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Around 2010, the city of Vista began some municipal soul-searching.
The City Council looked to redevelop underused areas – like a suburban shopping plaza called Breeze Hill Promenade – into places that could serve neighborhoods and bring some life to the streets.
The city was working on a new General Plan, a vision to guide its future, with a goal to replace car-oriented development in certain areas, with mixed residential and retail buildings oriented toward the street to improve walkability and public safety, and to fight climate change.
Most cities define “mixed use” as a combination of residential and commercial development. Vista officials, thinking more about how to kick-start development downtown, allowed developers to decide how much residential or retail they would build, including none.
“A lot of this talk happened six years ago or more, and SANDAG and others were telling cities that this was going to work for your transportation hubs, and it’s what property owners will be looking for,” said Councilman John Aguilera.
In November, the City Council voted 4-1 to allow the strip mall to be demolished and replaced with 88 apartments. The decision might be a window into what could happen if the city continues to cede control over defining mixed use.
Community advocates say Breeze Hill’s fate is an example of what they call the “mixed-use loophole.” They say building residential projects in mixed-use areas is a good deal for developers who get to build at higher densities (40 units per acre in mixed-use, compared to 21 in residential areas) and don’t have to provide as many parking spaces. They’re less of a deal for community members who don’t get the advantages true mixed-use projects might bring – like being able to get groceries or coffee on the same block where they live.
Having given developers wide latitude to define how much commercial space projects would include, Council members said they had no authority to request any changes to Breeze Hill: State law limits conditions on projects that meet local zoning requirements, and specific or objective policies in the General Plan.
The property’s original owner requested it be designated mixed use, and so Breeze Hill was identified as a specific “opportunity area” in the General Plan – a starting place in Vista for smart growth principles to take hold, like creating shopping and employment opportunities in walkable neighborhoods, close to transit. But replacing a suburban shopping center with apartments, instead of the envisioned mix of housing, retail and office space, does little to increase the walkability or commercial opportunities of the area.
“The residents of Vista are being cheated out of the vision they helped to create during the general plan update. Mixed use was envisioned as a way to get cars off the road and make communities more livable where resident can walk to services and public transportation,” Steven Jantz, a member of Vistans for a Livable Community, a group formed in response to the Breeze Hill development, wrote in an email. “This leaves new residents without services and the benefits of ‘smart growth’ as touted in the general plan as the reason for this zoning.”
Breeze Hill is only the most recent example of the loophole, but nearly three miles of Santa Fe Avenue and Vista Village Drive in downtown are built out and have aging commercial property. That lends to the potential for much of that land to be redeveloped from commercial to residential, rather than done in the vision of a walkable mix.
Community Development Director John Conley acknowledged there is no mechanism to prevent properties in mixed-use zones from being developed into apartments or homes.
“We look at mixed-use broader than ground floor with shops and residential above,” he said. “We were coming out of the recession and wanted to see things happening. It’s happening and maybe we’ve gone too far, but we’ll see (what the City Council says).”
On Jan. 10, the City Council will address the wide interpretation of mixed use, and Conley says that sparked a flurry of applications requesting residential projects, both in existing mixed-use areas and outlying places that are looking for zoning amendments, before the rules potentially change.
The City Council doesn’t appear ready to put limits on how much of a mixed-use project should be dedicated to commercial, though.
Councilwoman Amanda Rigby voted against Breeze Hill and says the cumulative effect of these types of development isn’t recognized by the full City Council.
“There needs to be more vision and foresight,” said Rigby.
Aguilera believes the flexibility has been a great way to redevelop old commercial areas and bring people downtown, but would only support a scale for how many parking spaces would be required, depending on the amount of commercial included in a project.
“I look at (a property) and say it would be a great place for it. But then I look across the street and there’s a huge shopping center that is maybe 60 percent full.”
Citywide, the vacancy rate is 5.7 percent, which is below the five-year average of 7.3 percent. But retail space has sat empty at Paseo Point, a new mixed-use project that was built on South Santa Fe Drive, next to the historic downtown, shops, and the transit center.
Conley agrees that there’s no danger yet of placing too much residential downtown – there are only a few developments in what was otherwise an all commercial area – but what was originally meant to spur growth downtown should be checked.
He also cautions against applying strict residential standards downtown, because the urban downtown should have its own character and not every site needs to fit one model of mixed-use.
“Context is important,” he said.