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By Collin Breaux

Plans for new retail and office space at the current Camino Real Playhouse property—along with a four-story parking structure—are still moving forward.

Local developer Dan Alqmuist’s plans for the area continued to gain momentum after the San Juan Capistrano Planning Commission approved recommendations to the City Council for rezoning measures advised by city staff on Wednesday, Aug. 24. The project has gone before various city government boards over the past few years as details are ironed out.

The City Council approved initial steps to get a rezoning study and draft project plan started in May and will have final approval of the rezoning measures. The property is at 31776 El Camino Real, at the southeast corner of Ortega Highway and El Camino Real.

The development plans will see the construction of two two-story, mixed-use buildings with retail and office space and a separate parking structure. The project will have 216 overall parking spaces, with the majority of them in the structure.

The mixed-use component, which will comprise 27,457 square feet, will include restaurant space.

The overall design concept for the project depicts a “pedestrian-oriented development,” with outdoor seating and dining areas that “incorporate a California-native landscape palette,” an agenda report said. There will also be a setback from the Blas Aguilar Adobe Museum, so the historic site is protected.

The current Camino Real Playhouse building will eventually be demolished and a new downtown performing arts center will be built, potentially near the current Playhouse site.

Commissioner Matt Gaffney said he did not have a problem with the project.

“This town, especially in the summertime, is grossly under-parked,” Gaffney said. “We’ve been waiting for this parking structure. … (The project) will certainly be an improvement over what’s there now. Personally speaking, I’ve seen Mr. Almquist and the projects he’s done here in San Juan Capistrano. Every one of them has been first-class, and he’s a man of his word.”

Commissioners Darren Fancher and Anna Dickinson said they think the project will make a nice addition to downtown, and they like the design of the buildings.

Commission Chair Tami Wilhelm said she also thinks the project is a “high-end, high-quality” project.

“I think the way the parking structure is situated on that site is dimensionally, somewhat, buried in the back so—design-wise—there’s a lot of elevations in front of it that help diffuse it. It won’t look like a big, ugly, massive parking structure,” Wilhelm said. “I think it will actually enhance that portion of downtown.”

The coming redevelopment has elicited backlash from some residents, including Jack Stavana, who spoke during the Planning Commission meeting.

“What disappoints me the most about this presentation is the absolute lack of continuity and character to our town,” Stavana said. “I am shocked that the elevations of this project appear to fit very well with Rancho Mission Viejo or Ladera (Ranch) or Irvine, but they do not fit the image of San Juan. … We are quickly moving away from the bylaws of the city that I have loved for 30 years.”

Playhouse Founder Tom Scott, however, spoke in favor of the project and future plans for a new performing arts center—details which were not included in the current proposed building plans.

“Dan Almquist has the vision and the business acumen to pull this off, and I want to go on record as founder of the Camino Real Playhouse that I support his goal for the Playhouse property and adjoining parking lot,” Scott said.

Almquist is seeking funding for the performing arts component and said he will set up a 501(c)(3) nonprofit to raise money.

In response to questions from Wilhelm on if structure parking will be paid, Almquist said there will “probably” be some type of parking validation, because he wants to ensure there is parking available for the office workers.

When addressing general citizen complaints about development in San Juan, including with the new In-N-Out Burger location coming to Del Obispo Street and housing throughout town, Wilhelm said the level of housing is state-mandated and picking the amount and type of development is not under the Planning Commission’s purview.

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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