New owners plan to bring ‘a breath of new life’ to Del Mar Plaza

As Patricia Brutten peers out from the terrace atop the Del Mar Plaza, the afternoon sun carving its arc down through the panoramic Pacific views, she can’t help but lament the near emptiness engulfing her, a quietude barely bothered by the slow trickle of arrivals to Il Fornaio for a Friday happy hour.

The scene is stark in its contrast to the bustling days she recalls after the plaza’s opening in 1989, when the three-level center was the heart of commerce along Camino Del Mar, a short walk for Brutten and her neighbors to meet all of their shopping needs.

Now, three years after moving back to Del Mar, she and her developer husband Marc are taking on the task of restoring the plaza to its former grandeur. Brixton Capital, the holding company they head, bought the plaza in February for an undisclosed sum, putting the property under local ownership for the first time in nearly 20 years. And there, on the 15,000-square-foot terrace, the plaza’s vast potential is to Brutten is at its most obvious — but so too is the long road ahead to undo years of neglect suffered under a string of absentee owners, all while fighting against the tide in a retail environment far less hospitable than the plaza’s creators could possibly have imagined.

“For a long time, this was the most special place up and down the coast. That was almost 30 years ago. The town has grown and retail has changed — and yet the plaza is still here. It needs a breath of new life,” she says. “This very much is a passion project for us. We want to do it right. We have to take what we have and slowly over the course of time make the changes as we can.”

Unfulfilled Promises

With the plaza back under local ownership, community leaders are in a lather as they conjure up ideas for using its open space — the upper terrace overlooking Camino Del Mar and a smaller patio in the back of the plaza — to help give rise to a renaissance at the shopping center. In a related effort, city leaders are working to give community groups access to conference rooms at the L’Auberge Del Mar hotel across the street.

The outpouring of excitement is a far cry from the pitched battles that erupted in the mid-1980s over construction of the plaza and hotel. When the city approved plans for a 110,000 square-foot plaza, Del Mar voters responded by enacting Measure B in 1986, which requires large developments to go to a special election. The plaza’s developers — a team led by locals David Winkler and Ivan Gayler —trimmed their plans to 76,000 square feet, and the ensuing vote passed by a mere 41 votes out of more than 2,000 cast. The hotel proposal went to the ballot the following year, and met defeat by an even narrower margin: 15 votes. A scaled-down hotel won approval six months later.

Buried within the planning documents for both projects, known as their “specific plan,” lay a terse provision requiring “extraordinary public benefits,” including space for community use — a concession for all the density and traffic.

“The whole concept was to create a marketplace but also to create a focal point in the community for people to meet each other, go to restaurants and have public events,” Winkler said. “We had everything from weddings and high school graduations to art shows, book readings and concerts.”

But those uses dwindled after Winkler and his partners sold the plaza in 1998. Now, nearly 20 years later, city leaders are making moves to codify that public access. They’ve started with the L’Auberge. Its specific plan requires the hotel to make available meeting rooms at least 12 times a year. But it does not explain which rooms are to be used, what kinds of community groups qualify, how often and for how long.

Councilman Dwight Worden is putting together guidelines and an application procedure. The list of nonprofits that qualify so far includes the Del Mar Foundation, the Del Mar Village Association, Del Mar Community Connections, the Del Mar Historical Society and the Del Mar Garden Club.

Worden introduced language this week to bring the issue to the full council as soon as possible. Once access to L’Auberge is resolved, the city will turn its attention to the plaza, he said.

“Nine out of 10 people, they see what’s on the street level but have no idea that there’s a terrace upstairs. The sad truth is that all that space up there, most of the time it’s not used,” Worden said. “That wasn’t the original vision; the original vision was that there would be poetry readings and dance recitals and that it would be a kind of town square. So we’re going to try to help make that happen.”

The Work Ahead

Meanwhile, the Bruttens face an uphill climb to overcome the plaza’s long history of financial struggle. Even in its heyday, the plaza was a losing venture: from the time Winkler and his partners bought the property in 1983 until they sold 15 years later, it took on water.

“We did not have one day of positive cash flow during that period,” Winkler said.

Their sale in 1998 started a string of absentee ownership, first in Hawaii, then New York, then to the German firm from whom Brixton Capital bought the property earlier this year.

But Winkler remains optimistic that the plaza can revitalize. With some creative thinking on new tenants, lowered rents, a strong marketing effort and an aggressive leasing program, he said, the plaza can become as thriving as Cedros Avenue or downtown La Jolla.

“I’m more optimistic with Marc and Patty running this project than with any of the previous owners,” he said. “The essential quality of the project is still there. It just needs some love and care.”

To that end, Brutten has begun a long list of touch-ups and deferred maintenance: repainting the garage, refinishing wood features, new plants and flowers. She’s recruited a new architect and design team; their first sketches include new roof lines, updated awnings, kiosks and tweaks to the layout.

Retail on the street level — anchored by Banana Republic and Lorna Jane — is solid, Brutten said. But survival on the second floor is a struggle for some of the tenants, many of whom are on month-to-month leases.

The biggest obstacle may be the lack of a grocery store. The plaza’s specific plan had required the plaza to house a grocery store for its first 25 years. Even though Harvest Ranch Market occupied those 12,000 square feet at drastically reduced rent, the upscale grocer shut down on the final day of 2012, saying that the rent was still too high.

“I know I share this feeling with many other neighbors: I’d love to get a supermarket back,” Brutten said. “It’s going to be a challenge to get that done. But we want to serve the community and those of us who live nearby. We want to be able to come here every day and have this be our place to get what we need.”

She is inviting the community’s input on possible new tenants. To weigh in with suggestions, email her at DelMarPlazaCA@gmail.com.

In the short-term, Brutten is pushing to get the word out that the plaza wants to be a focal point of the community. To that end, the plaza has become the lead sponsor for the Del Mar Foundation’s Summer Twilight Concert Series. The first of five concerts is June 20.

It’s a much-needed step in the right direction, said Bob Gans, vice president of the Del Mar Foundation. Last spring, the foundation hosted an event at the plaza with Del Mar Ballet and local artists. After wading through an exhaustingly difficult effort to organize that event with the Bruttens’ predecessors —which helped spur the city’s attention — Gans is excited to see movement on the long-frustrating issue.

“It’s very encouraging. Not only is our organization thrilled — and me personally — but everyone I’ve talked to in Del Mar is thrilled about this,” he said. “Marc and Patty totally get it.”

The Del Mar Plaza’s website is www.delmarplaza.com

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