SAN MARCOS — Developers of the rapidly-growing North City area in San Marcos were granted the flexibility to design buildings twice the height previously allowed, maximizing the limited ground area for public open space and fulfilling their ambitious vision for the city’s downtown core.
The San Marcos City Council unanimously approved this change during a packed Tuesday meeting at City Hall, granting San Diego real estate developer Sea Breeze Properties’ request for a significant amendment to the University District Specific Plan adopted in 2009 outlining development standards for the area now known as North City.
These changes include increasing the previous maximum building height from eight stories to 16 stories, reducing the number of planned hotels, medical offices, and commercial retail spaces to be built, and eliminating two designed bridges.
Sea Breeze officials said these changes allow them to better deliver on goals for the North City project by facilitating residential development with greater architectural creativity, drawing in high-quality retail and industry tenants, and creating a more attractive layout prioritizing public open spaces.
“What we need is height flexibility,” Gary Levitt, principal of Sea Breeze Properties, told the City Council. “With taller buildings, less of our land will be covered in buildings, allowing us to create better and larger public spaces, which at the end of the day, is where all the magic happens.”
The 195-acre North City project area is located south of state Route 78, north of Barham Drive and overlapping Twin Oaks Valley Road to the east and west, bordered by CSU San Marcos and Kaiser Hospital.
The project’s adjusted entitlement now allows 250 hotel rooms, 920,000 square feet of office space, 345,000 square feet of retail, and up to 31 acres of parks and urban open space. The entitlement for residential development — 3,400 residential units, including mixed-family residences, student housing and affordable housing — is unchanged from the 2009 plan.
Dozens of residents attended the council’s Tuesday meeting to speak in favor of the project, from CSU San Marcos students living in North City’s residential developments and business owners to city residents who enjoy visiting the area’s public spaces.
Around 15% of the project has been completed as of this year, with Sea Breeze already developing 266 units of market-rate multifamily housing, 866 beds of student housing in projects like Block C and The Quad, as well as the 28,000 square-foot Mesa Rim Climbing Gym, 20,000 square-foot Draft Republic Brewery, and medical and office spaces.
“Because of where I live, I don’t have to use my car basically ever. I walk seven minutes to my school at CSU San Marcos, two minutes down the stairs to my job at Copa Vida, and 12 minutes to the grocery store,” said student and Block C resident Madison Cavanna. “One of the favorite parts of where I live is all the people I’ve met in all the little sitting areas and coffee patios right outside my building. I wish for this plan to go through because I wish there were more room for all of us to hang out.”
While the majority spoke in favor of the changes, others were concerned about the increased heights changing the city’s character. Renderings showing how taller buildings could affect the skyline’s view drew several audience members’ groans of disgust.
“These city residents have done all they could to preserve the ridgeline, and now the developer wants to amend the already approved amendment? What, for a little more open space and footprint? I have nothing against pedestrian-friendly streets. It’s the fact that up to 12-stories will cut right through the ridgeline view,” resident Josephine Carroll wrote.
Some residents vehemently opposed the developer’s request to remove two planned bridges from the University District Specific Plan — a pedestrian bridge over Discovery Street running west of Twin Oaks Valley Road to the area south of Barham Drive and a fly-over bridge over SR 78 connecting north to Johnston Way.
“Deleting a pedestrian bridge is not a good thing,” said resident Debra Wilhoite. “Living in Discovery Hills, I have not had a decent bike riding lane to go to Restaurant Row from my community.”
City staff said the bridges would no longer be needed with the removal of the planned medical offices, hotels and retail spaces since this would lead to far less vehicle travel than initially projected in 2009.
They also noted the San Marcos Creek renovation project would bring two new bridges to the city, along with sidewalks, trails and pedestrian walkways for pedestrians and bicyclists.
Council members acknowledged that while the increased heights and other amendments seem like drastic changes, they will be appreciated by future generations as the city grows.
“I think we’ve realized in recent years that the Creek District is not gonna be our downtown, and we’ve realized that North City is becoming our downtown,” Deputy Mayor Sharon Jenkins said. “I believe one day, like when the college came in, and other developments that we watched happen and were unsure of, I think our grandchildren and children tomorrow will feel how lucky they are to live in San Marcos and that someone had the vision and courage to create something that really is extraordinary.”
Along with the amendments, the council also unanimously approved preliminary plans for a 12-story mixed-use building containing 482 residential units, commercial space and parking, a five-story mixed-use building holding 73 residential units, retail and office space, parking and a 26-unit development of three residential units and 23 commercial units.
However, they reminded the public that those and any other proposed developments in North City would come back to city officials for review and approval as architectural plans come together.
“We’re giving them the authority to adjust their plans and bring them back to us with those possibilities. And so it might be 16 stories, it may not be, they might look at it and say, ‘we can make a better decision if we do this.’ But I believe we have to give them the opportunity and the degree of flexibility to offer those plans, and it will still come back through the normal process,” Councilmember Ed Musgrove said.
Despite the excitement of new developments, some questions regarding transportation remain unanswered. City leaders said while they would like to increase transportation infrastructure for the projected population growth from new housing, it’s difficult to secure resources based solely on projections.
Still, they said they are discussing expanding public transit opportunities with the North County Transit District.