New concert venue at Del Mar Fairgrounds clears hurdle

The Del Mar Fairgrounds took a significant step this week in its longtime effort to build a concert venue inside its off-track betting center, which has for years eked out a trickle of revenues.

The 7-0 vote from the board of directors of the 22nd District Agricultural Association, which runs the state-owned fairgrounds, to transform the Surfside Race Place doubled down on their position that the project does not require state environmental review, despite 11th hour entreaties to the contrary from Solana Beach and Del Mar. The May 23 decision does call on DAA staff to determine whether they will need a new permit from the California Coastal Commission.

Some of the Surfside Race Place’s wagering operations would remain in the reimagined facility. Preliminary designs call for a 1,900-seat amphitheater to fill roughly half of the building. The rest of the space would consist of a beer garden and an exhibit on the history of San Diego beer.

The board signed off on a design package that caps the project at $13.2 million. A more precise estimate of construction costs is expected by mid-June. If their timeline holds, the revamped facility will be open by next summer.

“It’s been in decline for a long time,” said Stephen Shewmaker, the board’s vice president. “We built this facility to house 5,000 people and we’re not getting 500 people a day inside of it.”

Depending on the number of events, the new venue would generate annual profits of between $1.2 million to $2 million, he said.

Solana Beach and Del Mar both raised last-minute objections, outlining their concerns in a pair of letters submitted on the eve of the board meeting, and sending councilmembers to make their case in person. Both cities emphasized that they do not object to the concept, but believe that traffic, noise and environmental impacts will be severe enough that the fairgrounds should put the project through a state review under the California Environmental Quality Act and/or the California Coastal Commission.

“Think about your neighborhood and the many changes that have occurred over the past 30 years,” said Solana Beach Councilwoman Jewel Edson. “Do you think a study from three decades ago would serve as proper analysis?”

The DAA, however, believes those fears will not manifest.

“In the scale of events that the fairgrounds has regularly, this is relatively small,” said board member David Watson. “In an odd way, this opposition is the result of our success. Other than the gigantic events like Kaaboo, opening day [of race season], a few days during the fair when there’s tens and tens of thousands of people coming, this fairgrounds operates day in day out, every day of the year, sometimes with multiple events, large, small, medium and otherwise, and there’s not a bit of problem, not a bit of controversy, not an issue of any kind. … I just don’t really see the traffic, parking, noise and other impacts that have been identified here today.”

Del Mar Mayor Terry Sinnott urged the DAA to slow the process down, provide more detail on the kind of events that will be held there and overall to take better stock of the possible impacts.

“We’re not arguing that this is the size of your major events. We’re arguing, I think, that we’ve got to be very careful [that] security, traffic, noise, environmental are properly addressed,” he said. “So we just ask you to make sure that those bases are covered. We’re happy to work with you to try to help that, because we want you to be successful, but we don’t want to be successful at the expense of the surrounding community.”

Once time came to vote, Watson reminded his fellow board members that the decision at hand was solely to approve the land use, and that there will be many opportunities in the year ahead to adjust their course on the project.

“This is not the final word,” he said. “If at any point in the process … there’s issues or concerns, this board can address them.”

The Surfside Race Place was approved in 1991 to hold as many as 5,000 daily visitors, but now struggles to attract one-tenth that number.
The Surfside Race Place was approved in 1991 to hold as many as 5,000 daily visitors, but now struggles to attract one-tenth that number. (Sebastian Montes)