Armenian Church wins unanimous approval for El Camino Real site near Carmel Valley

The San Diego Planning Commission unanimously approved St. John Garabed Church, an Armenian church planned for El Camino Real.

Plans have been in the works for the past six years for the church to move from its overcrowded North Park facility to North County, where a large population of the congregation lives.

The last step in a long process will be approval from the state Coastal Commission.

For Commissioner Andrew Wagner, the most influential input they received was in the form of letters written to the commission from two young parishioners: Ani Kradjian, 9, and Mari Kradjian, 5, from Carmel Valley. In green marker, Mari wrote, “Please vote for our church because we are running out of room.”

“That’s what your church is all about, the foundation of a young person and how that church can have a positive and significant impact on their lives and their faith, and how they choose to give back to the community and our world,” Wagner said. “These are two young girls that are absolutely taking part in a civic process that’s greater than themselves.”

The Carmel Valley Community Planning Board voted 6-4 on Sept. 26 to approve the project, but according to John Fisher of the city’s development services department, because the board has 16 voting members, the vote lacked a majority and counts as a “no vote.”

Over the years, the project has faced challenges because of its closeness to protected lands in the city’s Multiple Species Conservation Program as well as issues of access on a busy stretch of El Camino Real.

Marcela Escobar Eck, a principal with Atlantis Group (land use consulting), which represents the church, said all of the wildlife agencies have signed off on the project, as the church has have stayed out of the sensitive lands. But the access remained difficult — the neighboring Harvest Evangelical Formosan Church did not grant access through its property.

The site is 13.4 acres, and the church buildings will be built on 4.2 acres on the already-disturbed mesa top, preserving the site’s most sensitive 9.18 acres. The plans include a 350-seat church and sanctuary built in the Armenian style, reaching 93 feet in height to the top of the cross. The campus will also include a youth recreation center, a 500-seat multipurpose hall and a cultural/educational building.

St. Garabed Church meets in North Park, in a facility it has outgrown.

Spokesman Harry Krikorian said the church purchased the property in 2008 to fulfill dreams for a new church campus and applied for a conditional use permit back in 2011. Church officials have since worked “diligently” to create a plan that makes sense for their congregation while also respecting the land and the concerns of residents.

“We look forward to realizing our dream of a new church campus,” said Steven Kradjian, who has attended St. John Garabed for more than 20 years — it’s where he met his wife Lisa. “It will be a beautiful and faithful testament to iconic Armenian churches … it’s the legacy we wish to leave for our children and grandchildren.”

Many supporters came to the commission, all dressed in white. But not everyone who spoke was in favor of the project.

Nancy Novak, who is on the Carmel Valley planning board but spoke as a resident, expressed her concerns about the project’s bulk and scale. She said the land where the project will be built is supposed to be a relief from urbanization and should stay open space, or with a very low-density use.

Representatives from the Harvest Evangelical Formosan Church also came forward with concerns about the size, 50 feet taller than their church campus, and the safety of the access road.

“El Camino Real is a major thoroughfare and there’s a lot of traffic. Most of the time it’s congested and people are driving 50 miles per hour down the hill, very fast,” said William Nguyen from Harvest. “I see this design as definitely creating a hazard.”

Commissioner Douglas Austin agreed that he is concerned about safety, as a close friend was killed in an accident on this curve of El Camino Real.

City traffic engineer Farah Mahzari said city staff shared those concerns with the location of the driveway, but they feel the problem will be resolved with the addition of a 140-foot-long right-turn lane as an entrance into the project and a 900-foot-long acceleration lane exiting of the project.

Commission Chairperson Tim Golba said that is a very fast road, but he is satisfied by the acceleration and deceleration lanes as a solution. Golba noted he is often in the area for Surf and Sharks soccer and the prime time for use on El Camino Real is not Sunday mornings, which will help with the traffic flow.

Commissioner James Whalen said as the church will be “visually very prominent,” he encouraged them to use stone as much as possible, even though he understands cost will be an issue.

Commissioner Austin agreed.

“If it’s true to what you are looking to do, I think it could be a rich addition to the neighborhood,” Austin said. “I encourage you to really go the extra mile on material, colors and details.”

“The goal and hope is to make it as authentic as possible,” Escobar-Eck said.

As part of that authentic vision, the church will also have a memorial plaza to honor next year’s 100-year anniversary of the Armenian genocide, in which 1.5 million Armenians lost their lives.

Member Mary Ann Yaghdjian grew emotional when speaking about the church as a whole and what it means to the roughly 3,000 Armenians who have been in San Diego since the 1920s.

“We are a small people and a lot of our culture has been lost … We’re doing our part to pass it on to the next generation. It’s culturally significant to everyone,” said Yaghdjian. “We are grateful to this country for opening the door to us in our darkest times.”