Attempt to solve parking spat stumbles at the finish line

Just as it was looking like Del Mar’s longest-running parking dispute had found resolution, the plan faltered in its finishing touches and threw a monkey wrench into a bid by the new owners of PrepKitchen to buy the building outright.

The ordeal over the two-story mix of offices and restaurants on the corner of 12th Street and Camino del Mar is one of the first tests of a new wrinkle in Del Mar’s notoriously strict parking regime, and marks yet another sour turn in George Conkwright’s seven-year battle against regulations that have forced much of his building to linger idle and empty.

The building has 17 suites, 10 of which are occupied by four office tenants, including Windermere Realty, and the restaurants PrepKitchen Del Mar and Beesalt Balcony. Even with a 21-space garage and another 19 spaces reserved in an adjacent alley — making it the most parking-rich building downtown — Del Mar’s parking ordinance has prevented Conkwright from filling the vacancies. City code requires one parking space per 90 square feet of restaurant space; filling the vacant suites would require parking well beyond the building’s 40 spaces. Especially painful are a wine bar and an upstairs restaurant that have gone unused despite $300,000 Conkwright spent to renovate them. He has filed a slew of lawsuits since 2011 that challenge the parking ordinance and seek lost revenues, which he says exceed $1 million.

A new element in the city’s parking regime was supposed to alleviate the dispute. After several years of tweaks and revisions, the city in August added a provision that allows parking spaces to be designated as “blended” use, effectively slashing the restaurant mandate from one parking spot per 90 square feet of floorplan to one parking spot per 300 square feet.

In Conkwright’s case, his 19 spaces on Maiden Lane — currently designated for the building’s office tenants — will be able to switch over to restaurant parking on weekday nights and all day on weekends. That would allow Conkwright to fill the vacant restaurant suite, for which he’s fielded interest as a craft beer tasting room and, recently, as space for PrepKitchen to expand into.

Conkwright and city planners spent months hammering out the details of the parking management plan before taking the proposal to the city planning commission on Dec. 5. Once there, the proposal ran into opposition from a nearby homeowner and hit a crucial snag over a requirement to report on the parking plan after its first year.

Despite the building’s relative wealth of parking spaces, nearby residents have long complained of parking spillover onto their neighborhood streets. At the Dec. 5 hearing, Luneta Drive resident Mark Stuckelman complained about diners and restaurant staff that make a racket as they return to their cars in front of his home late at night. Adding a third restaurant, he said, will only make matters worse.

“Frankly, I think it’s crazy that only 33 spaces are needed to operate three restaurants that can seat … 180 diners,” he said.

Stuckelman asked the planning commission to make all of the building’s parking spaces shareable by any tenant or diner. But that’s a non-starter for Conkwright.

“Unreserved parking means public parking,” Conkwright said. “That’s how I make a living; I rent my property, including the parking. I’m never going to make any of my property public parking.”

The planning commission eventually approved the parking plan with a few revisions, including a requirement for city staff to produce a year-end parking report as a condition for renewing their business permit.

The city has already enacted a shared parking agreement at the Viewpoint Brewery that opened last summer on the San Dieguito River, and Commission Chairman Ted Bakker wants to ensure accountability as the new parking policy takes hold.

“We’re going to get more of these, and we’re basing these numbers and I want to know if they’re going to work,” he said.

That requirement has cast a pall, Conkwright says, over his ability to market the vacant suites, and even to sell his building. He appealed the commission’s decision, which sent his case to the city council on Jan. 16 to consider granting a new hearing.

Conkwright is offering to drop his lawsuits against the city if it means he can sell the building and wash his hands of Del Mar altogether.

“I will zero out and waive a million dollars in lost rent just to get out of town,” he said. “But I’ve got to have a marketable product to sell … not, ‘We’ll give you a permit and next year we may take it back.’ That doesn’t work.”

The interested buyers are Deborah and David Krause, principals in the Las Vegas-based firm IAM Hospitality that earlier this month bought the three PrepKitchen restaurants — in Little Italy, La Jolla and Del Mar.

“I fell in love with your city about 18 months ago,” David Krause told the city council on Jan. 16. “But the one thing, as a businessman, I get reserved [about] is any type of agreement that can be changed every year and modified. We’re planning to move here and I would love to buy that building and be part of your community, but the way it is now, I can’t do that.”

City officials refute the characterization, stressing that the terms of the parking agreement won’t change as businesses renew their licenses.

“As long as the tenants comply with this parking management plan, the 40 spaces are sufficient based on the data that was given,” said Senior Planner Amanda Lee. “As long as they continue to comply, there won’t be an issue.”

Two “yes” votes were needed to grant Conkwright a new hearing. Only Deputy Mayor Dave Druker raised his hand.

Conkwright said this week that he does not intend to re-appeal. The ball is now in Krause’s court as he talks with city planners in the hope of finding clarity on the yearly renewal requirement, Conkwright said. Krause has not yet made an offer on the building, Conkwright said.

Meanwhile, Conkwright’s lawsuits against the city sit in state court, awaiting their next motion and filing. Regardless of how his legal battle turns out, Conkwright says Del Mar has a great deal to straighten out in its parking reforms.

“I’m just the first of many,” he said.