Community group fights to stop office complex near Del Mar Mesa Preserve

The Preserve at Torrey Highlands is surrounded on three sides by the Del Mar Mesa Preserve.

Members of the group Protect our Preserves San Diego call it “the notch”: an 11-acre privately-owned parcel carved out of the east side of the Del Mar Mesa Preserve, close to Deer Canyon and its Tunnel trails that wind under the scrub oaks. With the eventual extension of Camino Del Sur, they envisioned the road could provide a hard edge to the preserve, with all commercial and residential development occurring on the east side of the thoroughfare and nothing to the west. Without any building in the notch, they argue, there could be an intact preserve.

Protect our Preserves San Diego, or POPs, is now fighting to keep that notch free from development, “to save the soul of the Del Mar Mesa Preserve.”

Cisterra Development’s Preserve at Torrey Highlands, a 420,000-square-foot office complex proposed for those 11 acres, has been recommended for approval by the San Diego Planning Commission and will be heading to San Diego City Council on Monday, Aug. 5.

The project, surrounded on three sides by the preserve but not a part of the preserve, will require a community plan amendment and a rezone. With its April approval, the planning commission recommended reducing the project by 30,000 square feet including reducing the height of one of the office buildings and the proposed seven-story parking garage by two levels, with one subterranean level.

“This is a change without much difference,” said Lisa Ross, a longtime Mesa resident and member of POPs’ steering committee. “The bulk, size and design remain out of character with the surrounding habitat preserve and without access to public transportation.”

The land requires a rezone from agricultural-residential to industrial park. POPs argues that the zone change, if approved, does not prevent the owner or a future developer from requesting substantial conformance review with the potential for additional height, no underground parking or a return to the original design.

Shital Parikh, a member of POPs and the Del Mar Mesa Community Planning Group, is passionate in her opposition to the project.

“My views will not be impacted, nor will my property values. Why do I care so much? Because it’s just wrong,” Parikh said. “I am totally against the rezone because it’s in the wrong place. You cannot have an industrial park so close to the preserve, it is not what was intended in the community plan or general plan. We cannot have this rezone.”

The Preserve at Torrey Highlands is proposed on the extension of Camino Del Sur, surrounded by the Del Mar Mesa Preserve.
(Karen Billing)

Kenneth Moore, a spokesperson for the Preserve at Torrey Highlands, said that the Torrey Highlands and Rancho Penasquitos communities have always been envisioned as full communities with housing, retail and office spaces. Moore said the missing piece is the creation of work spaces near housing, and that is the notch Cisterra is hoping to fill.

“The Preserve at Torrey Highlands is a Class A employment center designed to protect natural resources, benefit the community and continue to strengthen our region’s innovation economy,” Moore said. “The site itself has never been a part of the Del Mar Mesa Preserve, it has always been planned for development. The site is perfectly suited for office space that completes the community plan.”

The 900-acre Del Mar Mesa Preserve, protected under the city’s Multiple Species Conservation Plan (MSCP), is home to endangered and threatened plants and animals, vernal pools and serves as a popular recreation spot for mountain bikers, hikers and equestrians.

POPS member Anne Harvey said it took over 25 years of effort and compromises between landowners, developers, city, state, county and environmental groups to put together the open space park. The alignment of SR-56 was even chosen to curve around the site of the office complex proposal, she said.

Harvey said no one seems to remember why the 11-acre parcel was excluded from the city’s MSCP—“Good preserve design does not allow such incursions,” she noted, guessing that the reason was that the property was already being eyed for a church.

Until it was sold to Cisterra in 2015, the property was owned by the Catholic Diocese of San Diego. A use like the proposed village-like church would have been welcoming to the public, Harvey said, “a friendly neighbor to the people enjoying the surrounding natural open space.” Instead she laments that those in the preserve will have views of the project’s parking garage.

Harvey, who has been fighting to preserve open spaces in the area for over 25 years, sees this plan as a betrayal for all who worked to create the Preserve, who worked for years to draft a resource management plan for the trails as well as a betrayal to San Diego residents who voted yes on Prop H in 1996 to permanently preserve open space while defining where commercial development should go.

“Much of San Diego is built on the mesas, with the canyons reserved for utilities, roads and some wildlife. Carmel Mountain and Del Mar Mesa are rare mesa preserves,” Harvey said. “They were not preserved, at great expense and effort, to provide a spectacular setting for corporate office buildings.”

Harvey said as the city pushes for more housing and density, people are going to need open spaces.

“Spiritually it’s just wrong,” Parikh said. “We cherish these open spaces, it’s a relief and you cannot start building in our relief. Not in this place.”

A rendering of the Cisterra development, Preserve at Torrey Highlands.

The Preserve at Torrey Highlands will be located off the future extension of Camino Del Sur, 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.

POPs has argued that there is no need for more office space in an area with “a glut of unoccupied commercial buildings.”

At the intersection adjacent to the proposed project is the Intuit campus and Meridian, a 600,000-square-foot office project that will not be built until a tenant is secured. One exit away off Carmel Valley Road in Pacific Highlands Ranch is Aperture Del Mar, a 630,000-square-foot office complex meant to be the home of a corporate headquarters or campus for a biotech-focused or life-science company, also awaiting a tenant to build.

While POPs argues there is no need for office space, Moore said that there is a demand for these type of projects.

“San Diego has become a hub for biotech, life-sciences and technology,” Moore said, noting areas like the UTC cluster have been built out and companies are looking for places be able to grow and stay in San Diego.

Moore said the project is geared toward top-tier innovation companies that would provide about 1,900 high-quality, family-wage jobs, “We are looking for companies who will continue to bolster the San Diego innovation economy,” he said, adding that placing high quality jobs near housing will help reduce commutes and help San Diego meet its Climate Action Plan goals.

Ross said in order for the city council to approve the change to the general plan to allow the project, there must be an extraordinary benefit to the community.

“There is no community benefit to make this change,” Ross said. “It does zero for the community.”

Moore countered that the project does provide community benefits with the addition of an employment center and generating $6.6 million for the long-overdue completion of Camino Del Sur, which creates a new emergency evacuation route for existing residents and improves freeway access. Cisterra has also committed $400,000 to the Rancho Family YMCA and has taken several environmental measures to ensure protection of the preserve.

Those measures include creating animal-friendly barriers, incorporating bird-friendly design and materials and a landscaping plan that includes non-invasive species to protect the integrity of the preserve. 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. Moore said they will also add way-finding signs and trailheads to help access the existing Preserve trails as the planning commission requested that Cisterra increase the landscape screening for the parking structure, they doubled the amount of screening trees from nine to 18 trees.

The project being scheduled for an Aug. 5 city council hearing came as a surprise to the POPs group. Ross said they were “blindsided” as POPs was in the midst of what they thought were good faith discussions with Cisterra and the city to relocate the project. POPs had proposed a land swap, relocating the project to a site on a transit corridor.

“There are other options and we don’t know the full extent because there wasn’t enough time for the city and developer to do a proper analysis,” Ross said. “We didn’t have to run out of time but we did.”

Moore said Cisterra is committed to working with the community and that they took POPs ideas into consideration but as none were feasible they decided to continue through the process of entitling the Preserve at Torrey Highlands project.

“We’re still up for conversations with POPs about opportunities that might become available,” Moore said.

If the project is approved on Aug. 5, Ross said the fight will not be over. POPs is currently raising funds to pursue legal action.