Office complex bordered by Del Mar Mesa Preserve wins council approval

The Preserve at Torrey Highlands is proposed on the extension of Camino Del Sur, surrounded by the Del Mar Mesa Preserve.
(Karen Billing)

San Diego City Council approved the Preserve at Torrey Highlands project in a 6-3 vote on Aug. 5. The 420,000-square-foot office complex faced opposition due to its location on the SR-56 corridor off Camino Del Sur, surrounded on three sides by the Del Mar Mesa Preserve.

David Dick, a partner at Cisterra Development, said he believes the employment center is “perfectly suited” for the 11-acre site carved out of the preserve and has been designed to protect natural resources, provide benefits to the local community and strengthen the region’s innovation economy.

“I think it’s incredibly important that we have housing for the employers in our region but we also need a place for those individuals to work,” said Councilmember Chris Cate, who made the motion to approve the project. “We need to make sure we have areas for employment growth in our city.”

District 1 Councilmember Barbara Bry, President Georgette Gomez and District 4 Councilmember Monica Montgomery voted against the project.

“Cisterra, you are a really good developer, you build good projects. This project has good design and I’m very appreciative that you’ve reached out to the building trades and that you would build it in an inclusionary way,” Bry said. “But quite frankly, this is the wrong place for this project and I will be voting no today.”

The project has been revised in accordance with the conditions of the San Diego Planning Commission’s April approval, including reducing the project by 30,000 square feet, reducing the height of one of the three office buildings and reducing the height of the proposed seven-story parking garage by two levels.

Cisterra has also agreed to double the landscaping on the south side of the parking structure to provide screening and has taken several environmental measures to ensure protection of the preserve.

“I don’t think this is going to affect the preserve in a giant way,” Councilman Scott Sherman said.

With her vote, Gomez echoed Bry’s concerns about the sensitive environment surrounding the project.

“Constantly, when we’re talking about environmental protection, we’re talking about scraps …doing as much as we can to really continue protecting the little that we have,” Gomez said, highlighting the project’s significant unmitigated impacts in the areas of transportation, view, neighborhood character, land alteration, greenhouse gas emissions and air quality. “This is something that I cannot support. I do believe it’s a good project somewhere else.”

Local group Protect our Preserves San Diego (POPs) has been fighting the project, believing that it is a betrayal of public trust for all who worked to create the Preserve as well as to San Diego residents who voted yes on Prop H in 1996 to permanently preserve open space while defining where commercial development should go.

“The voters spoke clearly about what was envisioned for Del Mar Mesa Preserve and the Torrey Highlands community,” said Kathryn Burton, co-chair of POPs and president of the Torrey Hills Community Planning Group. “Development must respect the area’s natural open space. This massive office structure intruding into the preserve is contrary to that vision.”

“Exactly how much of an economic payday does it take to justify the construction of an enormous eyesore smack dab in the middle of the Del Mar Mesa Preserve, ignoring the original plan for the preservation of open space?” questioned Elizabeth Rabbitt, a member of the Del Mar Mesa Planning Board.

As the crowd filed out of council chambers following the vote, one person shouted: “Please visit the preserve before it’s gone, guys!”

The 900-acre Del Mar Mesa Preserve, protected under the city’s Multiple Species Conservation Plan (MSCP), is home to endangered and threatened plants and animals, vernal pools and serves as a popular recreation spot for mountain bikers, hikers and equestrians.

The 11-acre notch was carved out of the preserve and until it was sold to Cisterra in 2015, the property was owned by the Catholic Diocese of San Diego and planned to be a church.

Jim Whalen, a member of the San Diego Planning Commission, spoke out in support of the project and shared some history as he was the vice chair of the MSCP working group from 1993-97.

He said the notch property was approved for development in 1996, it was not in the preserve planning area when the city approved the MSCP in 1997 and was not acquired by the Catholic Diocese until 1999. “It was never in the preserve plan for one moment,” Whalen said.

Whalen said the property has one of the most common habitat types in the city, there is “zero sensitive habitat types”, 31 percent of the plants are non-native and it is not a wildlife corridor.

With its approval of the project, city council OK’d a community plan amendment and a rezone, from agricultural-residential to industrial park. Under the commercial limited land use designation, the types of uses currently allowed on the site would be religious facilities, trade schools, storage facilities or plant nurseries.

Councilmember Mark Kersey said his concern was that something will be developed on the land, “it’s not going to be open space,” and he is not sure that the community would support any other uses, particularly a storage facility. Both he and Sherman noted that if a church was built on the property instead, it still could be a fairly large church.

“The intensity of use from a large parish is not dissimilar to that of an office campus,” Whalen said to the groans of many opponents behind him. President Gomez quickly quieted the room.

During public comment, speakers were limited to one minute as there were 55 speaker slips submitted in opposition and 53 in support.

The council heard from project opponents and POPs backers such as Sierra Club San Diego, San Diego Audubon, San Diego Democrats for Environmental Action, Endangered Habitats League and the California Native Plants Society.

“Sierra Club doesn’t oppose development, we oppose bad development and development in the wrong place,” said Peter Andersen of Sierra Club San Diego. “We want this project to be built, just not here.”

Project opponents described the Del Mar Mesa as a “jewel in the middle of the city,” using adjectives like majestic, serene and beautiful. They said the office project was too dense, too tall and too close to the sensitive habitats of the preserve.

A rendering of the Preserve at Torrey Highlands.

Tommy Hough, a member of the San Diego County Democrats for Environmental Action, argued that it was wrong to take a bite out of the city’s vanishing native wildlands, close to Deer Canyon which he said is the oldest surviving coastal woodlands remaining in the city.

“The tangle is thick, it is remarkable, it is primeval,” Hough said of the Tunnel trails that wind under the coastal scrub oaks.

“This office park if built will serve as a monument of greed, bad planning, bad decision-making, bad faith and a dismissal of the obligation of stewardship. It will be another environmental cautionary tale,” Hough warned the council. “Do not build this monument.”

Anne Harvey, a member of POPs and retired member of the Carmel Valley Community Planning Board, said for 20 years she worked on helping plan new communities to give them what Carmel Valley didn’t have—that included open space like the preserve.

“We wanted to give them open space that wasn’t just road embankments and ditches in the backs of buildings and this is what we achieved,” Harvey said, “Now after all this work it looks like what we’ve provided is a beautiful site for an unwarranted corporate office building.”

In his comments, Dick countered that the 11-acre property has always been identified in the Torrey Highlands Community Plan for commercial development and there is no limitation in the community plan in size or intensity of use.

Those that spoke in favor of the project represented the biotech industry, San Diego Regional Economic Corp, SD Regional Chamber and building trades union representatives such as the Local 619 Southwest Council of Carpenters. They spoke about the need for all areas in San Diego to embrace growth and opportunity, to promote the idea of a live and work neighborhood, placing 2,000 high-quality, family-wage jobs near residential neighborhoods as well as providing short-term local labor jobs.

“Help preserve middle class jobs and help preserve responsible developers in San Diego that are making a commitment to the workforce here in San Diego,” carpenters union member Doug Hicks urged the council.

While opponents argued that there is no more need for office space in the area, Stath Karras, executive director of the Burnham-Moores Center for Real Estate at University of San Diego, said that there is a need for innovation centers like the Preserve as San Diego has become a hub for biotech, life-sciences and technology. Brett Ward, an executive director at Cushman & Wakefield, said that a trend they are noticing is that companies like Illumina, Apple and other innovation companies are trying to grow in San Diego and the market does not have the “sizable, scalable, highly-amenitized projects” that will attract and retain talent.

“The Preserve at Torrey Highlands will help us accomplish this goal,” Karras said.

Dick hit back against opponents who claimed that Cisterra’s plan was to get the land entitled, flip it and move on. Cody Petterson, president of the San Diego Democrats for Environmental Action, had called Cisterra a “land speculator,” describing the project as “an upzoning windfall disguised as a development opportunity.”

“Cisterra is no land speculator, that’s not what we do,” Dick said. “We’re in the business of building innovative work spaces…I can say categorically, without hesitation, Cisterra has no intention of flipping this property, it is not a speculative venture, we will build this property for the innovation economy and deliver it to the citizens of San Diego.”

Over the last few months, Cisterra negotiated a memorandum of understanding with POPs in which they pursued a potential land swap—trading the site near the mesa for a site located at the Rose Canyon city operations yard on Morena Boulevard.

During the hearing some accused Cisterra of pulling out of the deal.

“We operated in complete good faith,” Dick said. “The agreement had certain time frames of which certain things were supposed to happen and they didn’t happen by that time—not for a lack of effort, not for a lack of interest and not for a lack of good faith.”

In her dissenting vote, Councilmember Monica Montgomery said she was torn, as many from the community she represents spoke about the project’s potential economic benefit but she also had concerns about the proximity to sensitive lands.

“Being a member of the transportation committee at SANDAG and on the MTS board, I really have a hesitation with approving additional projects that do not have access to public transportation,” Montgomery said.

Cate said he agreed with Montgomery on the transit issue—he has written a letter to MTS in support of a pilot bus program along the SR-56 once the Mid-Coast Trolley is completed, extending trolley service from downtown to UTC. The Mid-Coast Trolley is expected to begin service in 2021.