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The Planning Commission takes the city’s first crack at reviewing a plan to build a 136-room hotel, 38 townhomes and 10,000 square feet of commercial space

By Brian Park

The San Juan Capistrano Planning Commission got their first look at a proposal to build a 136-room hotel and residential enclave in the heart of downtown, and their message to the developer was clear: It’s just too much.

“When I first heard about the project, I was excited. It was the revitalization of downtown,” Commissioner Sheldon Cohen said. “But I think what we’ve been presented with tonight is way overbuilt.”

Irvine-based development company Urban Village is proposing to build the hotel and 38 single-family, three-story townhomes, along with over 10,000 square feet of commercial space, on a 3.1-acre property, located off Camino Capistrano and Forster Street, just behind the Egan House and south of Historic Town Center Park.

After reviewing the initial site plan and conceptual drawings, commissioners said there were too many elements in the project. Among their concerns included a lack of parking for residents’ visitors—currently only eight spaces, the minimum required by the Historic Town Center Master Plan for a residential area of its size—and the hotel’s location behind homes, at the south end of the project area.

“The hotel is buried. If you talk to a hotel operator, there’s no way they’d have the thing there,” Commissioner Robert Williams said. “That hotel needs to be brought out toward the park.”

The project also proposes to reduce the width of a portion of Forster Street from 29 to 24 feet and extend the entire road all the way through to Del Obispo Street.

“We’ve created a historic walk down Forster,” said Urban Village co-founder Joshua Host, who added that small boutique shops, around 100 to 200 square feet in area, would line a portion of the street and help generate more foot traffic in downtown.

Urban Village’s submitted proposal recommends a new traffic signal at the corner of Del Obispo Street and the Forster Street extension. Commissioner Roy Nunn warned that building a new connection between two major thoroughfares, while reducing the width of Forster Street, could create new traffic problems.

“It’s human nature to take that short cut,” Nunn said. “By narrowing it down, you’re not making it easier. You’re creating a conflict.”

Williams added that tight roads could make it difficult for the Orange County Fire Authority to maneuver their vehicles in case of an emergency.

Commissioners also asked Host and representatives from Urban Village to scale back the project, including the elaborate and varied design of townhomes to a more uniform look.

“It’s very attractive, but it’s so tight and packed in together,” Nunn said. “You end up with this Disney adventure resort.”

An idea to make some ground-level homes a space for artists to live and display and sell their work was met with skepticism by the commission, who said that while the concept looked good on paper, its long-term viability was questionable.

“What’s the mechanism so that this isn’t just an interesting idea that becomes defunct?” Commissioner Tim Neely said.

After the meeting, Host said similar artist studios had proven to be successful in Santa Ana. He told the commission that applying the concept in San Juan Capistrano still needed further development.

“As far as if the concept has legs, it’s still early and we’re working through that,” Host said.”

Between the Egan House and the proposed hotel, plans include a public space with multiple fireplaces surrounded by seating, which would come equipped with iPod or iPhone docking stations to play music. Urban Village is also proposing to build a three-story building that would allow for commercial space, a restaurant and an event area. Commissioner Jeff Parkhurst pointed out that the site plan did not account for a delivery area for the restaurant.

Commissioners were, however, receptive of an idea to create a rooftop lounge on top of the three-story building, which would front Camino Capistrano. Host said the lounge would be similar to the one found at Ruby’s Diner and Sky Ranch Saloon, located just north of the project area.

In the process of putting together their proposal, Host said Urban Village reached out to a group of 50 residents, nearby business owners and other stakeholders for input. Former councilmember Laura Freese, who currently serves on the Economic Preservation Committee, was part of that group. During her time on council, she helped the city put together its Historic Town Center Master Plan, which emphasizes the need to create a more pedestrian-friendly downtown and suggests the building of a hotel.

“I think it’s a great concept. The major points are there. The beauty of the Planning Commission is that they’ll whittle it down to get it to fit,” Freese said Wednesday. “The master plan was put in place to have people come downtown and stay in downtown.”

Urban Village will take the commission’s comments and submit updated plans by the end of the month, according to Host.

“This is an extremely important piece of property in downtown,” Commissioner Tim Neely said. “We only get one chance to do it right.”

Urban Village will take the Planning Commission’s comments and submit updated plans by the end of the month, according to Host.

“This is an extremely important piece of property in downtown,” Commissioner Tim Neely said. “We only get one chance to do it right.”

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comments (1)

  • In my opnion, what a sad use of this property. What will happen to the available evening and weekend usage of parking at O plaza (formally known as Birtcher Plaza)? The access to the Historical Town Park,the Mission and any other events in this small town use this parking lot. Without close parking access to the HP for the summer concert series, Seniors and families will have difficulty bringing their chairs and blankets and will not park at a distance to join together in this small community for family fun.
    Why too, do we need a third hotel in this small town? We have the Quality Inn and the recently approved Plaza Banderas Hotel.
    I have worked in and owned a business in Birtcher Plaza for 43 years. The attraction is no traffic noise, and a serene beautiful setting.
    The most recent owner to the plaza, bought the plaza for his business as a production studio, not retail or commercial rental. I am very lucky to be here as long as I can, however, I would hate to see this small town and this property be over used for commercial reasons.

    Pat Simmons
    Southwest Barbers

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