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By Fred Swegles

After nearly four years of planning, community debate, dialogue and refinement, San Juan Capistrano developer Dan Almquist has won city approval for a 59,000-square-foot, agrarian-themed commercial village to be known as River Street Marketplace.

“Many cities would love to have this project in their town,” local resident Michael Forster said as the city council voted, 4-0, on Tuesday, Oct. 15, to approve a change in land-use designation, a development agreement and several other entitlements.

The pedestrian-oriented marketplace, which will include outdoor seating and dining, will consist of seven rural-themed buildings around a courtyard. River Street’s shops, restaurants, artisan enterprises and eclectic businesses will occupy 5.86 acres of open land that borders San Juan’s historic Los Rios District, said to be the oldest residential street in California.

This “Farmstead Building,” one of seven agrarian-themed structures surrounding a courtyard in plans for San Juan Capistrano’s city-approved River Street Marketplace, is depicted to be 31 feet tall and cover 4,500 square feet.

Today, Los Rios blends a vibrant tourist attraction with the residential neighborhood.

River Street Marketplace will replace Ito Nursery, which had a 60-year history on the site.

Almquist said, after the council’s vote, that he hopes to begin construction in late spring or early summer 2020.

“We have to go through the city’s permitting process,” he said. “It’ll probably take about 18 months to build it, so we’d be looking to get it open in late 2021. We have a lot of great tenants, none that I can talk about tonight, but it’s (sic) fantastic tenants. It’s a special, well thought-out project. We’re excited.”

At the council meeting, 11 speakers lavished praise on River Street, predicting it will fit into Los Rios’ ambience, create jobs and economic benefits for San Juan and uphold the town’s heritage.

An environmental study suggested that impacts can be managed. Speakers applauded the way Almquist, who lives in San Juan, met with neighbors, finding ways to work out differences with project opponents through refinements.

“It sure worked out nice,” said Michael Palmer, who lives on Los Rios Street next to the project. “I’ve had a few sit-downs with him, and I understand that he is genuine. He does have a good project there. It’s not going to be perfect—nothing is going to be perfect—but with what we have there, I think it’s going to be a righteous thing.”

No one spoke to the council in opposition.

“It is really a remarkable project,” Mayor Brian Maryott said. “I remember watching it unfold. My first comment, when we were voting to go into a study, was, ‘Boy this is a big project.’ I didn’t support it at first. It’s been interesting to watch the modifications, the discussion. It’s a wonderful example of how far we can come in life, with all kinds of projects and issues, if one party just continues to put themselves in another party’s shoes. It wasn’t that long ago we had folks with (protest) signs here.”

Almquist thanked city staff for steering the project through the process, thanked the retiring Ito Nursery family for selecting him to assume stewardship “to see something done correctly there and their legacy carried on.” He thanked neighbors for providing “feedback to come up with a project that we are very proud of.”

Almquist mentioned Jeff Vasquez, the most outspoken critic of River Street Marketplace, and Palmer, for working with him on changes.

“This is a very personal project to me,” Almquist said.

In May, the Planning Commission had supported a 64,900-square-foot project design, forwarding it to the city council for consideration. Vasquez, through his attorney, raised concerns, city officials said. He persuaded the city council to postpone a summertime public hearing to give more time for dialogue.

In September, Almquist submitted a revised plan with less square-footage, less coverage of the site, more landscaping and a smaller parking lot.

Due to the reductions in square footage, the revised project required only 239 parking spaces. The May proposal had 291. The new plan depicts 242 parking lot spaces, accessed from Paseo Adelanto, which could itself have up to 20 angled parking spaces fronting the marketplace. The project will remove 31 trees and plant 299 new ones, the city’s report said.

This “Mercantile Building,” the largest of seven agrarian-themed structures surrounding a courtyard in plans for San Juan Capistrano’s city-approved River Street Marketplace, is depicted to be 35 feet tall and 22,443 square feet.

Councilmembers considered, but did not accept, a request from the Planning Commission to ban outdoor amplified music and smoking at River Street Marketplace. Almquist said he doesn’t plan to offer amplified music outdoors and would be fine with a smoking ban.

Councilmember Sergio Farias felt that a smoking ban might lead smokers—whether visitors or businesses’ employees on break—to go out onto River Street to smoke.

“I think we would actually make it worse,” Farias said.

Councilmember Troy Bourne suggested the city avoid an outright ban of amplified music. Current rules will require River Street to request a conditional use permit anytime outdoor amplified music is sought, and the city council, case by case, could say yes or no and impose conditions.

“That’s a pretty high hurdle,” Bourne said.

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