DEL MAR — After a marathon debate, the City Council on Tuesday approved a downtown retail and office center and agreed to place the controversial development before voters in a special election early next year.
Despite arguments from opponents who contend that the project is too large, the council voted 4-to-1, with Councilman John Gillies dissenting, to endorse the $18-million Del Mar Plaza planned for 15th Street and Camino Del Mar. Gillies agreed with opponents that the plaza is too big for Del Mar.
On Feb. 3, voters will have their say on the development, which has been in the planning stages for three years. The election is required under an initiative approved in April that requires public approval of all large developments in the city's commercial district.
"We're real pleased that the council gave us their support," said David Winkler, one of the plaza's developers. "Of course, it's only one step along the very long path to getting this project built. . . . Now, our task is to convince the voters."
Mayor Lew Hopkins praised the project and said he hopes that the voters will recognize it as a positive addition.
"I think the plaza will provide something we have sorely needed and that is a focal point for the community," Hopkins said. "It will provide a place for people to congregate, socialize and shop."
The development will replace a shopping center that was built in the 1950s and is also known as Del Mar Plaza. That center has deteriorated since a grocery there closed in July, and several City Council members have called rebuilding the old plaza the key to the future economic health of downtown.
Plans approved Tuesday call for a terraced plaza built into the hillside that slopes upward from the eastern side of Camino Del Mar, the city's major north-south thoroughfare. The 74,600-square-foot project will include retail shops, several restaurants, a grocery and office space.
Storefronts along Camino Del Mar will be individually designed to continue the "flavor of the village" and ensure that the project does not resemble a shopping center, the developers said. Two public plazas also are featured in the plans and will serve as meeting places for residents, they said.
The project, proposed by a partnership led by local residents Winkler and Ivan Gayler, is a scaled-down version of a design approved by the City Council in April. That project was 34,000 square feet larger than the current proposal and was scrapped in face of protests that it would be out of scale with tiny Del Mar.
Although the plan approved by the council Tuesday is significantly smaller and has a density lower than those of neighboring developments, some residents still believe it is too large. These residents say the project, as designed, will exacerbate Del Mar's traffic problems, which are acute during the summer thoroughbred racing season.
A consultant hired by the city, however, concluded that the project would have no significant effects on traffic.
Plaza opponents had asked the council to place both the developers' project and a smaller alternative on the February ballot and allow the voters to choose. But the council declined, noting that the developers have said that a smaller project would not be economically viable.
The vote culminated eight hours of debate Tuesday and two earlier meetings, during which council members fine-tuned the developers' plans and attempted to increase the public benefits of the project and to keep it in harmony with Del Mar's ambiance.
With various doses of prodding, the developers agreed to limit the number of retail shops to 30, to help with placing utility lines underground, and to make improvements on 15th Street. Winkler, noting that the project has already been significantly scaled down to the financial detriment of the developers, said he feared that such changes could threaten the plaza's economic viability.
"Being optimistic, I think it's barely going to work as it is now," Winkler said. "It's by far the worst investment I've ever made in my life."
In a separate action Tuesday, the council agreed to pump revenue generated by the project into public street and sidewalk improvements and the acquisition of open space. Developers project $140,000 in revenue from sales taxes and business licenses after the first year of operation--and more thereafter.
Del Mar Plaza represents the first test of Proposition B, a measure approved earlier this year that aims at limiting growth downtown. The measure requires voter endorsement of projects that are 11,500 square feet or larger or are on parcels bigger than 25,000 square feet.