Del Mar considers rezoning North Commercial area

Editor’s note: In its quest to integrate affordable housing into the community, as mandated by state law and outlined in the city’s Community Plan goals, the City of Del Mar has several options on the table: rezoning in the north commercial zone, condo conversion, offering more square footage as an incentive to build affordable “granny flats,” and possible modification to development standards in the downtown area. The following is the first in a series examining in more detail what these option would look like in Del Mar.

By Claire Harlin

Entering the city via Jimmy Durante Boulevard, one passes the Del Mar Fairgrounds and a number of offices and businesses to the right, such as a gym, animal hospital and the Free Flight bird sanctuary. On the left, one catches a glimpse of the San Dieguito Lagoon, but likely more noticeable is the 2-acre dirt lot at the corner of San Dieguito Drive that’s lined with rocks, rusted barrels, chairs and other debris. The parcel is used occasionally for overflow fairgrounds parking, however, it usually sits empty.

A new use for this corner property could materialize, however, in the form of an apartment building that could, in part, fulfill the state’s requirement to build 71 new housing units throughout the city — 22 of which must accommodate those in the lowest income bracket. Formerly owned by nearby residents and business owners Michael and Janice Batter of Batter-Kay Architects, the property is in escrow and officials are working with a potential buyer to analyze the feasibility of building housing there. And to legally make that happen, the city would have to amend the North Commercial (NC) zone to allow residential use, possibly at a density of 20 units per acre — a feasibility standard suggested by the state.

Proceedings are only preliminary and weigh heavily on the feedback of the community, said Del Mar Planning Manager Adam Birnbaum.

Longtime resident Bud Emerson, who has been working to bring affordable housing to Del Mar for decades, said a residential development on the parcel in question could serve as a “gateway project,” the first thing people see when they enter the city on Jimmy Durante Boulevard.

High property values have presented a challenge to the city in finding somewhere to build units that could be offered at an affordable rate, so it would be “amazing,” Emerson said, if the city could work out a plan with the developer in which it would have ownership of some six or seven of those units, perhaps, to be designated at affordable. The rest of the necessary 71 units could be “sprinkled throughout” the city as to not change Del Mar’s character, Emerson said.

“We’ve been trying to figure out for years how to do this, and right now we’re just trying to shape the vision of what this project could be,” said Emerson, who serves on the city’s Housing Corporation, a nonprofit created in the 1970s to make the city eligible for block grants, as well as the Housing Element Ad-Hoc Advisory Committee, which is working with the City Council to develop a plan that will identify and address housing needs for the next seven years. It’s within the Housing Element that the city must show the California Department of Housing and Community Development (HCD) that it has a solution, or else be subject to lawsuit or penalties.

Lee Haydu, a City Council member who also serves on the Housing Element Ad-Hoc Advisory Committee, has lived near the Jimmy Durante Boulevard lot for years and said its use as an overflow parking lot causes added congestion, especially while the fair is in session, because drivers reach the often-full lot and spill into the nearby residential area off of San Dieguito Road or hold up traffic trying to turn around.

“I’d much rather see that be housing than have it as a parking lot that causes traffic for the residents there,” Haydu said, adding that the lagoon area across the street, off of San Dieguito near the Grand Avenue bridge, could be beautifully revitalized to have open park spaces, walkways and seating areas.

“I envision the whole area to be a place where you can bring a picnic and take a stroll,” she said.

If housing were to become a part of that NC zone, she said it’s likely the traffic would increase at that intersection and a traffic light may have to be put in, just as was outlined in the environmental analysis done about four years ago, when the city approved an office building project on that lot.

Emerson said when that office project was on the table, the residents who objected at that time said they thought a residential project would be more appropriate. While the development was given the go-ahead, the owners did not proceed with the project and let the three-year development permit expire.

Those wishing to develop near the lagoon face both safety concerns and scrutiny regarding wildlife protection. Much of the property near the San Dieguito Lagoon is either in the floodway, where development is prohibited, or in the floodplain, where development is subject to strict standards set by the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA). The lot on which housing is being considered is located in the floodplain, and must be built up high to allow for the chance of a “100-year storm,” said Birnbaum.

“FEMA assesses in the worst case scenario how high the water will get, and requires that anything new has to be built at or above that level,” he said, adding that other properties in the floodplain that currently stand at ground level were built before these standards were set, and any new development of those properties would likely require a total rebuild. This has likely stifled development or revitalization in that zone, and in the case of a housing building, it means parking would have to be at ground level, with housing starting on the second story.

To apply zoning changes to the NC zone, the Planning Commission would have to make a recommendation to the City Council and at least four to five of the council must vote in favor of it. During that legislative process, the council will decide, with the input of the community, on the land use designation and whether a commitment to provide affordable housing will accompany it. Factors such as housing rates, building height and density could also be considered in this law-making process. But as for now, city officials are weighing in on what residents want before moving forward — and like any project in Del Mar, if a housing development comes forth it would be subject to the city’s design review process after permits are issued.

“What we want is for the community to weigh in during the legislative stage, before the project stage,” Birnbaum said.

The Del Mar Planning Commission invites residents to offer input on Jan. 2 at 6 p.m. as it reconvenes a public hearing from early December on affordable housing at City Hall, located at 1050 Camino Del Mar.