The San Diego Planning Commision unanimously recommended the approval of the Preserve at Torrey Highlands, a 450,000-square-foot office complex surrounded on three sides by the Del Mar Mesa Preserve. The project will now move onto San Diego City Council for final approval.
The April 4 hearing stretched for over four hours as commissioners heard from several speakers in opposition and worked through concerns about the project’s location and size, “A seven-story parking garage gives us all a bit of heartburn,” said Commissioner Stephen Haase.
To address the commission’s concerns about mass and intensity, Cisterra Development agreed to reduce one of the building’s heights from six stories to five and drop two levels from the parking structure.
The resulting parking structure would be five stories with one subterranean level rather than seven stories. Two of the three office buildings would be five stories and one four stories. The height reductions were conditions of the planning commission’s recommended approval of the community plan amendment and rezone.
The Preserve at Torrey Highlands is proposed for the extension of Camino Del Sur off SR-56, across from the Merge 56 mixed use development that is slated to break ground next year. Merge 56 includes a cinema, retail, restaurants, office space, hotel and 242 residential townhouse units.
Also at the intersection is the future Meridian project a 600,000-square-foot office project that will not be built until a tenant is secured.
Cisterra bought the 11-acre parcel in 2015 from the Catholic Diocese of San Diego, which at one time had planned to build a church on the property.
“This land was never intended to be left undeveloped or to be a part of the Del Mar Mesa Preserve,” said David Dick, a partner with Cisterra.
Dick said the project furthers the goals of the city’s General Plan by adding to the employment base, contributing to job/housing balance, increasing the likelihood that area residents will find an alternative to long commutes to work and “assuring that the region remains a vital part of our growing innovation economy.”
Benefits to the community include the contemporary extension of the Merge 56 project, numerous environmental measures that ensure protection of the preserve and the long-overdue completion of Camino Del Sur.
Dick said the size of The Preserve project is essential to attracting the type of tenants they would want, providing companies with space they need to grow and thrive.
Real estate advisor Gary London said there is a need for commercial office space of this type in San Diego and the location is ideal because it’s on a transportation corridor and near housing.
“We need places where our employees can live and work close to each other because there’s a disconnect in this region between housing and employment,” London said.
During public comment, opposition represented Protect our Preserves San Diego (POPs), a group that formed about two months ago which has members from numerous communities and organizations, including 20-year Carmel Valley Community Planning group member Anne Harvey.
Harvey has spoken out against the intrusion of development into the preserve at local planning board meetings over the last two months. Harvey said that the development site was not included in the city’s protected Multi-Habitat Planning Area (MHPA) because it was owned by the diocese and planned to be a small village-like church, not a “monstrous” office complex and parking garage.
She argued that the nearby Intuit and Meridian complexes are a logical part of the SR-56 corridor and employment center, but not the proposed project’s site, farther out on on top of the mesa, neighbored by Deer Canyon, vernal pools and a preserve with a management plan assembled over 10 long years with wildlife agencies and preserve users.
“This is a clash between years of thoughtful planning and a last-minute request from a recent buyer for an inappropriate zoning change,” Harvey said.
POPs members Elizabeth Rabbitt and Kathryn Burton, chairs of the Del Mar Mesa and Torrey Hills Community Planning Boards respectively, both requested denial of the project.
“The consequences of this development to our precious preserve, its intrinsic environmental value and its incredibly popular recreation opportunities will be irreversibly negative,” said Susie Murphy, the executive director of the San Diego Mountain Bike Association.
According to Dick, Cisterra has taken great efforts to lessen the visual impacts on the preserve and incorporated design elements that are respectful to the neighboring habitat. He said they have conformed the building to the existing topography, directed lighting away from the preserve, incorporated barriers to prevent noise and used “extreme care” with landscaping to remain consistent with MHPA guidelines.
He said a portion of the site will remain preserved through a permanent conservation easement and Cisterra has committed $485,000 to an endowment for the restoration of previously damaged habitat and long-term stewardship and management of the preserve.
“The opposition raised to me, non-issues,” said Commissioner James Whalen. He said the adjacent habitat type is the lowest quality type in the Multiple Species Conservation Program (MSCP), the vernal pools on the southwest corner are protected, and the on-site management plan and measures to protect the preserve are standard with the MSCP. He noted that there was no participation in the hearing from the wildlife agencies, “If they had issues, they’d be here.”
Whalen said he did think that the proposed development was a “bit too big” for the site, a sentiment echoed by Commissioners Douglas Austin and William Hofman, who said he would support a less intense project of similar use.
The commissioners were not all sold on the location.
“I find myself thinking if I was a community member like you, I would be out there fighting like the dickens to preserve this open space, all of it,” said Commissioner Vicki Granowitz. “But that isn’t necessarily what we can do.”
Chair Susan Peerson agreed—while she said she did not believe that the site should be a development site, it is not part of the protected MHPA. Peerson was looking to balance the need for employment centers and the right for the site to be developed with a lessened impact on the surrounding preserve. Her main concern was the abrupt edges, particularly the parking structure.
As part of their recommended approval of the project, the commission included a condition that Cisterra soften the visual impact of the edges of the project with additional landscaping and a buffer of trees in the disturbed portion of the property.