Scaled-down Watermark finds favor with the Planning Commission

Showing only the slightest of reservations, Del Mar’s planning commission this week welcomed the latest updates to the long-debated, much-revised proposal for a gated condominium complex on Jimmy Durante Boulevard — with most commissioners indicating a preference for the less-dense of two versions.

Watermark Del Mar has since 2014 been slated for a vacant 2.3-acre lot just south of the fairgrounds, where Jimmy Durante crosses San Dieguito Drive. Neighbors to the property challenged the project from the outset, prompting its development team —Watermark DM LP — to winnow their vision down from 57 to 54 to 48 units. When opposition persisted for the 48-unit proposal, Watermark unveiled a 38-unit version at a workshop late last year.

The planning commission’s Tuesday, Oct. 10 hearing, which came as part of Watermark’s environmental review, was the city’s first official proceeding to include the lower-density option. Because of unusual timing in the public notification process, the planning commission extended the Watermark hearing to its Nov. 7 meeting.

City planners released the project’s draft Environmental Impact Report — a 446-page analysis of impacts ranging from traffic to noise to ecological resources for both density options — on Sept. 29. It can be found at comments must be made in writing and sent to the city by Nov. 13.

Framed against a sandstone bluff, the 2.3-acre lot has sat vacant despite being approved for development nearly a decade ago. The city signed off on a 23,000-square-foot office park dubbed Riverview in 2008 — a plan that was scrapped after the city’s 2013 Housing Element identified the parcel as Del Mar’s best candidate for sorely needed residential development.

Watermark will also provide the city with affordable housing as Del Mar frantically tries to conjure up 22 affordable units in the next five years so as not to run afoul of state law.

The first of Watermark’s two options lays out 48 units in 14 buildings with a 108-space underground parking garage. Seven of the units would be designated affordable housing, four of which Watermark would deed at no cost to the city. The second option spreads its 38 units into 17 buildings atop a 100-space garage. Of its six affordable units, three would go to the city.

Despite the boost to affordable housing and the drop in proposed density, several residents voiced opposition at Tuesday night’s hearing, especially from Heather Lane and down San Dieguito Drive.

Chief among their concerns is the traffic that will pour out of Watermark’s sole entrance on San Dieguito and spill into the newly built traffic circle at Jimmy Durante. Several residents described the roundabout as a choke point for traffic from the county fair, KAABOO, the racetrack and the recently opened Viewpoint Brewery. They fear that will only worsen after the arrival of Watermark and a 1,900-seat arena scheduled to open at the fairgrounds next year.

“We have no other access to the world than through this roundabout,” said Wade Walker. “Nobody that I talked to up in my neighborhood was against this project; they are against the size of it.”

However, the traffic analysis in the Environmental Impact Report determined that Watermark will create less traffic than the Riverview office park would. Planning Commissioner Nathan McCay said he trusts the traffic analysts and downplayed the concerns raised Tuesday night as too vague to be actionable.

“Just because things make sense doesn’t mean that they’re right,” he said.

The city separated Watermark into its own “Specific Plan” in 2014 to streamline the review, zoning and permitting process. Doing so allows the project to avoid triggering a density-based intervention by the state. Given that alternative — and the lengths to which developers have gone to address community concerns — planning commission Chairman Ted Bakker encouraged support for the proposal.

“Something’s going to be developed. The lot isn’t going to sit vacant forever,” he said. “If the city rezones it, the community will have way less control of what goes there. The height limits, the [design] limits, the density limits — it disappears. This meeting would not exist, because the state would mandate it.”

The city’s Design Review Board is set to review the proposal — and weigh in on a preferred density option — at its Oct. 25 meeting. The city council will review the project before sending it to the California Coastal Commission. With those layers of city and state reviews, construction isn’t expected to begin for another two years.