BY CLAIRE HARLIN
Nearly 100 community members packed the Solana Beach City Council chambers on Aug. 15 for what ended up being a heated and, at times, hostile public informational workshop regarding a controversial proposed mixed-use affordable housing project on the 500 block of South Sierra Avenue.
The three-story project, called “The Pearl,” would include 54 parking spaces, 10 apartments and 1,300 feet of commercial space, which developers hope to fill with a high-end neighborhood market or “boutique deli.” The development would replace a city-owned beach parking lot that is less than a third of an acre in size, but no parking spaces would be lost.
In January, the Solana Beach City Council approved a $630,000 loan for the $6 million project, said City Manager David Ott, which would satisfy the terms of a decades-old lawsuit against the city for removing affordable housing. The city has agreed to reimburse half of the developer’s expenses up to $315,000, said Ott, paying out the rest of the loan only if the project clears approval. So far, the developer has spent $123,000 and the city has spent $40,000 on the project.
The meeting began with an introduction by lead developer Ginger Hitzke, president of San Marcos-based Hitzke Development Corporation, which specializes in affordable housing. Her introduction was interrupted by comments by audience members, such as “You’re hiding facts” and “I drove three hours to comment and I want an open forum.”
“Who’s opposed to the project?” asked one audience member, prompting a majority of hands to shoot into the air.
Another person responded, “Some of us are not opposed and are here for information.”
Hitzke told the full room that she would share a PowerPoint presentation on the development plan, and that the workshop would be strictly informational, with community comments being saved for a public hearing. Officials said a public hearing will likely take place in September.
“Where are we in the process? We came here expecting some public comment, some dialogue,” said audience member Marty Schmidt, who passed out informational handouts in opposition to the project. “If this PowerPoint is just a marketing plan, then we will be offended. We are taking time out of our dinners to be here.”
Ott agreed to change the format of the workshop and accept questions after the presentation.
Hitzke said affordability does not equal low-income. For a household income of $150,000, an affordable rent would be $3,750 a month, she said. For an income of $25,000 a year, $625 per month for housing is considered affordable (30 percent of the household income). The proposed rental prices for The Pearl are about $730 for a one-bedroom up to about $1,200 for a larger family.
Households that qualify as low-income bring in $17,000 to $47,000 a year, Hitzke said, naming several local job listings she found on Craigslist that would qualify. For example, a medical assistant at Dermatology Specialists, Inc., located at 530 Lomas Santa Fe Dr., Suite D, makes $24,000 to $29,000 a year, and a marketing assistant at Brian Tracy International, located at 462 Stevens Ave., Suite 305, makes $29,000 to $31,000 a year. Many senior citizens would also qualify, she said.
Solana Beach City Attorney Johanna Canlas said that due to a preexisting lawsuit that was filed when mobile homes were removed from the area, the city has a legal obligation to replace 13 affordable units. Three have been replaced so far, and the proposed development would satisfy the rest of the terms of that settlement, which took place in the 1990s.
Officials said there is a still need, however, for many more affordable housing units in Solana Beach to meet the requirements of the state of California.
The regional housing needs assessment (RHNA) for Solana Beach, which takes into account the existing and projected needs of a community, suggests adding 85 very low-income units, 65 low-income units, 59 moderate-income units and 131 above moderate-income units.
“As an elected official of the council, we are trying to figure out how to not spend millions of dollars to come up with a solution,” said Solana Beach City Councilmember David Roberts, adding that it is the state that imposes much of the affordable housing requirements the city must come up with solutions for. The City Council, he said, mandated that the project not reduce the number of parking spots at the site.
“We want to stop the lawsuits and settle the past,” said Roberts. “If you all want to keep spending taxpayer money on this, then we can figure out a different way. But this is what the city staff thought was the best option.”
Schmidt and several other residents said their main concern about the proposed development is that it does not fit with its surroundings. The area is also utilized as a drop-off for the annual Solana Beach Junior Lifeguard Program, located at 111 S. Sierra Ave., which enrolls up to 100 students each session and is one of San Diego County’s longest running and most established water safety programs.
Dorothy Snook, a 30-year resident of the Seascapes Sur condos located across the street from the proposed development, said she is concerned about how increased traffic might pose safety and convenience issues, especially while the junior lifeguard program is in session during the summer.
Marcia Ainsworth, who has lived on South Sierra Avenue since 1974, said The Pearl might be better suited in a larger, less residential space, possibly across from the post office.
“On South Sierra it’s going to stick out like a sore tooth,” she said.
She also said the traffic on that street is “high density,” and a housing development might add to the problem.
“I don’t think they understand the traffic situation there,” she said. “Sometimes you can’t get out of the driveway.”
Jon Collins, an engineer with Kimley-Horn & Associates, presented a traffic study done on South Sierra Avenue, and he reported that The Pearl would account for only 3.6 percent of the traffic capacity of the street. He said South Sierra Avenue is currently at half its traffic capacity.
Schmidt is calling on developers to eliminate the commercial element of the project, stay consistent with the existing neighborhood, preserve access to the beach and make financial sense, among other requests.
Spending public money on “10 housing units and possibly a failed commercial business in the long run, on its face, is suspect,” he said.