City again tries to develop transit site

SOLANA BEACH — Council members took the first step in a renewed interest to develop the train station site on North Cedros Avenue, authorizing a memorandum of understanding between the city, its redevelopment agency and the landowner, North County Transit District, at the Jan. 12 meeting.
The city has been discussing projects for the 5.6-acre lot for more than two decades. A $72 million development that had been in the works for seven years was terminated in late 2008 after council members determined the mixed-use project wasn’t compatible with the city’s general plan.
Since then NCTD senior management has been replaced and the new administration has been in discussions with city staff members and ad hoc council members Lesa Heebner and Mike Nichols.
According to a staff report, both parties agree they should work together to create a transit-oriented, mixed-use project that will benefit NCTD by increasing ridership and revenue and the city by increasing revenue opportunities and enhancing the community.
A $2.5 million grant earmarked for an onsite parking structure could expire and be reallocated if a project is not eventually approved. The city lost a $6 million grant from the state Department of Transportation when the 2008 project did not move forward.
The MOU proposes the city and NCTD work cooperatively to address key elements of a transit-oriented development that include project planning and design, developing concepts that balance community interests and character, land use, economics and providing ongoing revenue for both parties.
The agreement expires in December 2011, but automatically renews for six-month intervals unless either side chooses to opt out. There is a 60-day out clause.
Federal authorities have assured NCTD that if progress, such as an MOU, is shown for a potential project, the $2.5 million grant will remain allocated for a transit parking structure on the site.
No one addressed council during the public hearing, however, the city received e-mails from seven residents opposing the MOU.
“This document needs more work to ensure that the city’s interests are protected,” wrote Bruce Berend. “If any lesson was learned from that (2008) ordeal it was that community involvement and support is needed for any significant steps involving that property.”
Jack Hegenauer called consideration of the MOU “premature.” He said the agreement appeared to be “slapped together solely with the intent to capture a fleeting source of financing.”
“The MOU seems to give away the farm even before the negotiations have begun,” he wrote. He said the document was “unnecessarily specific about certain details,” such as paid parking and mixed use, and “entirely silent on the quality and quantity of a key ingredient — community input.”
“We obviously take all those concerns to heart,” City Manager David Ott said, noting that the MOU was revised several times, including three hours before the meeting after the e-mails were received.
The approved version emphasizes that any development must be compatible with community character, Ott said. The language is also clearer on the roles and responsibilities of each party.
Ott said his early discussions with the new NCTD management staff at times became a “history lesson.”
“I went through to try to educate them on some of the issues,” Ott said. “I have to congratulate NCTD on this.
“They realize this is something that they’ve got to work with the city and the community on,” he said. “It can’t be just something that you develop over in a vacuum somewhere and then come and say, ‘How do you like it?’ They really feel that they have to be engaged, of course with us, but also the community.”
“This is a new NCTD and it has been a lot more pleasant experience working with them,” Mayor Lesa Heebner said.
Although she acknowledged the city does want to secure the federal grant, “We did not want to save the money in an MOU that promises things that could be misinterpreted or that we didn’t want to have come back to us in the wrong way,” she said. “I’m comfortable with (the MOU).”
Councilman Tom Campbell, who worked with NCTD several years ago on developing the site, said the previous mindset was, “We really don’t care what Solana Beach wants. We’re going to do whatever we want.”
“It is really truly an amazing turnaround to finally see an agency respect a community,” Campbell said.
As part of the consent calendar at the Jan. 12 meeting, council re-established the ad hoc committee of Heebner and Nichols. That committee was created in January 2009, re-established one year later and set to expire Jan. 13.

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