Merge 56 approved bringing mixed-use center to Camino Del Sur

San Diego City Council unanimously approved the new Merge 56 development, a mixed-use town center on Camino Del Sur and SR-56 that will blend a cinema, retail, restaurants, office space, hotel and 242 residential townhouse units, 20 percent of which are devoted to affordable housing, surrounded by public and green spaces.

“I’ve looked forward to this day for a long time,” said developer Gary Levitt, a Del Mar Mesa resident, at the May 22 council meeting. “The focus has been on creating a sense of place for the entire neighborhood and creating value for our neighbors so they would have somewhere to go to with friends and family for decades to come.”

Council President Pro Tem Barbara Bry, noting that about 10 feet of the Torrey Highlands project is in District 1, complimented Levitt for working well with the surrounding community.

“It’s a great walkable community and hopefully this is a model of what we can build in more areas of the city,” Bry said. “I’m happy to support the motion today.”

The site was originally part of the larger 147-acre Rhodes Crossing project approved by the city in 2004. Levitt purchased the 40-acre commercial portion of the property in 2013 and went to work redesigning it from the ground up. It was originally approved as a “big box” self-storage and commercial center with a sea of parking; instead, Levitt planned for a different type of project utilizing “outstanding” design to create an active, pedestrian-friendly lifestyle center.

He said he reached out the the public from day one—incorporating the important extensions of Camino Del Sur and Carmel Mountain Road road to provide connectivity for the Park Village neighborhood and to provide a missing trail link with a formal trail connection between the Del Mar Mesa Preserve and Darkwood Canyon.

Levitt said with all of his developments, he aims to build projects that are sustainable and have a “vibrancy and walkable feel.” Architect Ricardo Rabines said the idea is to create a “hub” and “heart” with anchor retail buildings around a walkable central green plaza. The project’s 525,000 square feet of commercial and office space call for uses such as a movie theater, grocery store, fitness center and other retail. Instead of the large surface parking lot, there will be a parking structure hidden behind the buildings.

“It’s been a long journey to get here and I’m excited to see this project moving forward, especially considering the dramatic enhancement made in the redesign as compared to what was proposed,” said District 5 Councilmember Mark Kersey. “It’s the ideal mix of what we’re looking for right now.”

During public comment, local residents spoke in support of the project and those opposed expressed environmental concerns.

“In general, we’re not happy with Merge 56, that should surprise absolutely no one here,” said Frank Landis of the California Native Plant Society.

Landis voiced concerns about the development’s proximity to a valuable ecological reserve, wildlife refuge and preserve home to many species “teetering on the edge of extinction.” He requested invasive weed removals and a less narrow wildlife crossing under the road to allow safe crossing for animals.

To lessen the impact on the surrounding environment, Levitt has proposed two-lane rather than four-lane roads and has also proposed habitat restoration efforts to replace low-quality vernal pools in the area with high-quality, sustainable vernal pools.

The remaining acreage of the Rhodes Crossing property surrounding Merge 56 is planned to be developed as residential homes.

To illustrate how challenging it can be to get housing units produced in the city, Councilmember Scott Sherman wanted to make it known that it took nearly five years and $2 million, 15 percent of which is city processing fees, for Levitt to get to this point. The construction itself aims to be a shorter process—Levitt said he hopes to break ground by the end of 2020 with the first delivery of homes and uses in 2021.