Del Mar Council declines to hear appeal of Bully’s replacement

The ballyhooed proposal to bulldoze Bully’s North and replace it with an upscale eatery appears to be in the clear after the Del Mar City Council rebuffed objections from a handful of neighbors just west of the iconic but aging property on Camino del Mar.

Residents of three homes on Stratford Court asked the council on Dec. 18 to hear their appeal of the project’s Nov. 15 approval from the city’s Design Review Board.

Their dispute largely comes down to a utility pole that intrudes into Del Mar Lane, the crowded alley between their homes and the 4,768-square-foot restaurant envisioned by Beverly Hills-based Hillstone Restaurant Group. The utility pole leaves 17.6 feet for vehicles to pass, whereas state fire codes require a width of 20 feet. And because Hillstone’s design places a wall against its property line on Del Mar Lane, vehicular and emergency access will be severely compromised, said Alex Maniscalco, an attorney representing the Stratford Court residents.

“This construction will increase the degree of nonconformity,” of Del Mar Lane, he told the council. “This is a serious issue of health and safety.”

That fact is not captured in Hillstone’s designs, he said, meaning the project’s environmental study did not adequately account for the impacts that will be wrought by the additional 350 daily trips the alley is expected to see from diners and delivery trucks. The Stratford Court homeowners also worry that a west-facing garden and bank of windows at the rear of the restaurant will violate their privacy.

“It seems likely that … these conditions can be overcome and can be resolved with imposition of reasonable conditions on this project,” Maniscalco said. “But denying that and rushing to construction something that’s going to be across from my clients for 20 and 30 years—it seems like a small price to pay to ask to have reasonable discussion on these conditions.”

Hillstone reps and city planners counter that the restaurant will be built entirely on private property without altering the dimensions of Del Mar Lane.

“We can’t create public property on private property to create more alley width,” said Brian Biel, a Hillstone executive whose father founded the company 40 years ago. “The alley is the alley, and this is all on private property.”

Hillstone has incorporated extensive community input since entering into negotiations with the owner of Bully’s in 2016. As dictated by Del Mar’s Citizens’ Participation Program, Hillstone met twice with surrounding property owners—including Stratford Court homeowners—in July 2016 before initiating the city’s review process three months later. In July 2017, Hillstone laid out its vision for the roughly 120-seat restaurant—a modern aesthetic similar to its R+D concept in Santa Monica—in an informational presentation to the DRB. The morning of the project’s Oct. 25 hearing before the DRB, neighbors discovered errors in the story poles—including the offending utility pole—that required the hearing to be continued to Nov. 15. That hearing ended in a 4-2 approval with conditions that included moving the wall along Del Mar Lane back by one foot and barring customers from the garden in perpetuity (except as an emergency exit).

Hillstone’s design has gone through several iterations—including scaling back in recent months from 5,200 to 4,700 square feet—and makes pains to orient the restaurant toward Camino del Mar, Biel said, whereas other developers would have tried to maximize the property’s spectacular sunset views. The garden, with its six olive trees, was added to the design to help soften the transition and screen views between the restaurant and Stratford Court homes.

Throughout the process, Biel said, Hillstone “has been concerned and are very sympathetic to what I’d call the uncertainty of the appellants.”

“But I think that’s what it is: it’s uncertainty based on speculation rather than evidence,” he told the council. “… Extending the discussion based on worry and conjecture is not worth your important time.”

Hillstone’s contract with Bully’s North’s owner stipulates they will buy the 0.33-acre site once their proposal is approved. Their timeline had hoped for 18 months of construction to begin this summer.

The prospect of a high-profile restaurateur replacing the rundown Bully’s has won enthusiastic support from Del Mar’s business leaders, who see Hillstone’s proposal as a sorely needed shot in the arm to the city’s main thoroughfare.

“Hillstone Restaurant Group is one of the very few organizations that has the expertise, desire, financial capacity, tenacity and willingness to spend two years to address community concerns for approval,” longtime developer Jim Watkins wrote in a letter to the council. “If this very exceptional project by such a qualified proposer can not [sic] be approved, it is doubtful any project downtown will ever be proposed in the future.”

By city rule, two of Del Mar’s five councilmembers would have had to agree to hear the appeal. Only Deputy Mayor Dave Druker raised his hand.

One reason he did was to have Hillstone make an in-depth presentation to the city council, he said.

“This is a major change to Camino del Mar, to our downtown, and while the DRB has looked at it twice, the audience for the city council is a much bigger audience, especially televised,” he said. “I would really appreciate it if that could be done—not that we are going to be able to pine much on it. It’s very important that the citizens of Del Mar have a full explanation of what is happening.”

Taking a cue from Mayor Dwight Worden, the council included Del Mar Lane in its later discussion of the city’s priorities for the year ahead.

The city’s willingness to explore solutions for Del Mar Lane, coupled with sidebar conversations with Hillstone immediately following the Dec. 18 meeting, have for the time-being eased the neighbors’ concerns, Maniscalco said in a later interview.

“Everyone seems to working together on this,” Maniscalco said.

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