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Consultant: Scrap San Marcos “Main Street” concept

Nearly 10 years ago, the San Marcos City Council approved a plan that would transform the area due south of San Marcos Blvd and San Marcos Creek into the downtown the city never had, teeming with new housing, retail and office space.

On Tuesday, a consultant hired by the city told the City Council to scrap those plans.

Rather than a retail-driven “Main Street” concept, the consultant team recommended the city retool the plans for the Creek District into one driven by multiple housing types that dramatically reduces the retail component and eliminates the office component altogether.

The consultants recommended the city focus on bolstering San Marcos Boulevard, the city’s main drag, to make it the city’s downtown commercial, retail and restaurant hub, which would complement the housing in the creek side area.

“You already have a Main Street, it’s San Marcos Boulevard,” said Gary London of the London Group, which performed the feasibility study presented at the Tuesday morning workshop. “The question is how can you complement San Marcos Blvd. and make it the main street that it is, with a little TLC.”

The City Council, which asked its staff to revisit the Creek District plans last year, voted unanimously to have staff return with a work plan that shows what it would take to change the plan and a timeline that would take the plan from concept to the council for a vote, with the public involved each step of the way.

Some of the council expressed disappointment the dramatic shift being proposed by the consultant, but said the new direction might be necessary to ensure the Creek District can actually be completed.

“It’s definitely deflating,” said Councilwoman Rebecca Jones, who was a member of the Creek District specific plan task force from 2005 to 2007. “But I still think we can come up with something that the community can love and will still be an asset to the community.”

The original Creek District plan approved by the City Council calls for 2,300 homes, 1.2 million square feet of retail space and 590,000 square feet of office space. Under the changes proposed by the London Group, the amount of retail in the entire project would be pared down to 140,000 square feet.

The reason for the proposed changes: the city can’t support that much new commercial, retail or office space, they consultants said.

“This is what we think the opportunity is for the Creek District moving forward,” London said. “To make the district much more highly residential-centric and disperse the commercial opportunity, which is far less than what was articulated in the earlier versions, to places like San Marcos Blvd. and the University District.

“There is a little bit of commercial, not the kind of commercial that was planned earlier,” London said.

London’s team said that in order to support the 1.2 million square feet of proposed retail in the Creek District plans, the city would need to build 18,000 to 20,000 new homes in the area – roughly three fourths of the city’s existing housing stock.

“You’d basically have to build a mini city here,” said Nathan Moeder, a London Group principal who presented half of the team’s presentation.

Also, the consultants said, adding that much retail along the new Creekside Drive would pit the street against the existing commercial and office spaces along San Marcos Boulevard, which could adversely effect the businesses there.

And given the fact that North County already has an over supply of retail, trying to create a retail district that would draw customers from other cities around the region is a risky proposition for both the city and developers, Moeder said.

The London Group’s proposal calls for the Creek District plan to focus on apartments, town homes and detached single family housing that is denser and more urban that what is seen throughout suburban North County, but not as tall as in other places such as downtown San Diego.

This housing, Moeder said, would attract so-called “millennials,” people ages 20 through 36, some of whom are looking to own a home but might be priced out of the traditional single-family housing market.

Further drawing on the San Diego comparisons, Moeder said that the proposed change would take the Creek District more in the direction of popular San Diego enclaves North Park and South Park, and less in the direction of Little Italy, which is much more reliant on high-rise apartments and bigger retail outlets.

“Those are smaller scale communities that are very popular and gentrified,” Moeder said. “That is where we think the opportunity is, by making (the Creek District) a place where people want to live and will pay to live there.”

The retail that could be built within the district, Moeder said, would be smaller boutiques, coffee shops and other businesses that could survive independent of a main anchor tenant, which the current plan is heavily reliant on.

But the council raised several questions, including how would the proposed concept fit in with plans for commercial and residential development along the north side of San Marcos Blvd.

Answers to that question, and others, would be answered during the process of amending the plan, city officials said. Any changes to the plans would require considerable support from the community, which debated the existing project for nearly two years before the council approved it in 2007.

Jones, who was involved with those plans, said she understands that a lot has changed since the plans were approved – with much community support – back in 2007. In addition to the Great Recession, which slowed retail growth to a halt for several years, the Internet has changed they way consumers shop, imperiling so-called big-box retailers in the process.

“Back in 2007, it all sounded so good, and at the time we were talking about that we were told by consultants that it would work,” Jones said. “Today is a very different scenario and so many things have changed. We have to change.”

But Jones said she hopes the city can reach a compromise that maintains some parts of the current plan, including some of the trail and walking features that make it attractive to families.

“My thought is that I hope we can take the plan that was presented and take the plan we originally had and figure out how we can augment the two,” she said. “I don’t want to have a plan that is completely economically unfeasible and will end up with something that can never be built.

“I don’t see any reason to require retail that is going to sit vacant, which is not good for us,” Jones said. “We do need the commercial to support the density that we are discussing, but if it is not going to work (as currently proposed, than it is not going to work.”