San Diego Planning Commission recommends ‘considerations’ to make One Paseo project in Carmel Valley acceptable

By Karen Billing

Just as carefully as the Carmel Valley Community Planning Board made sure it used the word “reject” in its recommendation for One Paseo, the San Diego Planning Commission didn’t use the words “deny” or “approve” when forwarding the project on to the San Diego City Council.

On Oct. 16, commission members voted unanimously that they “all agree that it’s a good project in concept but are unable to recommend to city council that they accept it as is and offer the following considerations to make it acceptable.”

The list of considerations includes 11 issues that members have problems with, including lowering building height (requesting an attempt to get to six stories rather than nine), bulk and scale, storm water and water recapture, transit and parking.

“We’re grateful for the planning commission’s thorough examination of One Paseo and unanimous recommendation to move the project forward to the city council with 11 refinements,” said developer Kilroy Realty in a statement. “Kilroy agreed at the hearing to these project improvements, which will enhance One Paseo’s benefits for the community.”

City staff has recommended approval of the project and it is expected to go before the San Diego City Council in the coming months.

As part of its 11 issues, the commission believes that the Environmental Impact Report’s statement of overriding considerations needs to be “beefed up” and “bulletproof,” as the EIR statement is required to approve any project that has significant and unmitigable impacts.

Commission Chair Tim Golba said none of the five commissioners would say that One Paseo isn’t a good project, but they have to convincingly justify taking the leap of approving a 1.5-million-square-foot mixed-use development over the 510,000 square feet of office that the patch of land on El Camino Real and Del Mar Heights Road is entitled to.

During the commission’s three hours of deliberation, there was much discussion of how One Paseo fits or doesn’t fit into San Diego’s “City of Villages” smart-growth strategy in the General Plan, which seeks to create villages that are compact and walkable with a mix of uses and a focus on transportation networks.

Commissioner Theresa Quiroz said she feels the vacant Carmel Valley lot is the perfect place to put their “city of villages” strategy to work.

“I find that there are so many community benefits that outweigh many of the problems that I can see,” Quiroz said, ticking off benefits such as new jobs, $6 million in street improvements, $23 million in developer fees, future transit plans, “more parking than actually needed,” and lower-cost housing. Quiroz said the project meets the bulk of what the city’s conservation element said it should be doing, which a lot of projects do not do.

“The community benefits vastly outweigh the traffic. It’s rare that we see a project that so clearly implements our General Plan. This is what our General Plan is looking for,” Quiroz said.

Golba was not as convinced after hearing hours of testimony on Oct. 2 from residents who said they opposed the project for its significant impacts to community character and traffic.

“If this project had transit, like light rail, this would be on consent,” Golba said.  “Can we really consider this a ‘city of villages’ project or ‘smart growth’ when it’s void of essentially any transit system? That’s the $64,000 question. I have a tough time with that.”

Golba said projects like UTC were “littered and peppered” with transit, which made them easier to approve.

Nancy Bragado, deputy director of long-range planning, said that the lack of public transit is a serious issue with the “city of villages” strategy, but because One Paseo has future planned transit, a transportation demand management program and a shuttle system “stop gap,” city staff felt that, overall, they could support the project.

Golba said he remained uncomfortable with the bulk and scale of One Paseo.

The commission had asked Kilroy for more renderings of what the office buildings would look like, requesting “unflattering directions.” Those shown of the nine stories over El Camino Real and seen from Del Mar Heights Road were effectively not flattering, Golba said, noting that he understood why they were not included in the initial presentation.

“They do present a different character to it,” he said. “These are big buildings.”

Golba said the architectural concept overall of One Paseo is “spectacular,” but it is too big a leap for him from what is in the community plan.

Representing Kilroy, Marcela Escobar-Eck said that Kilroy would be willing to work with lowering the building heights as a condition of the project’s approval. She said they could drop the heights 10 to 20 feet, but they need to maintain the employment mass.

“Bear in mind that unless the bulk and scale is there, transit will never go there,” Quiroz said. “We can’t say not to build a ‘city of villages’ because there’s no transit. At some point, we have to take that leap and build the density that will bring the transit.”

Commissioner James Whalen said that, generally, he likes the project and finds it beautiful to look at, but his biggest concern is the traffic.

He noted that if what they heard in the public testimony on Oct. 2 is true — that traffic is already a nightmare without the project and that with it, there will be queuing all the way down Del Mar Heights Road to Lansdale Drive — then it is not going to be successful.

“The transportation demand management plan needs to be a lot more robust,” he said.

Whalen said the latest thinking regarding transportation demand is moving away from carpools to more sophisticated models, such as the Uber ridesharing program that he uses three times a week so he doesn’t need his car.

Ann French Gonzalves, the city’s senior traffic engineer, said they do see the adapted signal control system proposed by Kilroy as being a benefit to traffic flow.

Kilroy is predicting 13 to 29 percent improvement in travel times along Del Mar Heights Road and a 29 to 46 percent improvement in stopped time.

Escobar-Eck said as part of Kilroy’s transportation demand program, they are willing to expand their shuttle service from morning and afternoon peaks to include lunch hours, and they are planning for ride-sharing services such as Car2Go and Zip Car on site.

Kilroy’s plan includes bike lockers, electrical charging stations and priority parking spaces for ride sharing.

Golba voiced concern about Kilroy’s Memorandum of Agreement with Caltrans on transportation improvements and how binding it really is.

“I don’t want to be sold on a fancy ‘Star Wars’ signalization, and it’s just yellow paint on the road,” he said.

Jeff Chine, the land use attorney representing Kilroy, said the city is not a party to the contract so the city cannot enforce it. But he assured the commission that the memorandum of understanding does have teeth and is a binding agreement. Kilroy has pledged $1.5 million to Caltrans in excess of its fair-share contribution, and the MOU states that if certain improvements aren’t completed in seven years, the money does not go back to Kilroy but to other transportation improvements in Carmel Valley.

Golba said he also struggles with the enormous gap in some of the traffic improvements needed to mitigate the project, such as the SR-56 widening that is targeted for 2038-40.

“We’re really betting on something way down the road, and my question is, what happens to the community in the interim?” Golba asked.

Regarding traffic concerns, Commission Vice Chair Stephen Haase said with the passage of Senate Bill 743, the state will no longer use a road’s Level of Service to determine traffic impacts. Instead it will focus on Vehicle Miles Traveled. VMT looks at whether a project contributes to the state’s goals to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and “combat climate change” by reducing miles driven, Haase said.

“I do believe that this project will reduce vehicle miles traveled in this community, but I don’t have any facts to support that claim; it’s more of a conclusion than a fact,” he said.

Commissioner Anthony Wagner also brought up neighboring Torrey Pines residents’ concerns about emergency services and response times.

San Diego Fire Assistant Chief Ken Barnes said the number of residential units added does not add to the number of calls in an area; he said the issue is always more about response times.

“Response times are not what we want them to be throughout the city,” he said.

Barnes said Kilroy’s installation of the adaptive control system, which has provisions for emergency vehicles, has removed any concerns they have about the project.

Wagner then asked the chief how much of the $23 million in developer fees from One Paseo is going to the fire department. Escobar-Eck said the fees are blended, so there is not a specific number for the fire department, but she said that Kilroy would be equipping trucks in Carmel Valley and surrounding areas with additional technology to pre-empt signals in a better way.

As the city and state grapple with severe drought, Quiroz said that they need to be assured that every single drop of water used on One Paseo is necessary. The commission also wanted assurances that the project would adhere to the state’s new stormwater regulations, which have yet to take effect.

Haase said they heard from the developer that they plan to capture water and “let it dribble out” — they would rather see gray water be re-treated and used for landscaping.

John Leppert, an engineer with Leppert Engineering Corporation, said that they could modify the design to increase on-site water storage cisterns, and that they would comply with the new regulations.

During the three-hour session, Wagner made an attempt for a further-reduced One Paseo.

Wagner said he faced a “greater good” dilemma with the project — he is concerned about the impacts, but also with what would be best for the city of San Diego. He said the project falls in line with the “city of villages” strategy, which includes moving away from urban sprawl.

Wagner said they have to create projects in the city in the 2050 image. He said by 2050, San Diego is expected to grow in population by 1.2 million. The city needs to complement the growth with 1.1 million more jobs and an 81 percent increase in multifamily dwellings — he said the city doesn’t have the luxury to hold off on that.

Wagner said the project is not a “disastrous monster of developer greed,” but rather it’s a responsibly placed project to provide more jobs and housing for San Diego, and that the significant impacts are just the unfortunate reality of dealing with 2050 growth.

In an attempt to reduce average daily trips, Wagner made a motion for a reduced One Paseo, cutting the retail in half but leaving the bulk and scale — proposing that the 100,000 square feet of retail be converted to commercial or residential use.

Wagner acknowledged that this proposal would require an additional Environmental Impact Report.

“I don’t think I can support that motion, because it fundamentally changes the project,” Haase said.

“I tend to think that the retail is more important than the office to make the project work,” Whalen said. “The Carmel Valley planning board kept the retail at the full level, which is meaningful.”

The motion failed 4-1.

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