Planned Carmel Valley MERGE project draws praise and criticisms

BY KAREN BILLING

There were a mix of opinions on the proposed new mixed-use project MERGE at a meeting held by the developer on June 12.  MERGE is a proposed retail, commercial and residential project for the corner of Carmel Country Road and Carmel Mountain Road.

Some in attendance expressed frustration and a fair amount of anger at the workshop format of the meeting, wanting more of an open discussion where everyone could hear the questions asked and answers given.

“It’s like you don’t care,” one resident told developer Gary Levitt.

Levitt said the purpose of last week’s meeting was always intended to be just an informational presentation; he said the appropriate place to debate the project will be at the Carmel Valley Community Planning Board, where they will vet the project in subcommittee and regular board meetings in the coming months.

Levitt said he is very proud of what he is proposing and will adjust the plan where appropriate. He said he has a vested interest in the project being successful not just as a developer but as a neighbor. He has lived in the area since 1983, is the chair of the Del Mar Mesa Community Planning Board and also owns the Torrey Hills Shopping Center down the street from the proposed project.

The community plan was developed for the area in 1990 and established what could be done with the space on Carmel Country Road and Carmel Mountain Road — it is entitled to 200 multi-family homes and 4 acres of neighborhood commercial center. In 2004, Pardee Homes developed a plan for Highlands Village and built 169 townhomes and was granted permits for a 28,000-square-foot strip shopping center.

“I was lucky enough to buy the property,” Levitt said. “It is a wonderful property but it had a lousy plan.”

Levitt said the plan was no better than any other strip center and was not designed to be a good neighbor to homes directly behind the project. The backs of box-store retail, including alleyways and loading docks, would be facing the fronts of people’s homes on Dry Cliff Trail.

“I think the community deserves something better than what’s planned,” Levitt said. “I’m not going to build another strip center.”

Around the perimeter of the project, the residences, businesses and offices will front the street to provide a “welcoming environment,” Levitt said. There will be plenty of green spaces, including a central garden and wide sidewalks all around — a total of 1.6 acres of pedestrian and open space.

Levitt said he wants to build a place that will attract an authentic coffee shop and artisanal restaurants that people can walk to, with indoor and outdoor dining. He said he would like to build unique office and retail spaces that would attract interesting tenants.

“If you want to attract great tenants you have to build great places,” Levitt said.

Levitt developed ground rules for the design of MERGE, which was taken on by Safdie Rabines Architects. The rules were that they don’t change the community plan or zoning, don’t generate any more car trips than the approved project, that it aims to be certified LEED Gold for its green building standards and provides pedestrian-friendly linkages through and around the property.

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