A tie vote hinders the San Juan Hotel & Villas project but developer remains committed
By Brian Park
The San Juan Capistrano City Council was scheduled to give final consideration to a proposal to build a hotel and 30 homes in downtown Tuesday, but it never gave itself the chance after an attempt to allow residences in the area failed to pass on a tie vote.
With an important part of his project now suddenly void, Joshua Host, principal of Urban Village, withdrew his San Juan Hotel & Villas proposal. But in an interview with The Dispatch Thursday, Host said he remains committed to the project.
“The project is not dead. We do have a strategy we’ve put together,” said Host, who declined to go over specifics. “I think if anything this has emboldened us.”
The vote drew a strong reaction from the standing-room-only crowd.
Tom Scott, president and co-founder of the Camino Real Playhouse and a supporter of the project, left his seat and exited council chambers, yelling, “Time to get a new City Council, guys.”
Before the council that night was an amendment to the General Plan that would have allowed residences in San Juan Capistrano’s historic downtown. Mayor Sam Allevato and Councilman Larry Kramer voted in favor while Councilmen Roy Byrnes and Derek Reeve rejected it. Councilman John Taylor had to recuse himself because of his residence nearby.
A vote on Host’s project was originally slated in June but was rescheduled to Tuesday after Charlie View, the city’s development services director, discovered the General Plan had not been updated to comply with the Historic Town Center Master Plan, which was approved in 2012 and cost the city about $500,000 and two years of studying.
Host said former planning directors Grant Taylor and Bill Ramsey informed him in February 2013 that an amendment was not necessary, and his land-use attorney, as well as others he consulted with, agreed. But in June, View and City Attorney Hans Van Ligten said the project could not legally move forward unless the two plans were harmonized.
“The liability they put themselves into is shocking,” Host said.
While city staff and the Planning Commission recommended approving the amendment, neither supported a change to allow detached, single-family homes because the HTC Master Plan intended for townhomes. But the council never considered the change after doing away with residences entirely.
“It’s still a planning document, but once they opened Pandora’s Box, you can’t shut the lid,” said Host, referring to Byrnes’ and Reeve’s vote against the HTC Master Plan’s intent.
Former planning commissioner Rob Williams, who has previously spoken out against the project, supported the amendment but was against allowing detached homes.
“We need to clean it up. We obviously missed something when we were going through the historic town center and we didn’t update the General Plan, so it’s a no brainer for that,” Williams said. “The intent of the downtown was an urban feeling downtown, not a suburb. If you allow single-family detached, you’re now opening it up.”
Reeve, who has been a vocal critic of the HTC Master Plan, said he was worried that allowing residences in downtown would adversely affect the city’s “small town, special atmosphere” and encourage future developers to possibly build multi-family homes.
“We’ve got to look at where we’re going in the future,” Reeve said. “Economics is going to drive this … It will in time change the characterization of downtown.”
City officials, business owners and community leaders have long expressed a desire to build a hotel downtown. When the HTC Master Plan was adopted, it already included an approved plan to build the 124-room Plaza Banderas hotel, across from the Mission. But after struggling to find a hotel developer for five years, landowner Gretchen Stroscher Thomson abandoned the project last November in favor of building a retail center, The Shops at Capistrano.
San Juan Capistrano resident Jonathan Volzke, who previously worked with Urban Village as a public affairs specialist, urged the council to approve the amendment, as the project was not viable without the homes.
“We want a hotel in town. The homes support the hotel, so there is some economics there,” Volzke said. “The homes are more valuable and they will underwrite the cost of the hotel, so this zoning change is important.”
Byrnes said he was not ready to consider the housing issue, saying, “When things are unclear, that’s not the time to forge into water.” But Reeve urged Byrnes to vote, one way or another, because Host had been delayed long enough.
Host criticized Byrnes for his initial hesitance, noting that the council had two months since the delayed vote to consider the amendment and the project as a whole.
“That was shameful. Businesses everywhere will take notice,” Host said.
Allevato, who favored the project, noted that no new buildings had been built in downtown in 20 years. He said he hopes Host will be able to find a way to keep the project alive.
“I think it’s a sad night for San Juan Capistrano. I think we just blew our opportunity to get a first-class hotel … and launching a true renaissance of downtown to bring economic growth and vitality,” Allevato said.
Host’s plan will involve keeping San Juan Capistrano resident and movie producer Steve Oedekerk on board. Oedekerk owns the land the project would be built on.
When the city was developing the HTC Master Plan, they approached Oedekerk and told him his land was a key piece to the future revitalization of downtown. He told the council in June that he had been approached by several developers interested in purchasing his property, but none had proposed to build anything less than 125 residential units. He said he ultimately partnered with Host because “(Urban Village’s project) was astronomically the opposite of anything anyone else has brought me because it’s not a greed-based plan.”
The council’s delayed vote in June irked Oedekerk, who initially chose not to extend his purchase agreement with Host before reaffirming his commitment.
But for years, Oedekerk has allowed the city to use his land as free public parking and said the number of tenants in an office park on his property has been dwindling. Citing a growing homeless population and drug use at nearby Historic Town Center Park, Oedekerk has said if the project fails, he may be forced to privatize the lot and no longer consider his property for future development. Oedekerk declined to comment after the meeting but said last week, “I definitely will not be entertaining any new development from a developer, from scratch.”
Host’s project has been vocally opposed by several residents, many with backgrounds in architecture, development and real estate. The council’s split decision denying the amendment, he said, affects his critics as well.
“Do we live in a democracy or an oligarchy? All those folks who felt like they were able to pull off some victory, it’s done exactly the opposite,” Host said. “I’m not going away.”