Developer addresses concerns, vision for proposed Del Mar Resort

For months, residents of Del Mar and Solana Beach have expressed concerns that a proposed luxury resort on the bluff tops would impact coastal views, create more traffic and threaten the bluff tops.

As currently proposed, the Del Mar Resort would rezone 16.5 acres of land at Camino Del Mar and Border Avenue in Del Mar and place 251 hotel rooms, retail shops, restaurants, event space, 76 residential units and 15 affordable rental units on the property. Currently, the bluff slope and canyon overlay zone allows for two-story estates between 14 and 26-feet tall, depending on findings by the city's Design Review Board, according to Matt Bator, Del Mar City Planner. About one-third of the property is vacant and undeveloped. If approved as currently drafted, the land would be rezoned to accommodate buildings 46-feet in height.

Zephyr, an Encinitas-based mixed-use developer, is teaming with The Robert Green Co., a hotel developer, to craft the project.

Brad Termini, CEO of Zephyr, recently addressed resident concerns in an interview and also explained his vision for the project.

Q: What attracted Zephyr to this plot of land for this project?

A: We were initially introduced to the land by one of the property owners who had successfully obtained approvals from the City of Del Mar and the [California] Coastal Commission for large gated estates. We met with the city and City Planner Adam Birnbaum. We left, after discussions with him, thinking if there's a better land use for that property than a bunch of gated estates and if there's a better use of that property that could open up public access, create trail systems, create new restaurants and dining opportunities, and a community gathering place. Those were all discussions we had very early on with Adam Birnbaum. That's what really sparked the interest to move the project from large gated estates to the vision you see today, which is a luxury resort with open space and dining opportunities for the residents of Del Mar and Solana Beach.

Q: Why was Del Mar in need of a project like this?

A: Anytime there's an opportunity to take a piece of land that's been closed off to the public for over 100 years and to open it back up and create public access and create amenities that local families have an ability to go up there and enjoy every day, that's an exciting opportunity not only for the developer but for the community. We want to work together to find the right kind of mix of development up there but with the goal in mind of creating new access and new amenities that didn't exist before.

Q: One of the biggest concerns from nearby residents is added traffic as a result of the project. How will you address these concerns?

A: As part of the process in California, we need to follow the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) process and that entails an independent, third-party traffic analysis. We're waiting for the City of Del Mar to make that traffic analysis public but what we believe is that the analysis makes a series of recommendations as to infrastructure upgrades that the project would be required to privately finance — upgrades on Via de la Valle, upgrades on the intersection to Border Avenue, upgrades on Border Avenue to ensure that none of our guests are going to turn out of the hotel and shortcut down Sierra. These are all infrastructure upgrades that independent third parties are studying, and they're going to make a recommendation. If we agree — which we will — to invest in that infrastructure, the traffic analysis suggests that even with the increased amount of trips on the roads, congestion levels will actually decrease below where they are today. We believe that the process is working. We're in the middle of a process. We need to let the traffic engineers finish their analysis and give the City of Del Mar time to review it.

I think it's also important to note relative to traffic that hotels typically aren't great generators of traffic, particularly not great generators of peak-hour traffic. People come in and out throughout the day and generally leave their cars there and they'll get around town by foot or via shuttle. If you look at hotel developments throughout California over the last 20 years — you can study the L'Auberge Del Mar or the Montage Laguna Beach — every single neighborhood was concerned that the traffic generated from those resorts was going to cause significant congestion in their community. The truth is, the facts don't support that. I always find it hard-pressed for anybody in Del Mar to say, 'Oh, we wait in traffic all the time as people are trying to get in and out of L'Auberge.' I think it would be hard-pressed for the Laguna Beach community to say they wait in traffic all the time while people are turning into the Montage. The fear of traffic is real. We're optimistic that there's some real infrastructure solutions that the third-party consultant is going to suggest. The reality of traffic, historically, around resorts like this, is that the fear of traffic has never materialized.

We hear in the community all the time that this is going to be like KAABOO or opening day of the races every day. That's just not true. We asked the third-party traffic consultant to try to equate the number of trips on the roads as a result of the hotel to an actual event at the fairgrounds. What he came up with is it's the equivalent of the Mud Run or the cat festival. I know lots of people in the community who don't want to get on the roads during KAABOO or opening day. But I don't know anybody who says, 'Oh no, the Mud Run is in town this weekend so we all better stay off the roads.' Those are small events that are held every year that, as locals, we don't even know they're happening. The roads and the parking are set up for large-scale events. This hotel doesn't create impacts that are anywhere near the equivalent of KAABOO or opening day.

Q: At a recent meeting, Jim McMenamin, senior vice president of forward planning at Zephyr, said a current parking analysis indicates that about 27 spots will be eliminated along the south side of Border Avenue to add an additional southbound lane on that street. How will that impact the existing parking spaces that are on the street and also the traffic that's on the street now?

A: This would result in losing a portion of the public parking spaces that exist there today. We are also planning to build public parking spaces as a component of our resort. The public parking spaces that we're building are almost four or five times the spaces we're going to lose. The public parking spaces that we're going to build at the corner of Via de la Valle outweigh the number of spaces that will be lost as a result of widening the street. We think the resort is going to improve the parking conditions in or around the North Beach area.

Q: How will you ensure that hotel guests, public visitors and staff will utilize your parking spaces?

A: That will be mandatory. It will be an operational policy that all staff will need to park at the resort, and we'll have dedicated parking for them there. If you look at L'Auberge, guests will park their cars there for free. If they're visiting for the day and they stay overnight, they pick up their car and they leave it. The parking is designed to have the entire resort self-contained for visitors, overnight guests, the public and staff.

Q: For visitors that aren't staying at the hotel, are there daily rates they will have to pay to park at the resort?

A: We don't control the fee structure of the public parking. That's up to the City of Del Mar. We would be 100 percent supportive that that parking is for free. Unfortunately, we don't decide that.

Q: City commissioners and residents have shared concerns at meetings that the project may be too tall as currently proposed. Del Mar Planning Commission Chair Ted Bakker most recently noted there were no similar buildings of that size in Del Mar. How would you dispute these claims?

A: There are similar buildings of that size in Del Mar. The L'Auberge and Del Mar Plaza are both around 46 feet, with a couple of inches in either direction. There is certainly a presence in the City of Del Mar for buildings of that size and scale. We don't want to ignore the fact that a large percentage of the population has expressed concern about the height, bulk and scale of the project. We are listening. We are responding to those concerns. We pulled the story poles down. We are in the process of adjusting the design of the project to help address the concerns we've heard from our neighbors about bulk, scale and height. We look forward to early next year reintroducing a thoughtfully-designed project that addresses the concerns we've heard from our neighbors. We're in the middle of a process, and the process encourages us to take an inventory of all of our neighbors' concerns. We've been doing that for almost two years, and now is the time to try to adjust the design to deal with those concerns. We're in the process of doing that.

Q: How much can amenities like rooftop solar panels, elevator shafts and air conditioning equipment affect the height limit?

A: Everybody is making a big deal about the solar panels. It would be a shame to build a resort without covering the roof with solar panels so we could try to produce as much of our energy onsite and lower the footprint of the resort. The way they're making solar panels these days, it's not the way they did them in the early '90s where they protrude up from the roofline a foot or two feet. They're flat and almost unrecognizable.

We don't think it's an issue at all and we think that a commitment to sustainability is one of the most important fundamental components of this project. That commitment to sustainability includes that this project is going to be a net-zero energy project. We're going to try to produce as much solar onsite as we can. Not only are we going to produce it, but we're going to store it in batteries so we can utilize it in non-sun hours. Whatever we can't produce onsite, we're committed to buying from renewable energy sources. Our commitment to sustainability is important and it's a critical component of this project.

Q: There have been complaints from residents in Solana Beach and Del Mar that this project would block their coastal views and devalue their projects. How would you address these concerns?

A: We wholeheartedly disagree with Solana Beach's position that somehow building a five-star resort in their vicinity and opening up a piece of land that's been closed for 100 years with a parks system, trails system, public access and dining restaurants would devalue properties. It's just not supported by facts or data at all. We don't even understand how somebody can contend that building this resort in their community would somehow devalue their property. We're going to be able to address a lot of the concerns about blocked views through our redesign process that we're in the middle of. We're going to be able to address it. We're going to work with [residents] to find resolutions, and that means dropping height. Let's not be coy about it. We're going to drop height and reduce the size of this. We're committed to doing that and working with folks.

Q: What measures are you taking to address bluff stability and sea-level rise?

A: I think it's important for everybody to know that the Coastal Commission will be the ultimate decider on bluff stability and sea-level rise issues. Our team of geologists have been working for two years to try to finalize recommendations as to how far these buildings need to be stepped back from the bluff. Whatever recommendation the design team makes, whatever recommendation the City of Solana Beach makes, it doesn't matter. The Coastal Commission is the decider of what's appropriate for the bluff. Their whole mission to allow public access to the California coast and to protect the bluffs and the beaches. They will use the most conservative methodology available to them to determine what the appropriate bluffs would look like. It's going to be significantly more than the buildings directly to the north of us in Solana Beach who allowed these condos and homeowners to build their buildings right up to the bluff's edge. We're going to be back significantly from that. The methodology we're working on with the Coastal Commission is to ensure that the project is far enough away from the bluff's edge for the next 100 years. We're not doing a short-sighted analysis.

This is a very long-term analysis that is being conducted with science, geological experts and the Coastal Commission. They will ultimately be the sole decider of what's appropriate for that bluff. As far as sea-level rise goes, I'm sure you've been following the issues in Del Mar with everybody's desire to advance sand replenishment efforts. The beaches in Del Mar are getting smaller through sea level rise and global warming.

The bluffs are becoming more fragile because of the waves crashing against them. The only tool to combat these is sand replenishment. We have voluntarily committed to a revenue-sharing program with the City of Del Mar, in perpetuity, that would help fund sand replenishment efforts in the area. We see our project as being a catalyst for private sector funding, in perpetuity, to fund sand replenishment efforts within the area. The city can then utilize the funds that we are voluntarily going to share with them to leverage them at a state and federal level to obtain more sources of funding for sand replenishment.

From our perspective, the talking points about 'Save Our Bluff' is really about some residents trying to save their view. If you want to save the bluff, the way to do that is to responsibly develop far away from the bluff, to make sure that the developments on those bluffs include drought-tolerant landscaping that doesn't require a lot of water, to make sure that there's a drainage program that doesn't allow stormwater to penetrate those bluffs and, most of all, to make sure that there's a source there to fund sand replenishment efforts in the area. There's no park in the world or private home development that is going to agree to step their buildings back from the bluff. From a bluff preservation perspective, it doesn't make any sense to us. There's no development that's going to do more to preserve that bluff than the proposed resort.

Q: You've said one of the biggest amenities that the resort will provide is access to the trail for the first time in 100 years. Some residents have said their families have been able to walk these areas for years. What would you say about what those people have said?

A: Currently, on our 16-and-a-half acres that we plan to develop, that land has been undoubtedly closed off from the public for 100 years. There's a private estate on a portion of the property today that has gated access. There was another private estate that existed up until about two years ago that was demolished due to fire damage. That property still remains gated today. The 16-and-a-half acres that we are going to develop has unequivocally been closed off from the public for the last 100 years. Some people that oppose the resort like to point to a lookout point on the southern end of the bluff that the city owns.

They are correct that there is a four-acre parcel that the city owns. About two acres of it is bluff, and if you go up a windy trail, there's a beautiful two-acre lookout point on the southern end of that border. It's one of the most magnificent views in all of San Diego County. It's incredibly underutilized because the trail that leads up to it is pretty rugged and not accessible. Let there be no confusion. There is a lookout point that the city owns at the south end of the border that's difficult to access. Just to the north of that, there's a chain link fence that restricts people from accessing the 16-and-a-half acres that we plan to develop and open up to the public and create opportunities to enjoy the views, to walk with their dogs, to have picnics. These are things that cannot be done on the current preserved area lookout point that's there.

If we can't, as a community, agree on what's accessible and what's not, how will we ever move forward in a community-based process where we're supposed to be working with each other to find common ground? To me, it's maddening. I urged everybody at the Solana Beach council [meeting] to reserve judgment until the revised story pole plan is out and the City of Del Mar has issued their environmental impact report which quantifies the impacts to the community.

What I also encourage people to do is not to let misinformation be the guiding principle of the opposition. We've read the petition. I would sign the petition opposed to the project. It's filled with misinformation. Almost everything in that petition is not accurate and is not supported by the Environmental Impact Report. It's easy to get hundreds of people to sign a petition that's not accurate. It's easy to show up to city council meetings with soundbites that 'Oh, we've been enjoying these bluffs and the developer is a liar because they said it's been closed off.' Those things just aren't true.

Q: What have you done to address concerns that water rates will go up for customers of the Santa Fe Irrigation District?

A: We've had ongoing discussions for two years with the Santa Fe Irrigation District. Their staff has never expressed a concern about the availability of water and water rates that would be charged for other customers. It wasn't until one of their board members who doesn't like the project intervened that these issues around water for the community arose. Rather than politicize the availability of water and these rising water rates as a fear tactic to get Solana Beach residents to oppose our resort, we went to the board last week and rescinded our application for water from the Santa Fe Irrigation District. We have no plans to ever apply for water from the Santa Fe Irrigation District. We're seeking to work with the City of Del Mar to provide water. We're also working with them on water conservation efforts.

Our proposed hotel is going to be a model for sustainability throughout the county. We want it to be something the environmentally-conscious residents of Del Mar and Solana Beach can look to for generations. That's beyond solar, water conservation, net-zero energy projects, recycling. We think any environmentally-sensitive individual in this community should spend time with us to understand what our commitments to sustainability is because it runs deep. We believe this resort will be a model for sustainability throughout the country.

Q: Affordable housing is a hot-button issue in North County. How do you plan to address that in your plans and ensure a portion of the units are affordable? Do you have an estimate on how much they will be rented for?

A: We understand that affordable housing is a huge issue in the City of Del Mar. We want to be a catalyst to helping them reach their state housing requirements. That's why we want to develop affordable housing on-site. The rent rates are totally out of our control. That will be dictated by state affordable housing law. Those units will be available to anybody in the public that qualifies. They'll be rented at the rates dictated by the state. There are still a lot of discussions on the size of the units and the number of the units. We don't have a final design on the size and layout of those units.

Q: What plans do you have to further engage the community?

A: We've been on a two-year listening tour where we've hosted over 100 meetings, some of them publicly held, some of them at coffee shops. Now is the time for us to go into the redesign and to go into a process where we introduce a project early next year that incorporates and addresses the concerns that we've heard throughout the community. We look forward to re-engaging with the public early next year and having an opportunity to show them we've been listening. I think taking the story poles down was the first step of that. We just look forward to showing that we've been listening.

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