DEL MAR — For more than a decade, property and business owners, residents and city officials have been discussing downtown revitalization. So it seems fitting City Council’s first major action of 2009 was adopting a resolution to move those efforts forward.
Two proposals were presented Jan. 12 during a joint meeting and community workshop with City Council and the Finance Committee. Brian Mooney, interim director of planning and community development, recommended replacing existing zoning laws with a specific plan and stakeholder-driven, form-based codes.
“That means that there is a community process that brings all of the elements together,” Mooney said.
Under the existing zoning codes, all properties are essentially treated the same. The focus is on dimensional standards such as setbacks, height limits and parking ratios.
A specific plan must be consistent with the general plan and comply with government codes. Form-based codes, which are used within the specific plan, consider each parcel on an individual basis. They were developed in the 1990s by architects who wanted to get away from a suburban approach to zoning to create individual character. Form-based codes, which are regulatory rather advisory, designate the appropriate form, scale and character of a development and not just distinctions in land use.
“The real meat of this is the form-based code,” Mooney said “(It) works perfectly in this particular setting where we really have a very defined and confined area.
“With a community like Del Mar, which is so defined by character, I think it’s an important approach.”
The process would include an advisory committee comprised of a property owner, business operator, citizen planner, design professional, financial expert, Traffic and Parking Committee member, one at-large resident and two council members.
Before making changes, Mooney said committee members would consider a variety of technical issues, including parking, traffic, green policy, view corridors, economics and fiscal impact.
To maximize stakeholder input, Mooney is also suggesting a five-day charrette, a collaborative session to draft design solutions.
The estimated cost to develop the specific plan and form-based codes is $400,000, including $90,000 for the charrette. Council budgeted $125,000 this fiscal year for the planning process. With $75,000 earmarked from Mooney’s consulting contract, the city can apply for a matching funds smart-growth grant from the San Diego Association of Governments.
Mooney said preliminary plans could be ready for public review by the end of this year, with final plans sent to the Planning Commission and City Council for approval by April 2010, in time for the November election. Adoption of a specific plan would require voter approval.
“It’s crucial before you make a decision that you consider all alternatives,” Bettina Experton, chairwoman of the Finance Committee, said before making her group’s presentation. “When you commit taxpayer money you need to look at all possible avenues,” she said.
Experton said Mooney’s approach would take too long and cost too much. “Let’s try to be reasonable (and) do it the Del Mar way, the intelligent way,” without the unnecessary cost of consultants, she said.
Using Garden Del Mar as an example, she said the specific plan process proved to be extremely difficult and expensive for one parcel and “unfit for our times and for the whole downtown.”
As retail sales continue to decline, Experton said the city can’t wait two to four years for a specific plan to be put in place. There is “urgency to save retail sooner rather than later,” her report stated.
Experton said her proposal had the same goals as those presented by Mooney, but a different approach. She said current zoning laws are unfit for the area and don’t give property owners an incentive to redevelop. She also said there is an “immediate need” for horizontal zoning because the current emergency ordinance expires March 3.
Horizontal zoning restricts the use of properties within a designated area to certain activities or types of businesses. Del Mar adopted and later extended an emergency ordinance prohibiting nonretail businesses on the ground floor of properties that front Camino del Mar or 15th Street in the central commercial zone.
Experton also said a charrette is not needed to determine what Del Mar residents want.
Both proposals advocate repealing Measure B, a voter-approved initiative that places strict requirements on downtown developments larger than 25,000 square feet. Of the 30 or so residents who addressed council, some supported the staff recommendation while others preferred the Finance Committee plan. Members of the Campaign for Del Mar Shores opposed a suggestion that City Hall be moved to the Shores property.
“It will be extremely difficult, if not impossible, to raise any additional funds,” said Barbara Mandel Pache, campaign coordinator for group, which still needs to raise $3.5 million. She said including the Shores property in the revitalization plan would “preclude the campaign from being able to finish its fundraising goals.”
Other residents saw good and bad in both plans, but almost everyone agreed immediate action is crucial.
“I think everybody’s plan to some degree is feasible,” Nancy Sokol, owner of Sundancer Boutique, said. “My concern is what are we going to do now?
“We have quite a few empty spaces now in Del Mar and we’re going to have a lot more,” she said. “We could all be out of business in the next two or three months.”
“We are headed for trouble,” Councilman Richard Earnest said. “We have people who are hanging by their thumbs … in retail downtown. If this economy doesn’t turn … you’re going to see a lot more empty storefronts.
“I think we have to do something now and we’ve got to streamline the process,” he said.
Mayor Crystal Crawford agreed. “We need to stop talking about it and do it,” she said.
With that, council members authorized staff to apply for the SANDAG grant and begin work on form-based codes. They also appointed Earnest and Don Mosier as the council liaisons. Their first task will be to recommend the makeup of the citizen advisory committee. Agreeing with resident Rick Ehrenfeld, Mosier said he didn’t like the composition of the committee presented by Mooney.
“I think it doesn’t have enough residents on it,” Mosier said. “It doesn’t have enough people who are impacted by the plan. … I think this committee needs to grow and have more community representation.
“This strikes me as not a stakeholder committee that’s going to represent all the interests in town,” he said.