Carmel Valley planning board votes to approve The Merge mixed-use project

By Karen Billing

The Merge mixed-use project in the Carmel Country Highlands neighborhood received recommended approval with a 7-2 vote at the Jan. 23 Carmel Valley Community Planning Board meeting. Two members, chair Frisco White and vice-chair Manjeet Ranu, voted against the project to take a stand over the fact that they felt the project had lost an opportunity to create something unique and a “legacy” for the area.

Due to negative feedback from neighbors for his original proposal, which had 21 upper floor flats over retail, 10 townhomes and a green open space at the center of a retail and office space project, developer Gary Levitt altered his plan to reduce the density to just 22 townhomes on ground level and remove the open space element.

“I think the project as it stands on its own is wonderful, but I won’t support it because I know what it could be. The original was more innovative, more creative and what we’re ending up with is the same old same old,” White said.

Ranu said because of the “visceral” feedback from neighbors, Levitt was too quick to change his plans.

White referenced how Levitt got “beat up” on his other project in Carmel Valley currently under construction on Worsch Way — neighbors opposed his building a unique housing development on top of a hill and he instead brought the homes all down to street level. White and Ranu said they wish Levitt would keep trying.

“What we have here is a commodity, not a community. We’re missing the mark here,” Ranu said.

Levitt said that while he may have liked the original project as well, he could not ignore the concerns of adjacent neighbors.

“A lot of people said they liked what direction we were going in but very few made the same noise as the people who were against the project,” Levitt said. “We can’t afford to be divisive in the community.”

Levitt and his team worked to come up with an alternative that could receive the neighbors’ support, especially after a petition circulated signed by 168 residents in attempt to stop the project. The approved plan includes 32,000 square feet of office and retail with patios and frontages along Carmel Mountain Road, the largest patio on the corner of Carmel Country Road with hopes it will be a destination restaurant or café.

Twelve of the townhomes have frontages on Carmel Country Road with a 40-foot green buffer between the homes’ porches and the road. Ten homes are off Dry Cliff Road, relating to townhomes across the street. All will have detached garages accessed in an interior parking lot, which replaced the green space originally proposed. Underground parking will serve the office and retail tenants.

While White and Ranu were disappointed that the original plan couldn’t go through, the rest of the board members were happy with the project.

“It took a lot of work to get to this point, there was a lot of opposition to the original plan,” said board member Laura Copic, who represents the adjacent neighborhood on the board. “I liked the original plan, it was unique, however, the surrounding neighborhood had a visceral reaction to it. The point is you have to be responsive to the immediate neighborhood and Gary ended up being very responsive and I think what we ended up with is a very nice compromise…We could hold out to try and make it perfect but we could lose it altogether.”