By Joe Tash
George Conkwright stands on a second-floor patio at the corner of his commercial building in downtown Del Mar, showing off its coastal and ocean views to a visitor.
“It’s a fabulous space,” said Conkwright, which he believes would be perfect for outdoor dining, especially since he has remodeled the adjacent inside space to include a kitchen with hood and grease traps.
Conkwright said he has spent some $300,000 renovating two sections of his building at 1201 Camino Del Mar with an eye toward bringing in a new restaurant upstairs and an espresso or wine bar downstairs. But for now, both spaces stand empty as Conkwright wrangles with city officials over required parking for the proposed businesses.
Last year, Conkwright filed two lawsuits against the city, one challenging the city’s parking ordinance, and the other claiming inverse condemnation, alleging that the city’s actions have left him unable to rent portions of his building.
Current city regulations require restaurants to provide one parking space for every 90 square feet of indoor or outdoor dining space, or 11 spaces per 1,000 square feet.
In his lawsuits and an interview, Conkwright alleges that city officials are holding him to parking requirements that aren’t being imposed on other restaurants in town.
“I’ve got the best-parked building in this town,” he said. “It’s an impossible standard and they’ve waived it for everybody else.” His building has 48 spaces total in a rear parking lot and underground garage, he said. About half of the 10,000-square-foot building is occupied with offices and a restaurant undergoing renovations following a fire, he said.
Under current regulations, Conkwright would need 25 additional parking spaces to open both the upstairs restaurant and a downstairs wine bar, city officials said.
For its part, the city contends its parking rules are being enforced fairly and consistently. Kathy Garcia, director of planning and community development, and principal planner Adam Birnbaum said Del Mar is an older community with a number of businesses that predate current parking regulations, which were adopted in 1967 and updated in subsequent years.
If a restaurant was established before the parking regulations were enacted, Birnbaum said, it is allowed to continue its “non-conforming use” even if it changes ownership. The process, he said, is called “grandfathering,” and applies as long as the restaurant does not expand, or the use does not change from an office or retail store to a more intensive use such as a restaurant.
In the case of an expansion of a non-conforming restaurant, the current parking requirements would only apply to the expanded space, not the original restaurant, Birnbaum said.
“I think the key distinction here is we have a lot of older, non-conforming buildings and uses, but for new development that comes in we’re applying the same standards,” he said.
Conkwright, however, charges in his lawsuit that a number of restaurants that came in after the establishment of the parking requirements have been allowed to operate in spite of parking deficiencies.
In his lawsuit, he listed what he said are a number of examples, such as Zel’s, formerly Café Del Mar, 1247 Camino Del Mar, Crepes and Corks, 1328 Camino Del Mar, and Sbicca, 215 15th St.
Conkwright showed a reporter a document, dated from 1985, in which the owner of Café Del Mar sought a variance to change the designation of the property from a deli to a full-service restaurant, which requires more parking for customers, well after the 1967 parking rules were enacted. The document gives two examples of other businesses designated as delis that were allowed to function as restaurants.
Birnbaum said city officials are looking for documents that detail exactly what was approved by the city and what requirements were imposed regarding Café Del Mar/Zel’s.
Other restaurants, such as En Fuego, which is in the same building that housed a restaurant dating back to the 1920s, and Crepes and Corks, are non-conforming uses which have been grandfathered in, said Birnbaum. Sbicca has an off-site parking arrangement approved by the city, in which spaces on another property are designated for the restaurant.
Conkwright’s dispute with the city takes place against a backdrop of a major effort by city officials to revitalize Del Mar’s central business district along Camino Del Mar between 9th and 15th streets. Among the goals of revitalization are bringing in more retail businesses such as restaurants and shops, and creating a lively, pedestrian-oriented atmosphere.
City residents are expected to vote on a specific plan for the village in November, a document that could include changes to the city’s parking regulations. The city is considering a “park once” strategy under which a parking structure would be built, and people could park their cars once and walk to a variety of different businesses, said Garcia.
The exact parking ratios under the new plan haven’t been determined yet, but studies have shown that just under half of Del Mar’s residents live within walking distance of the downtown village area, Garcia said.
“It might mean you need less overall parking in the downtown area,” Birnbaum said.
“That’s for the future. In the interim we have ordinances we have to follow,” Garcia said.
In Conkwright’s case, a change from office to restaurant is an “intensification of use,” which triggers a requirement for more parking, Garcia said. She said city officials have met with Conkwright and suggested several ways he could satisfy the parking requirement, such as valet parking, shared parking (which allows existing spaces to be used for restaurant patrons when offices are closed), off-site parking and in-lieu fees, which would be paid to the city for use in constructing public parking.
But Conkwright, a civil engineer, developer and rancher, rejected those options as either too expensive or too restrictive for potential tenants. He vowed to press on with his lawsuits, representing himself in court, until he obtains the approval to use his building as desired. He said a trial on his first lawsuit is scheduled for June.
“I’m going to write it in my will. That my estate will pursue this… as long as it takes,” he said.