Garden Del Mar now set for ballot inclusion

Cooler heads prevail after weeklong controversy

After a week filled with uncertainty over the fate of The Garden Del Mar, the mixed-use development project slated for the site of a former gas station in Del Mar, The Del Mar City Council has granted several key approvals paving the way for the project to be included on this November’s ballot. The approvals, including the project’s specific plan and accompanying exceptional public benefits were made at a special council meeting held July 28. Several other final approvals including certification of the project’s environmental impact report are expected at the council’s Aug. 4 regular meeting just four days before a final deadline for inclusion on the ballot.

The Monday approvals were a stark contrast to events of the past week. After a contentious Del Mar City Council meeting on July 21, and a subsequent e-mail letter from co-developer Bryn Stroyke that indicated the project - in the works for almost two years - was being shelved, questions have swirled over the fate of the project.

“It is with great sadness that I must tell you that The Garden Del Mar project will not be moving forward,” stated Stroyke in his e-mail of July 22.

The letter, sent to City Council members and members of a city steering committee the morning after the July 22 meeting, expressed displeasure with several committee members who spoke during the meeting’s public input portion.

Stroyke’s displeasure centered on so-called “exceptional public benefits” associated with the project’s approval process. The benefits, or “EPB,” as they are often referred to, are required under requirements of Measure B, a voter-approved measure that requires construction projects on lots over 25,000 square feet receive numerous approvals including ballot approval from Del Mar residents. One stipulation of Measure B concerns public benefits granted to the city in return for an allowance for the developers to build a project over the normal floor area ratio. The exceptional public benefits, proposed by a council subcommittee made up of Mayor Dave Druker and Councilman Richard Earnest, were met with a degree of negativity by several members of the steering committee. The committee had met over 60 times to vet the project and among other tasks, recommend proposed EPBs.

One of the benefits had the city participating in a pay parking program in the development’s underground garage and involved a monetary payment by the developers of $125,000 spread over a five-year period.

At July 21 council meeting, several steering committee members thought that payment should be in the $250,000 range, twice the amount that Druker and Earnest had suggested.

“A $250,000 upfront commitment would be preferred,” said steering committee member Art Olson. “In my personal view, the city of Del Mar is getting short-changed and the developers let off the hook.”

Stroyke said he and co-developer Nick Schaar could not afford that larger amount and without a consensus of support, especially from steering committee members, worried that the project would not be successful at the ballot box. Stroyke said he and Schaar had been “blindsided.”

But what a difference a week makes.

Last Thursday, Druker and Earnest called for a special meeting of the steering committee to try to gain consensus on the issue.

Thursday’s meeting was also a contentious one with an abundance of speakers expressing support for the project, including several members of the Del Mar Village Association, which is overseeing revitalization efforts in the city.

“What a monumental waste of time and money if this does not go through,” said Village Association board member Greg Allen.

City Council member Earnest also indicated his impatience with the latest turn of events.

“Is it our objective to get benefits for the city?” he asked, “or to give as much pain as possible to the developers?”

After several hours of discussion, it was decided the council would return to the bargaining table with the developers and propose several adjustments to the proposed public benefits.

Those discussions proved fruitful as indicated by the latest council meeting with the developers reversing their position and signing off on the benefits.

“We agree with these exceptional public benefits,” said Schaar, “and we think they are exceptional. We know we are doing more than our share, but we are happy with them.”

The six benefits approved by the council include three major pieces. One involves simply crediting the developers for including restaurant and retail aspects in the project, something not initially proposed, but included in the project at great cost to the developers.

Another involves monthly payments by owners of the project’s office/condominiums to be used towards the city’s affordable housing obligations. Last week that benefit was proposed at a $25 per month rate, but after discussion was raised to a $35 per month rate over a 30-year period. The fee is expected to raise about $373,000 over the 30 years.

The other major public benefit, and one at the center of controversy last week, involves pay parking. As approved Monday, the city will be allowed to share in three pay-parking spaces in the garage over a 30-year period with revenue expected to be in the $380,000 range. But in an either/or proposition, the benefit is dependent on the city eventually approving a citywide pay and permit-parking program. If not the developers will, as originally suggested, pay the city $125,000 over a five-year period commencing five years after the project receives ballot approval. The funds under either scenario will be directed towards city park improvements.

“We worked diligently on this,” said Druker, “but this is the best we could do.”

Druker admitted that the process could have been smoother and rued not having discussions with the steering committee before suggesting final public benefits.

“I realize this was sometimes excruciating,” he said, “but ultimately this has become a much better project overall.

“That is the way we do stuff in this town,” he added, “because we are very careful about preserving our quality of life. Our architecture, our buildings are part of our fabric.”