By Shawn Raymundo
For several years, city of San Juan Capistrano officials have discussed the idea of finding a new site for city hall.
A recent item listed on the city council’s closed session agenda for July 16 indicates that movement toward a potential sale of the city’s headquarters and relocation could be gaining traction.
Such a possibility was given further credence based on a post Councilmember Derek Reeve had put up on social media a week prior to the council’s closed session meeting. In the July 10 post on his Facebook page, Reeve stated, “After 50 years of having a temporary manufactured building as our city hall, we finally really need a new city hall.”
“We have reached the point that keeping the building together with spit and tape just isn’t working,” he added. “With an outstanding staff, and business-orientated city council, we have a unique opportunity to creatively develop a plan to make a new city hall possible.”
The item for the closed session agenda stated that the council would confer with City Manager Ben Siegel and City Attorney Jeffrey Ballinger about the “price and terms of payment concerning the City Hall property.”
Reeve couldn’t comment on many of the questions The Capistrano Dispatch had asked about the agenda item, because it was part of the council’s closed session.
In an email to The Dispatch, however, Reeve, who stressed that he was speaking for himself and not the rest of the council, stated that “these issues will be further addressed in closed session meetings, and if we, as the city council, develop a viable strategy for a new city hall, we will present the proposal(s) to open sessions of city council to seek residents’ input and whether there is interest from the community to proceed.”
Reeve, who is currently serving a fifth term on the council, added that since being elected, nearly every council iteration “has discussed the need for a new city hall.” Given the current lineup of councilmembers, Reeve is hopeful the plans can move beyond just talks.
“As I indicated on Facebook, I believe we have an opportunity to make a genuine city hall a reality,” Reeve wrote in the email.
According to Siegel, talks of relocating and replacing city hall have occurred for decades. Built in 1970, the metal, prefabricated building housing city hall has seen better days.
“We currently experience challenges with the HVAC system, plumbing, roofing issues, etc.,” Siegel said in an email.
Like Reeve, Siegel couldn’t comment on the specifics of the agenda item. He did note that the city hall site is currently zoned as “Very High Residential,” which could allow for up to 30 housing units an acre.
In total, the city hall property is approximately 5.7 acres, which includes the city hall building, as well as several modular trailers that had been added to the site over the years. According to the city, 3.2 acres of the site is zoned as Commercial Manufacturing.
According to the agenda, the item lists three negotiating parties: C&C Development, Jamboree Housing Corporation and Orbis Capital Consultants.
Both C&C and Jamboree are real estate companies that develop affordable housing.
As for Orbis, its president, Chad Wanke, explained to The Dispatch that his firm represents Meta Housing, a Los Angeles-based real estate developer of affordable and mixed-income apartment communities.
Wanke, as well as representatives from C&C and Jamboree, couldn’t provide additional details of the city’s plans with city hall other than to note that the city is just in the preliminary stages of the potential relocation, and that includes fact-finding.
“On a development, (fact-finding) would be discussing particulars of different needs, desires and what’s possible on this site,” Wanke said. Right now, it’s a “very preliminary, high-level discussion. I think the city just started this process.”
Wanke emphasized that there haven’t been any negotiations regarding a sale of city hall, but rather only discussions on the possibility of getting affordable housing built on the site.
C&C is currently working with the city toward constructing an affordable housing facility for seniors on another city-owned property called the Groves, located on the northwest corner of Camino Capistrano and Junipero Serra Road.
Todd Cottle, a principal with C&C, said the company appreciates the opportunity of being considered, but noted that they haven’t received any feedback from the city regarding the sale of the property, as San Juan officials are only “talking about options for the site.”
“Obviously, the city hall is on that location; there’s definitely an existing use on the site,” he said, adding that sale of the property and development of an affordable housing facility is “a bigger discussion down the line.”
Jamboree’s Chief Development Officer, Michael Massie, said the company is constantly in touch with cities throughout the state on coming up with potential sites for affordable housing developments. In San Juan specifically, he said, Jamboree has been talking with city officials about a number of issues and exploring ways to address affordable housing.
“It’s part of our mission to help build better communities. The fact that we’ve had those discussions with the folks of San Juan is just further into that mission,” he said. “Whenever we’re in the early stages of trying to address some of these solutions, we look at literally everything that we can, lots of creative things . . . to see what sticks.”
Affordable Housing Mandates
The site of city hall, which was rezoned to Very High Residential in 2016, is 2.5 acres, giving it a “capacity for 61 units at densities appropriate to accommodate lower-income housing,” a report on the city’s 2014-2021 Housing Element from the California Department of Housing and Community Development (HCD) states.
California’s housing-element law requires cities and counties to put together a Housing Elements report to “adequately plan to meet the housing needs in the community,” according to the HCD.
The city’s 2014-2021 Regional Housing Needs Assessment (RHNA)—a similar report to the Housing Elements document that’s developed by the Southern California Association of Governments under state law—notes that there are 638 total housing units, 371 of which are to be allocated for very-low, low- and moderate-income groups.
Siegel notes that under the RHNA, the city is obligated to demonstrate to the state, through its Housing Elements report, that it can accommodate the 638 housing units somewhere in the city. The city, each year, has to submit a progress report to the state on how many new housing units have been built in relation to the RHNA.
Out of those 638 housing units, 23% are designated for very-low or extremely low-income households, 16% for low income and 19% for moderate income.
“Based on the last report submitted to the state that covers up to calendar year 2018, 12 affordable housing units and 517 market-rate units have been built during the 2014-2021 RHNA period,” Siegel said in an email that also stated: “The City has demonstrated this to the State’s satisfaction, and therefore our RHNA obligation has been fulfilled for the current planning period.”
According to the city, there are currently four affordable housing locations in town: Seasons Senior Apartments, a 150-unit facility for seniors; Villa Paloma Senior Apartments, an 84-unit facility for seniors aged 55 and up; Casa de Amma, an assisted-living facility that has 10 affordable housing units; and Little Hollywood, a 24-unit neighborhood.
When asked whether the city is looking to have an affordable housing facility built on the current city hall site, Reeve said he couldn’t answer that specific question. He did, however, offer his opinion on the matter.
“I came up with the idea a number of years ago to rezone the current city hall location for affordable housing. It is a great location, being downtown, next to the Sheriff station and a park, and has minimal impact on existing residential neighborhoods,” he said in the email. “It also helps fulfill our state mandate requirement for affordable housing.”
Such a development could possibly come in the form of permanent supportive housing for the homeless “either in part or exclusively,” Reeve also said in the email.
San Juan and a handful of other South County cities are currently facing litigation for allegedly not doing enough to provide shelters to the homeless.
Reeve said that lawsuit, which was filed this past February by Orange County Catholic Worker, along with the Emergency Shelter Coalition and Housing is a Human Right Orange County, has no impact on the city’s interest to move forward with relocating city hall.
“Our interest in exploring potential opportunities for a city hall has no bearing on that lawsuit,” Reeve wrote, noting that the city is seeking a dismissal from that case.
“Regardless of the court decision on our motion, the city will continue our efforts to meet state mandates regarding affordable housing,” he also said in the email.
Shawn Raymundo is the city editor for The Capistrano Dispatch. He graduated from Arizona State University with a bachelor’s degree in Global Studies. Before joining Picket Fence Media, he worked as the government accountability reporter for the Pacific Daily News in the U.S. territory of Guam. Follow him on Twitter @ShawnzyTsunami and follow The Dispatch @CapoDispatch.