run-down motel—both now closed. It’s been empty for years. I was excited about a hotel going there, but apparently the developers weren’t interested in building a boutique hotel right on top of the freeway.
So if it’s not a hotel, then what? Goveia Commercial Real Estate proposes an attractive retail plaza and has worked with city leaders to ensure the architecture and layout fits the community character. The impacts of this project will actually be much less than the hotel project that Mr. Nielsen approved while he was on the council. In an effort to deceive readers, he even listed “negative impacts” of the proposed development that are the same as in the project he approved.
I met with the developer—something Mr. Nielsen did not do before forming his opinion and sharing it with all of us—and I was impressed.
The interchange work and topography of the land makes it difficult to develop a completely “pedestrian-friendly” plaza, as Mr. Nielsen wants.
Think of the project as two separate developments: On the corner of Ortega and El Camino Real will be two buildings with historic architecture, a new restaurant and shops. Those two buildings together will be less square footage than Mission Promenade, the Starbucks plaza, directly across from the Mission.
Then, on the back of the property, more than 25 feet below the off-ramp, will sit the boutique market we all want and need and two more buildings—again, together smaller than Mission Promenade—that will have stores geared more toward residents.
We all know that San Juan Capistrano is special, but it is not truly a tourist town. Shops that put all their eggs in the tourist basket to keep their doors open just don’t survive.
The proposed “Shops at Capistrano” would bring us the best of both worlds: pedestrian-oriented buildings closest to the Mission and resident-geared stores in the back. Added all together, the entire project is 35,000 square feet smaller than the hotel Mr. Nielsen approved.
That hotel also was 50 parking spaces short, which should have been a big problem to Mr. Nielsen. The new proposal has more parking than the city requires—parking we really need in downtown. A smaller development and more parking sounds good to me.
Mr. Nielsen wants us to believe that “there are other options” for this land, but he’s not the builder and he’s not in the real estate business. He’s more of a gambler when it comes to land planning. Remember the last bet he made? He led the effort to block In-N-Out from coming to town, and in its place we got an auto parts store while Rancho Santa Margarita got a popular new In-N-Out. Let’s not make the same mistake again.