Proposed ‘strip mall’ takes away from downtown’s historic character

Mark Nielsen

By Mark Nielsen, former San Juan Capistrano City Councilman

Apparently the promise of a Trader Joe’s is enough to have our city turn its back on our unique historical character.

Recently a “strip mall” was proposed on Ortega Highway at the old Mission Inn site, across the street from the Mission.

While I was on the City Council, we had approved that site for a three-story boutique hotel after literally years of design review and negotiations. Everyone was excited that we would add a quality hotel that fit with our unique historic downtown at the city’s entrance from the freeway, generate significant “bed tax” revenue and extend Mission day trips to overnight or longer, adding visitors to our downtown. Significant time was spent due to the sensitive location of the property as the gateway into our historic town center as well as the first thing a visitor sees coming to our “jewel” of the Mission.

Unfortunately, though the hotel was approved, it is now being replaced with a new developer that is proposing a four-building, 41,000-square-foot retail project that will have almost 200 parking spaces spread out across the property and a plan to use Spring Street for semi-trucks to deliver to the retailers, where children are daily dropped off and picked up at San Juan Elementary—basically, a typical strip mall that is built around vehicles, not pedestrians.

One need only compare the Mission Promenade across the street from the Mission with the Marshalls strip mall across from the fire station to understand the stark difference. It’s not exactly what we envisioned for the entrance to our historic downtown.

Oh, and by the way, they need a General Plan amendment and rezone in order to bypass the Historic Town Center Master Plan. This would remove the property from the Historic Town Center district and give the developer and City Council free rein to develop whatever they wanted. The council has started the process of considering an amendment with only Councilman Larry Kramer dissenting, when that process should not begin until there is something worth considering.

Why should the city be so willing to throw out our Historic Downtown Master Plan that was only adopted a few years ago—a plan that we spent over $500,000 for, crafted over a number of years with input from citizens, businesses, historians and experts in development and architecture. The purpose of the plan was to ensure the historic character of our town center is preserved and enhanced.

A key component of that character is guarding the adjacent areas to the Mission, the centerpiece of our history. Another key point in the master plan is the village-like atmosphere with Mediterranean architecture and a pedestrian orientation with parks, plazas and paseos.

While the developer proposes a very nice strip mall for someplace like Irvine (or even for areas outside our historic center), it is completely at odds with the vision that is embodied in our general plan from decades ago, as well as our most recent master plan.

Yes, I know the argument put forth by some on the council that we need more critical mass for retail. However, these arguments ignore key issues.

First, the critical mass for retail is based on adding more retail that is pedestrian oriented so people will walk among shops downtown. Adding a strip mall at the edge will only encourage more traffic, be an island for shoppers to drive in and out and discourage shoppers from leaving their cars and walking through the town center.

This will lead to taking business away from the small merchants and reduced tax income, as well as causing major issues for the parents and children at San Juan Elementary.

Second, at what price do we abandon our principles and unique character to sell ourselves out to the highest bidder?

San Juan Capistrano is an oasis of tranquility and historic beauty that takes visitors back in time and sets us apart from the rest of Orange County. We should be digging our heels in to protect and celebrate that unique character because it is our unique “brand” that attracts business and visitors to us over other places. We cannot and should not try to compete with all the “me-too” malls, and in so doing change forever the face of our unique historic community.

There are options for creating a retail site integrated with the Mission and the historic downtown that is made for walking and could reflect the architecture of the Mission with courtyards in its center. However, this plan clearly is not an option.

Our motto is still “Preserving the Past to Enhance the Future.” Cutting off a big chunk of property from the Historic Town Center District does neither. Our city made a mistake long ago by creating “fast food row” as you exit Ortega eastbound. Don’t compound that mistake by adding a “strip mall row” as our new city gateway.

Mark Nielsen is a local business executive who served on the City Council from 2006 to 2010, including one year as mayor. He is a member of the Open Space Foundation’s board of directors and has lived in San Juan Capistrano for 25 years.

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comments (3)

  • Another well written piece in this point/counterpoint set of articles. This is the way that public discourse should be handled going forward in San Juan Capistrano.

    I am so torn on this issue, even though I am very pro-property rights, I do believe that this is too important a plot of land in our town to frivolously jump on the next best option, which is what they’re proposing and doesn’t appear to really be the next best option when you consider all of the empty retail space in SJC. I think if we were to bring in a Trader’s Joe or whatever then it should be put it place of the empty Wherehouse location (which has been a dead space for so long there is a generation who doesn’t even know what Wherehouse was! “What’s an LP?”) We could find a way to re-design that old spot without wasting this much more valuable piece of land adjacent to our most precious community possession – The Jewel of the Missions.

    There is a win/win solution out there somewhere. A solution that will allow Gretchen to maximize the earning potential on her property and still make all San Juan residents proud. Let’s continue to work together and do so in open communication in the spirit of teamwork.

  • I would like to see a Indian Casino,,,I think it fits perfect,,,and all the church people can go to Holy mass,,after laying down a few bucks on gambling…

  • Jonathan Volzke

    Thanks for your thoughts Eric — unfortunately, Trader Joe’s and similar markets don’t want to be in the old Wherehouse location — the city and property owner has tried. They are very interested, however, in this project.

    I was hoping for one more paragraph — no hotel will come, so what should go there?

    Thanks —

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