DEL MAR — About a dozen Del Mar residents addressed City Council during the June 8 meeting to express anger and frustration about the addition of four sidewalk cafes along 15th Street.
Debby Lyons accused council members of deeding away the natural assets of the city. “You need to remember that you represent the residents of Del Mar,” she said. Speakers described the project as horrifying, objectionable and problematic, saying the cafes have substantially reduced the sidewalk area and impacted ocean views.
Nearly all were upset about the lack of design review and said there was little or no opportunity for public input. Some demanded the city issue an immediate stop-work order. But the item was not on the agenda, so public meeting rules precluded council members from addressing their concerns.
“You have hamstrung us tonight,” Mayor Crystal Crawford said. The issue was added to the agenda of a special meeting scheduled for June 15. Within that week, Councilman Mark Filanc said he was reprimanded by a resident while taking a walk.
“I was really saddened by the response that we got from citizens on what has occurred here before the end product was shown and before we had a chance to even have a discussion and a debate on this issue,” Filanc said. “It really was upsetting to me.”
During that same week, the city received about 150 letters and e-mails from residents, visitors and business owners, most supporting the sidewalk cafes. And of the nearly 40 people who addressed the council at the June 15 meeting, the majority spoke in favor of the project.
As part of the ongoing downtown revitalization efforts, council adopted an ordinance in August 2008 that streamlined the process for adding outdoor eating areas. Because there was no modification to the zoning code, plans for the sidewalk cafes would not be subject to the Design Review Board process.
In January 2009, the Parks and Recreation Committee reviewed plans for the 15th Street cafes. Since then, during scheduled council meetings, the applicants presented their plans, which were reviewed and adopted by council members.
“All of these were public hearings,” interim Planning Director Brian Mooney said. “All of these were noticed to the general public. All of them were part of the programming shown over your cable TV.”
Mooney said all plans were subject to a review process that included environmental studies, conformance with the sidewalk cafe ordinance and input from city departments such as engineering and public works. He said compared to previous conditions, the sidewalk and views are actually better in most areas. News racks and vegetation, which have been removed, limited the overall access on the sidewalks and minimized views.
“In reality, we’ve improved the pedestrian movement,” Mooney said. “We really only have one area that’s been pinched substantially.”
That area is in front of Del Mar Pizza, which seemed to draw the most criticism from residents, who also said the wall was too high. Mooney said the finished wall is, in fact, higher than the plans called for. The increase resulted from a need to make the sidewalk compliant with the Americans with Disabilities Act.
Bob Fleet, who introduced himself as the owner of that “evil empire,” said he appreciated the input. “This type of spirited debate is what makes Del Mar a great catalyst for change,” he said, adding that he built the $95,000 outdoor patio “because I thought it was the right thing to do for the community.”
“I didn’t do it because I thought I was going to get rich,” said Fleet, noting it will probably take about 10 years before he sees a return on his investment. “You’ve got to sell a lot of pizza and a lot of Coke to return $95,000,” he said. “It’s not perfect but I think it’s in harmony with the community.”
The owner of Sbicca restaurant said he had no idea residents were so upset about the cafes. “They blindsided us as much as the council,” Dan Sbicca said. “We felt like criminals. Up until then, the feedback was positive. I think the whole place looks so much better.”
Some residents who spoke at the first meeting again addressed council June 15 to say they supported the cafes but opposed the streamlined process.
“I believe all the drama and disruption could have been avoided had they gone through (Design Review Board),” DRB member Brooke Eisenberg-Pike said.
Council members agreed. Crawford suggested a somewhat modified DRB process, while Councilman Don Mosier said he favors DRB review for anything that permanently changes the hardscape.
“We didn’t miss the mark badly,” he said. “With a little tweaking, we can get this right.”
According to the ordinance, the sidewalk cafes were subject to a six-month review. Council members opted to move that up and asked Mooney to return in September with a report.