SD Planning Commission denies appeal, upholds city approval of Carmel Center development

A rendering of Carmel Center, a new restaurant development on El Camino Real.
(Karen Billing)

On Sept. 8, the San Diego Planning Commission denied an appeal on Carmel Center, a proposed new restaurant project off El Camino Real.

The new infill commercial development is a one-story, 5,935-square-foot building that will house three fast-casual restaurants next to the DoubleTree by Hilton Hotel San Diego-Del Mar and adjacent to SR-56. The restaurants will all be dine-in restaurants, no drive-thrus, and each will have outdoor patio space.

The Planning Commission did not support the appellant’s claims against the project which included impacts on views, traffic, coastal access and opposition to the architectural style. City staff said all project issues have been addressed and recommended that the commission deny the appeal and uphold the hearing officer’s approval.

“I’m going to go with what my grandmother used to say, ‘If you don’t have anything nice to say, you probably shouldn’t say anything at all,” said Commissioner Matthew Boomhower, supporting staff’s recommendation to deny the appeal.

“I don’t have a lot to add,” agreed Commissioner Ken Malbrough. “This just looks like a business issue and I’m just not buying it.”

According to Eric Johnston, of Baldwin & Sons, the site was originally approved in 1988 for restaurant use but it was never developed—since then it has been used as parking lot space for the DoubleTree. In October 2020 the Carmel Valley Community Planning Board rejected the plans for the development, the majority of the board looking for more design articulation on the building and landscape screening on the facade that faces outward to the freeway.

The appeal was filed by Southwest Value Partners, who owns the adjacent Doubletree. Attorney Julie Hamilton said that the project is not consistent with design guidelines, it will not enhance public views to the ocean, and will impact access to the coast by contributing additional traffic to already congested roadways and reducing parking available to visitors to the coastal zone. She said the project will add 4,178 daily trips to roads that are already failing during peak hours, “It would be a misnomer to say this doesn’t impact access to the coast,” she said.

Hamilton argued that the project’s “90s, very bland strip mall” design is not consistent with Carmel Valley’s design policies and is a missed opportunity to build a unique and creative infill commercial project.

“We can do much better and we have been doing much better in Carmel Valley,” said Hamilton, showing examples of “higher quality architecture” in Carmel Valley such as One Paseo, The Sky Deck and similar fast-casual restaurants like Urban Plates in Del Mar Highlands Town Center. She requested that the commission send the project back to the developer and ask them to come back with a better design.

In his comments, Johnston pointed out that there are no ocean views from the property. The large eucalyptus trees on the site will remain and six trees will be added along the back facade.

“We’re nowhere near the actual coast, there is no public parking taken by this,” Johnston said. The project exceeds the current minimum off-street parking requirement of 76 spaces by providing 126 spaces.

On the architecture, city staff stated that the design is compatible with surrounding uses and Johnston said it is similar to what is seen in Piazza Carmel down the street. He also pointed out that several of the projects shown by Hamilton as examples of enhanced architecture exceed the 30-foot height limit, which Carmel Center does not.

Chair William Hofman also did not agree with the appellant’s claims regarding traffic and parking. He said SR-56 can get congested at peak times but he did not believe this type of restaurant use would compete with those peak times, likely drawing more of a lunchtime crowd from nearby offices and possibly during the evening.

“I can guarantee that there’s not one vehicle that’s ever going to park in this parking lot that’s going to walk to the beach, it’s just too far,” Hofman said.

Hofman said the quality of the design is a judgment call but he agreed with city staff’s analysis.

“I disagree that this appears like a strip commercial center. The frontage is only 75 feet, it’s a cluster, it’s not a strip, it’s in the back of a parking lot, it’s not on a street frontage,” Hofman said. “Is the architecture a little vanilla? Maybe but it’s fine to me where it’s located, it’s not in a prominent area. It could be improved but it meets the standards.”