By Mark Nielsen
I find it ironic that the City Council recognized May as National Historic Preservation Month, when they seem to be working to undermine our town’s historic character and preservation. The Mission, Los Rios, our open space and downtown represent “real” historic California and are unique in the urban jungle of Southern California. The historic, small-village and equestrian character of our community defines who we are, and the preservation and enhancement of this character has been a fundamental responsibility and hallmark of our city’s leadership for decades.
The City Council is planning to repeal our Historic Town Center Master Plan (HTCMP) after the City spent more than $400,000 to expand the original 1995 Master Plan with an updated vision in 2010. Innumerable citizens gave input at workshops and hearings before the plan was ultimately approved. This current push to abandon our Historic Town Center Master Plan is wrong-headed, especially after decades of our General Plan recognizing the importance of treating our historic downtown and Los Rios District differently than the rest of our city. Our City Council wants to repeal this overall vision and just keep some of the form-based code that gives specific building guidelines. That is like saying we want to repeal our Constitution, but “it’s OK because we are keeping a bunch of laws.” The laws lose their meaning and cannot be properly applied without the overarching vision and guidelines of the Constitution. Our General Plan is San Juan Capistrano’s Constitution, and the Historic Town Center Master Plan and Los Rios Specific Plan are part of that overall Constitution.
Why would anyone want to abandon the defining vision of our historic town center that is the reason so many of us chose to raise our families here? The City Council would have you believe it is because the plan has some inconsistencies and opens the city to future litigation. That argument is pure spin as 1) the city has had a Historic downtown Master Plan for decades that previous Councils embraced; 2) while the 2010 Plan has some inconsistencies with the General Plan, a previous Planning Commission identified specific fixes that can avoid repealing the Plan; and 3) the City Council only finds itself in court when it ignores the city’s General Plan or changes it to accommodate developers instead of forcing developers to conform to the city’s vision.
If you look at the recent development projects that have caused citizens to push back, they all involve changes to our General Plan and zoning laws. If the City Council is serious about avoiding more lawsuits, it should insist on developers meeting our standards. Instead, it appears our Council prefers to change our Constitution (General Plan) to accommodate developers or landowners, maximizing the value of their property at the expense of the rest of us and our historic village character.
The plan’s purpose is to present the future vision of our Historic Town Center and ensure the historic character is preserved, enhanced and expanded over time. Some goals include:
“Preserve and honor the historic buildings and other resources of the Town Center; Enhance the design of all open spaces, including streets, parks, plazas, as a well-connected network of comfortable pedestrian-oriented public realms—the ‘outdoor rooms’ in which the life of the town may thrive; Support a village-scaled density with building massing that strengthens the pedestrian realm and historic character.”
How could any San Juan resident turn their back on such guidelines?
Abandoning this plan makes it easier to approve projects that do not conform to our historic town vision and is a dereliction of duty to the preservation and enhancement of our historic town center. The city’s motto is “Preserving the Past to Enhance the Future.” The City should be focused on amending and updating the Master Plan to fix the inconsistencies with the General Plan with full public input, not throwing up their hands and repealing the whole document. Preserving the past admittedly takes some work, but it is well worth the effort. Let’s call on our Council to do the work properly!