DEL MAR — Sympathetic to the business community, City Council introduced an ordinance amendment at the Jan. 20 meeting that will restrict the allowable uses of street-front buildings in the downtown area, but provided itself flexibility when addressing existing nonconforming activities.
The new horizontal zoning regulations, which were recommended by the Planning Commission, would limit businesses in street-level storefronts along Camino del Mar and 15th Street to restaurants, retail, personal services and cultural establishments such as museums and art galleries. Office space will be allowed in other parts of those buildings.
“This all is part of the bigger revitalization program,” interim Planning Director Brian Mooney said.
“The overall focus of this is to try to create a vibrant pedestrian-oriented retail commercial corridor along Camino del Mar — create, maintain, revive that historic element … and enhance opportunities for sales tax revenue.”
During the past several years, retail space has increasingly been converted to office space. In April 2007, concerned about the resulting impacts of that trend on pedestrian flow and sales tax revenue, council adopted and later extended an emergency horizontal zoning ordinance that expires March 3. Three businesses have since been granted relief.
Mooney said at least half of the businesses in the downtown commercial zone should be uses allowed under the horizontal zoning regulations. However, office space currently accounts for more than 50 percent of the area. After the amendment is adopted, Mooney said about 27 properties would be considered nonconforming.
The toughest issue council faced was how to treat those existing businesses.
“Creating a pedestrian corridor is an important thing,” Mooney said. “Not allowing those existing businesses to continue sends the wrong message.”
Mooney spoke with more than a dozen property owners and business operators. Several said they didn’t want any changes at all.
“A number of them said, ‘We don’t care what you do as long as you exempt my property,’” Mooney said. “I have a number of letters … that say, ‘My property isn’t appropriate for retail/commercial.’ And then there were a handful that said, ‘We think (horizontal zoning) is a good idea, but just make sure you grandfather those existing uses.’”
Those sentiments were echoed by several landowners who addressed council.
“I am not in favor of the ordinance, and more importantly, I’m looking for an omission for our building,” said Grant Fletcher, who owns the L-shaped building at 1237 Camino del Mar, behind Cafe Del Mar.
Fletcher said his property has unique setbacks and very little walking traffic. “It does not lend itself well to retail uses,” he said. “To date, we’ve had a couple. They have, in several cases, failed. We have one actually on its way out right now.”
Fletcher said three spaces on the ground floor “can be but probably shouldn’t be” used for retail. “Frankly, the synergy is just not there,” he said.
“We are faced currently with horrific economic conditions,” said Robert Fields, whose commercial building at 1130 Camino del Mar would be in conformance under the new regulations.
“We’re in the fourth inning of this economy … and retail is suffering,” he said. “Landlords are renegotiating their leases down. … I would just hope you would be as flexible as you can … because I think we need your help.”
As a clothing store, Ryan’s Collection also would not be affected by the new ordinance. But faced with “difficult challenges” because of the economic downturn and a recent move from the plaza to 1431 Camino del Mar, co-owner Ryan Gonzales supported exempting some buildings, including his.
“Just changing the rules doesn’t mean that you’re going to attract more retail,” Gonzales said. “For us it’s going to be a hardship to continue our business through the end of our term.” Gonzales would like the option to sublet part of his property to Dr. Paul Chasan, a La Jolla plastic surgeon whose business would not be in compliance with the new law.
Chasan is seeking to open an office in Del Mar. “I think that my practice would have benefit,” he said. “I’m planning to put a considerable amount of money into the building.” Chasan said his practice attracts a wealthy clientele that would spend money in Del Mar shops and restaurants.
Councilman Richard Earnest said the goal of the new regulations is “to create an environment that will somehow incentivize property owners to make investments in their property.”
“We can’t force it, just like we can’t force them to rent to any particular business,” Earnest said. “That’s not government’s role. Government’s role is to try to create an environment that stimulates that kind of economic activity.”
One thing Earnest said he did not support was taking no action at all. “I don’t want to sit here and watch the town die,” he said.
The ordinance, which will likely be adopted at the Feb. 2 meeting, permits the continuation of nonconforming uses as long as the building is not abandoned, enlarged or modified. Under certain circumstances, property owners will also be allowed to seek relief from the zoning regulations.