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The Riehl World: Vista’s Mixed Use Zone- A Developer’s Dream

By Richard Riehl

Imagine a city where developers are able to choose from among 57 different business enterprises for a downtown site, either for a single use or any combination thereof. Here’s a small sample from the ala carte menu.

  • Bank or financial facility
  • Pharmacy
  • Multi-family dwellings
  • Recycling collection facilities
  • Retail shops and restaurants
  • Check casher
  • Pawn Shop
  • Service stations
  • Bail bond businesses
  • Bargain-basement stores

Add to that list temporary uses for carnivals and circuses, a farmers market, and seasonal sales of pumpkins and Christmas trees.

Welcome to Vista, California, where the purpose of its Mixed Use Zone is “…to allow for a mix of residential and commercial, or just residential, or just commercial (standalone) land uses.”

It’s a developer’s wet dream.

One developer has already received the go-ahead from the city’s Planning Commission to build a high density, 41-unit apartment complex on a 1.5 acre site in a scenic downtown area known as Creekside.

He’s now proposing an 88-unit apartment complex on a 3-acre site near City Hall, where he’ll demolish a 22,000 square-foot building that once housed shops in the Breeze Hill Promenade Shopping Center.

Silvergate Development Manager Ian Gill introduced his plans two years ago. They’ve been met with strong opposition from a group calling themselves Vistans for a Livable Community, who say plans for Creekside and Breeze Hill violate twin goals listed in the Land Use and Community Identity Element of the city’s General Plan: smart growth and sustainable development.

Opponents say the developer’s plans should be denied because of their high density, which would create unacceptable additional parking demand, traffic hazards, the violation of smart growth goals, and the abandonment of balanced commercial growth.

At the City Planning Commission’s September 6 meeting a motion to disapprove the Creekside plan was interrupted by the assistant city attorney, who claimed a state law required it to be approved unless there is documented evidence the project would have “a specific, adverse impact upon public health or safety.” Following his opinion, Commissioners voted to approve the plan. That decision has now been appealed to the City Council by Deputy Mayor Amanda Rigby.

There’s a solution to the developer’s standoff with his opponents. He could build at both sites to conform to the density and building height requirements in the city’s Multi-Residential Zone, like those governing the 300-unit Charlemont condos located near his Breeze Hill project, reducing density by limiting dwelling units to 15 per acre.

That would bring the number of Creekside apartment units down from 41 to 23 and the Breeze Hill plan from 88 to 45. The first floor of all buildings could be leased office and retail space, creating actual mixed use sites.

By doing so Silvergate could satisfy the land use and community identity goals in the General Plan: retaining and expanding the city’s economic base, addressing housing needs, and maintaining the safety and convenience of roadway users.

But follow the money to see why that would be a non-starter with the Deep Pockets.

Pathfinder Partners LLC, a San Diego-based real estate investment firm, bought the Breeze Hill Promenade Retail Center for $7.35 million in August 2014. Here’s what Mitch Siegler, Senior Managing Director of Pathfinder wrote in his April 2015 report to investors about the Breeze Hill purchase.

A retail center in San Diego County that’s a residential development in disguise.

The center includes two free-standing buildings – one a national drug store chain and the other a national bank…Red hot demand for these. We’re planning to sell them and recover our entire investment. And we’ll be left with the 10-year-old, floundering inline retail center in back – for free. Highest and best use isn’t retail but residential. We hope to demolish the retail center and build 100 apartments.

That explains why the retail center floundered. Property owners were in no hurry to help it succeed. The Breeze Hill property changed to mixed-use in 2012 at the owner’s request, when the city updated its general plan.

As one shop owner put it in a September 19 letter to Mayor Judy Ritter and the Vista City Council, “This was not a failed shopping center, it was a shopping center that was failed by its owners.”

Her shop was located there from 2009 – 2014. Beginning with an application to rent a space, she described her experience with the leasing agency. After waiting two months for a reply, she called them back. It took another six months before the lease was hers.

The agency promised her several other businesses were on the way, the center was filling up. But over five years only three new businesses moved in.

She realized the owners had no intention of renting out the surrounding shops when one of her customers, planning to open an exercise business there, tried to contact them about renting a space. Her calls were never returned.

After the Planning Commission voted to table the Breeze Hill project until it gets an Environmental Impact Report, Silvergate’s agitated Ian Gill drafted a letter to John Conley, Director of Community Development/Engineering, asking for an appeal of the Commission’s action. Conley agreed to schedule the appeal, citing development code, section 18.04 .5 0B .2, reading: “…all decisions of the planning commission are appealable to the City Council.”

City planners have told those opposing the projects the goals in the city’s General Plan are only “guidelines,” and that Silvergate’s plans dot all the “i’s” and cross all the “t’s” in the building codes of the mixed use zone. Fair enough. But they may also be leading Vista backwards down a path toward the zone-free urban decay reminiscent of the 1950’s.


Richard J. Riehl is a Carlsbad, California resident, retired university administrator, and award-winning columnist for the former daily newspaper, the North County Times.
Richard writes a blog titled The Riehl World
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