By Collin Breaux | Email: cbreaux@picketfencemedia.com | Twitter: @collin_breaux

The San Juan Capistrano City Council approved initiating a study of a potential general plan amendment for downtown city-owned property at the southeast corner of Ortega Highway and El Camino Real, during a council meeting on Tuesday, Sept. 1. The Camino Real Playhouse is located on the property.

Frontier Real Estate Investments is looking to develop a commercial project at the property. The company submitted a development proposal in July for a commercial project consisting of two two-story buildings and a one-story parking structure with approximately 24,786 square feet of leasable area for retail, restaurant and office uses, a staff report said. The lot area is approximately 1.68 acres.

“The project has three architectural styles: agrarian, Monterey and Mediterranean,” project manager David Contreras said. “The first floor would be identified for retail and restaurant use; the second floor would be for office use.”

The council also approved initiating a study of a potential code amendment and rezoning, and creation of a specific plan for the property. The property is zoned as a town center, which the proposed project’s design does not comply with, necessitating a potential rezoning.

The proposal no longer includes a site for a future performing arts center that was referenced in an exclusive negotiation agreement executed by the city manager in October 2017. However, Dan Almquist with Frontier Real Estate Investments has voiced his commitment to ensuring a performing arts center for San Juan Capistrano.

Frontier Real Estate Investments is looking to develop a commercial project at downtown city-owned property at the southeast corner of Ortega Highway and El Camino Real The Camino Real Playhouse is located on the property. Photo: Collin Breaux

Almquist has met with Camino Real Playhouse staff about the potential upcoming performing arts center, which could move to a different location still within the downtown area. A plan expected to come before the city council would be for a 270-seat performing arts center.

“We’re still committed to facilitating an opportunity for a performing arts center in downtown,” Almquist said. “The big things are providing the infrastructure, providing parking, making sure it’s studied. I’m personally very invested in seeing it through. I think it would be huge for our downtown and add so much.”

Councilmember John Taylor asked how the new performing arts center could move along, with the current building being demolished. Almquist said there will more than likely be some downtime between when the current facility is closed and when a new facility opens.

At issue is funding for the performing arts center, which residents mentioned during the meeting. Raising money from the community was suggested.

Longtime resident and performing arts supporter David Ludwig said San Juan needs a quality performance venue and that it should be downtown so people can enjoy other nearby amenities. Ludwig said while he was disappointed the center was removed from the development proposal, he is encouraged that Almquist is looking for other opportunities.

Tom Scott, founder and president for the Camino Real Playhouse, said this is an incredible opportunity to take a “giant leap forward,” and he is grateful Almquist and Frontier Real Estate Investments support the activity.

Almquist said his company has studied the El Camino Real corridor and owns property adjacent to the Egan House, and he has spent time with community members who are interested in participating and financially contributing to the performing arts center.

Frontier Real Estate Investments expects to come forth in the next 30 days with a plan that focuses on  the corridor as a potential site for the new performing arts center.

Councilmember Derek Reeve said it is important to have a playhouse at some site.

The next steps for the general development project will be Frontier Real Estate Investments preparing a specific plan for the property, an environmental review commencing and the project being reviewed by the city’s design review committee, cultural heritage commission and cultural heritage commission. The project will also come back before the city council for a final decision.

“The process, in terms of timing from the time that we start, is approximately 16 months,” Contreras said.

The council also approved initiating a study on whether to amend the Los Rios Specific Plan to allow for expanded alcohol sales and service for three businesses there: The Tea House, Ramos House Café and Hidden House Café.  

The Tea House is requesting to extend alcohol service from 8:30 p.m. until 10 p.m. and add distilled spirits; Ramos House Café requested extending alcohol service from 9:30 p.m. to 10 p.m.; and Hidden House Café is requesting future use that may consider alcohol service.

Along with city staff studying the applicants’ requests, next steps will include an environmental review, the matter being brought before the planning commission and coming back before the city council for a final decision.

In a letter to city officials sent before the meeting co-signed by The Tea House owner Damian Orozco, it was noted The Tea House’s current hours of operation end at 5 p.m.

“There are several factors that lead us to believe an extension of hours (i.e., until 9 p.m.) is vital to our success as a small business in San Juan Capistrano,” the letter said. “By allowing us to open for dinner, it will help produce more income and sales-tax revenue (which has been drastically reduced due to mandated restaurant closures, which we’ve adhered to), create more jobs as we will need to hire more staff, as well as provide our guests a place to dine for dinner, as many have requested.”

The letter from The Tea House staff said their clientele is “upscale,” and they don’t want to turn the restaurant into a “loud music/bar type atmosphere.” The Tea House is interested in expanding their current alcohol license to allow serving specialty drinks including Bloody Marys and other brunch cocktails.  

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