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By Collin Breaux

A four-story parking structure, along with new office and retail space, is expected to eventually go up at what is now the Camino Real Playhouse property.

The San Juan Capistrano City Council approved rezoning measures facilitating the redevelopment by local developer and resident Dan Almquist on Tuesday, Oct. 4. The El Camino Specific Plan—a set of land-use guidelines designed specifically for the project—was permitted amid community outcry over perceptions of overdevelopment and the potential loss of the local theater.

Mayor Pro Tem Howard Hart said the city is mandated to eventually sell the Playhouse property—which is downtown on El Camino Real and across the street from Mission San Juan Capistrano—and if an exclusive negotiation agreement previously reached with Almquist’s company, Frontier Real Estate Investments, elapsed without a deal on Dec. 31, any sale would be subject to the state’s Surplus Land Act. The Surplus Land Act requires the city to open the land to affordable housing developers for 60 days prior to opening it up to other commercial or housing development.

“I wasn’t elected until 2020. I wasn’t here in 2017, when (the exclusive negotiation agreement) was approved. I wasn’t a part of those discussions. This isn’t my favorite of all projects that I’ve seen proposed in downtown,” Hart said. “Quite honestly, if we could preserve the Playhouse there, I’d do it. … This is not a choice between a playhouse and a parking structure. This is a choice between a parking structure and the rest of Dan’s proposal, and something else.”

The city loses control of the process if the Surplus Land Act is enacted, Hart said.

“When (the city lawyer) tells us that the state can overrule us, he’s not doing that for show. That’s legal advice, so we lose the discretionary ability to say what goes in that area,” Hart said. “While I’m not wildly enthusiastic about what’s being proposed before us, there is a not far-fetched chance of a greater than three-story dense housing structure with no parking—in an area that’s already challenged for parking.”

The vote for the El Camino Specific Plan was unanimous. Hart, Mayor Derek Reeve and Councilmember Sergio Farias voted yes. Councilmember John Taylor recused himself since he lives nearby in the Los Rios Historic District, while Councilmember Troy Bourne did not attend Tuesday’s meeting.

The current Camino Real Playhouse facility would be demolished for the new development. Almquist’s project would see two two-story buildings constructed for office and retail space. Twenty-three trees would also be removed, including one heritage tree, and new landscaping will include shrubs and vines. The parking structure will be 2,607 square feet and have 197 parking spaces. There will also be a plaza area with seating and tables.

While previous discussions about the redevelopment have mentioned a new performing arts center in the vicinity, such a center was not included in the current project plan. Almquist has previously said he will facilitate a new downtown performing arts center, a sentiment he reiterated on Tuesday.

“We are still committed to seeing a performing arts center downtown,” Almquist said. “We are working on options to make that happen, and that’s still a commitment of mine that I’ve made public a number of times.”

Almquist has previously mentioned the need to seek funding for the new center.

Playhouse President Leslie Eisner said previous promises to preserve the Playhouse were false.

“My goal is to make sure the City Council and the people of San Juan understand that if the city does not take any meaningful steps towards the preservation of the Playhouse, it will cease to exist in less than two years’ time,” Eisner said. “As things presently stand, 34 years of community theater in San Juan will end. The evolution of the Playhouse project and the city’s inaction whatsoever to support the Playhouse make its extinction all but inevitable.”

Eisner said she met with councilmembers and the city manager and explored other venue options, but “formal requests” to study ideas were rejected.

“The proposed performing arts center is years away,” Eisner said. “If and when it’s built, despite what’s been erroneously reported, we have been told we will not be its management or resident theater—so that we must find another home regardless.”

Former Playhouse President Beverly Blake previously said Playhouse staff would transition to the new performing arts center.

Playhouse Founder and President Emeritus Tom Scott said he hopes the changes made will preserve performing arts in San Juan Capistrano. Research has shown theater patrons spend 10 dollars on average on other amenities in town for every dollar spent on a theater ticket, Scott said.

“I think that the Capistrano center for the performing arts, which Dan has endorsed from the very beginning, can be that engine for both the economic growth and supporting performing arts,” Scott said. “Our goal is to have the Camino Real Playhouse as an entity participating in that performing arts facility, which will be run by a professional group, bringing in outside entertainment, as well as our local school symphonies and other groups—so there will be something going on almost every single weekend, including performances from Camino Real Playhouse.”

Scott said he appreciated the preservation concerns expressed by Eisner and hopes efforts by Almquist and the City Council can make that happen within the new center’s constraints.

Reached for comment the day after the meeting, Almquist said he has met with Playhouse representatives several times and wants the Playhouse to be linked into plans for a new performing arts center.

Working with the Playhouse on finding a transitional home has always been a part of the plan, and there can be angst any time there is uncertainty, Almquist said.

Almquist said the situation is a matter of working toward a solution, and he is confident it will land in a good place.

Rich Heimann, founder of The Alliance for San Juan Art—a nonprofit that advocates for public art in San Juan—said he is disappointed to learn there is currently no alternative location for the Playhouse.

“The proposed new performing arts center, however exciting that is, is most likely three to five years away,” Heimann said. “Where do we go to see Playhouse performances in the meantime? I urge the City Council to approve the plans on the table, but I also urge the city to help find an alternative location for the Playhouse performances as we know them.”

Resident Joanne Marquez said she didn’t like the architectural style.

“In no way do I see that parking garage compatible with the Blas Aguilar Adobe. To me, the style looks much more modern,” Marquez said. “I came tonight, because I wanted to see the presentation, because, I thought, there’s got to be something about this that I can like.”

Other residents, including Michael Laux, spoke against the proposed plan.

“When that property was promised to Dan Almquist, he was promising us a performing arts center,” Laux said. “That’s no longer on the table, so I think that was a real bait-and-switch. Like a lot of people, I am disappointed we are not going to have a performing arts center.”

Resident Jack Stavana, who previously spoke against the project during a Planning Commission meeting in August, repeated his objections to the City Council.

“We are not opposed to the development. We are opposed to the design. In particular, the need for a four-story parking structure—particularly with the destruction of the Playhouse,” Stavana said. “To that point, I would ask the city—including the Council—what is a higher priority for San Juan Capistrano: the community Playhouse or a four-story parking structure? I think it’s a very simple question. For me and, apparently, for many here, it would be a very apparent answer. The priority should be for the Playhouse, not parking spaces.”

Stavana also again took issue with the aesthetic design.

“Most of downtown is tile-roof Spanish Mission structure,” Stavana said. “I think Dan’s design is very properly done. I just don’t believe it belongs here. I think it would fit in wonderfully out at Rancho Mission Viejo or Irvine or many other cookie-cutter cities. I don’t believe it fits in our wonderful town.”

Reeve said debating the appearance of new buildings is something residents continue to bring up.

“I think it’s absolutely a healthy discussion about what architecture style we should have in our town,” Reeve said. “A lot of people say it should only be Mission. … I think the design idea of this building is to merge three different types of designs that are elements of the downtown into that very key location, which is effectively the entrance of the town.”

Collin Breaux

Collin Breaux covers San Juan Capistrano and other South Orange County news as the City Editor for The Capistrano Dispatch. Before moving to California, he covered Hurricane Michael, politics and education in Panama City, Florida. He can be reached by email at cbreaux@picketfencemedia.com.

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