Planned Carmel Valley MERGE project draws praise and criticisms


There were a mix of opinions on the proposed new mixed-use project MERGE at a meeting held by the developer on June 12. MERGE is a proposed retail, commercial and residential project for the corner of Carmel Country Road and Carmel Mountain Road.

Some in attendance expressed frustration and a fair amount of anger at the workshop format of the meeting, wanting more of an open discussion where everyone could hear the questions asked and answers given.

“It’s like you don’t care,” one resident told developer Gary Levitt.

Levitt said the purpose of last week’s meeting was always intended to be just an informational presentation; he said the appropriate place to debate the project will be at the Carmel Valley Community Planning Board, where they will vet the project in subcommittee and regular board meetings in the coming months.

Levitt said he is very proud of what he is proposing and will adjust the plan where appropriate. He said he has a vested interest in the project being successful not just as a developer but as a neighbor. He has lived in the area since 1983, is the chair of the Del Mar Mesa Community Planning Board and also owns the Torrey Hills Shopping Center down the street from the proposed project.

The community plan was developed for the area in 1990 and established what could be done with the space on Carmel Country Road and Carmel Mountain Road — it is entitled to 200 multi-family homes and 4 acres of neighborhood commercial center. In 2004, Pardee Homes developed a plan for Highlands Village and built 169 townhomes and was granted permits for a 28,000-square-foot strip shopping center.

“I was lucky enough to buy the property,” Levitt said. “It is a wonderful property but it had a lousy plan.”

Levitt said the plan was no better than any other strip center and was not designed to be a good neighbor to homes directly behind the project. The backs of box-store retail, including alleyways and loading docks, would be facing the fronts of people’s homes on Dry Cliff Trail.

“I think the community deserves something better than what’s planned,” Levitt said. “I’m not going to build another strip center.”

Around the perimeter of the project, the residences, businesses and offices will front the street to provide a “welcoming environment,” Levitt said. There will be plenty of green spaces, including a central garden and wide sidewalks all around — a total of 1.6 acres of pedestrian and open space.

Levitt said he wants to build a place that will attract an authentic coffee shop and artisanal restaurants that people can walk to, with indoor and outdoor dining. He said he would like to build unique office and retail spaces that would attract interesting tenants.

“If you want to attract great tenants you have to build great places,” Levitt said.

Levitt developed ground rules for the design of MERGE, which was taken on by Safdie Rabines Architects. The rules were that they don’t change the community plan or zoning, don’t generate any more car trips than the approved project, that it aims to be certified LEED Gold for its green building standards and provides pedestrian-friendly linkages through and around the property.

Levitt said the retail component, 13,000 square feet, is equal to the space from Torrey Hills Pet Hospital to the Subway restaurant at the Torrey Hills Shopping Center. He said the office space, 22,000 square feet, is about half the space of the office space at Torrey Hills.

The 21 upper floor luxury flats will be located above the retail, each unit having its own outdoor space.

In earlier meetings with the Carmel Valley Community Planning Board, a lot of concern was expressed about the design of the project, particularly the townhomes and that they clashed with the community’s character. As a result, their look has been softened. Gone are the flat roofs, replaced with pitched roofs and the architect has used materials picked up from the look of surrounding homes, according to Levitt.

The 10 townhomes, which will range up to four bedrooms, will have a private porch, yard and two-car garages, and will be set back 26 feet from the curb.

“I’m an interior designer and I believe Carmel Valley needs more innovative designs and spaces like this,” said Dalia Feldman, a resident of Carmel Country Highlands. “In my opinion, the way they’re designing this, it’s going to be a great place to gather, it’s not your typical center. It has an amazing design and it brings something new to the community. I know a lot of people are concerned about traffic and the architecture but I think people are concerned because it’s so innovative and new for Carmel Valley.”

In the workshop format, people expressed concerns about the project being too dense and too “downtown.”

One resident loved the new plan because it wasn’t all retail, another resident said it was not enough retail.

“We want the retail, we don’t want the commercial,” said neighbor Ann Marie Divine.

One resident expressed concern about increased traffic being dangerous in the residential area where he said a child was recently hit by a car. He also said he fears people will park on the surrounding residential streets rather than parking in the interior of the project.

Levitt said that the project will not generate any more trips. The approved project was estimated to attract 1,848 trips a day and MERGE is estimated to bring 32 less a day with 1.816 daily trips. MERGE also offers more parking with 65 surface spaces and 150 in an underground garage, Levitt said.