The Coast News Group
Renderings of a proposed six-story apartment in Escondido which is being opposed by the Historic Preservation Commission. Photo courtesy of Touchstone Communities

City Council Nullifies Contested Mid-Rise Apartment Across from City Hall

ESCONDIDO — “Aspire,” a mid-rise apartment proposal owned by the company Touchstone Communities, was denied a permit in a 3-2 vote by City Council, the culmination of months of debate over the project.

Slated to sit across the street from City Hall alongside Maple Plaza, the six-story, 67-foot and 131-unit proposal had come under fire by historic preservationists and those concerned about parking alongside the city’s downtown businesses. But it had also drawn the support of segments of the local business community. The city’s newly minted liberal majority—Mayor Paul McNamara, and City Council members Olga Diaz and Consuelo Martinez—voted against the proposal.

If approved, the apartment complex would have sat on top of what is now known as Parking Lot 1, currently used by both city staff members and downtown visitors. During the public comments portion of the meeting, many raised concerns about the complex encroaching upon downtown parking. But Principal Planner Bill Martin and Touchstone Communities President Kerry Garza pointed to the city’s Grand Avenue Vision Project, which will add far more spots in the downtown area by creating diagonal spots in the coming years.

And while several public commenters cited parking concerns, even more pointed to the proposal as being in the “wrong location” as it relates to preserving the downtown core’s historic character. It was this concern which tipped the balance against the project.

“My concern is that I approve a project that I find questionable and uncomfortable and out of character with the space that it’s being suggested in,” said Diaz. “That cannot be undone. Once that thing is built, it’s going to be there for the next 100 years or more. So, I think this is the only opportunity we have to shape the way downtown looks and how it evolves.”

Diaz further said that she supports increased urban density and infill housing development, noting the perception that she is “going against her own standard.” But she said that the unique circumstances surrounding this particular proposal led to her eventual “no” vote.

“Aspire” had marketed itself as a form of transit-oriented development, located about a half a mile from the city’s transit center and North County Transit District SPRINTER train station.

Kerry Garza, President of Touchstone Communities, said the goal was to get more “feet in the streets” and people patronizing the historic downtown shops, bars and restaurants “to take Escondido to the next level.” He further said the former 4-1 Republican-dominated City Council led by Mayor Sam Abed and city staff had instructed Touchstone to “bring us a building that puts Escondido on the map.”

“We don’t want any everyday building,” Garza said he was told. “We want something classy and this is going to be a feature community in downtown Escondido.”

John Masson, one of two current City Council Republicans who were part of the former Republican majority alongside City Council member Mike Morasco, agreed with Garza. Masson said he believed “Aspire” could be a “gamechanger” for the city’s downtown core and the “best shot in the arm” it could get.

“The buzzword of the decade is smart growth, so this is the epitome of smart growth,” said Masson. “Get as much density as you can in the smallest space you can next to transit and next

to where people shop and play at the same time. We have Grape Day Park to play, we have downtown to shop at, we have transit within walking distance. It’s perfect for this kind of project.”

Morasco added that he has lived in Escondido since the 1960’s and lived through many community changes. Through it all, he posited his belief that the city has maintained its sense of character and “charm.”

“I’ve seen a lot of change and a lot of different attempts at projects, at businesses, whatever they may be,” said Morasco. “Some successful, some not so successful…There’s a lot of things in Escondido that have changed over time and it has not necessarily destroyed the charm of Escondido, because we heard that word a lot tonight.”

He said many people also said at the time that the construction of City Hall would “destroy the charm” of Escondido, but that he does not believe “anyone thinks twice of it anymore.”

Martinez said the city and all cities in the region are “under pressure by the state to have a lot of housing,” but that cities also have the “right to reflect and push back when we need to” on housing projects. And, she added that she worried about the lack of affordable units “Aspire” would offer, currently slated to have nine such units.

“One of the things I’m concerned with is the people who are living here now, a lot of people are living together as multigenerational families because there isn’t enough housing,” said Martinez. “And sometimes the projects that I see that are checking all these boxes, with density and all of that which I think is great, aren’t necessarily affordable to the folks who live here.”

After a long evening of deliberations, the first year Mayor McNamara capped off City Council responses on a simple note and called for a vote. He said it was a “great building” that he’d “like to see somewhere” in the city at some point, but that he didn’t “believe it is the right building, in the right place, right now.”

Addison Garza, Executive Vice President for Touchstone, said that the “council members who rejected the project had no substantial reason for doing so” in response to the vote.

“We are incredibly disappointed by the City Council’s decision tonight,” he said. “After recently receiving Planning Commission’s 6-1 recommendation for approval, and City staff recommendation for approval, we thought we were nearing the finish line on a project that has taken three years to process.”

He added that the company is “weighing all options” on “Aspire” looking forward.

“Saying ‘this is not the right project, for this property, at this time’ is not only illogical and incomprehensible, it is not adequate grounds to reject an infill, transit-oriented, density bonus project, that is consistent with the City’s General Plan and Downtown Specific Plan— per the City’s own staff report.”

But Carol Rea, who spoke against the proposal at the meeting and serves as a member of the city’s Historic Preservation Commission—which had recently voted against the proposal—left the meeting exalted over the City Council decision.

“I’m pleased with the outcome and very pleased that the Council members listened to their constituents,” said Rea. “It was said so many times tonight, but it’s the wrong project for the wrong place.”