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Kirk Effinger: Trouble in paradise

Residents in the San Marcos enclave of San Elijo Hills have certainly had their issues lately. 

While I am considerably less sympathetic to the concerns expressed by that community’s residents over plans for a new cell phone tower and especially the proposed siting and construction of a new K-8 school in their midst — their angst over proposed revisions to development of their “Town Center” certainly appears justified.

HomeFed Corporation, the master developer of San Elijo Hills, is seeking a revision to development plans within the designated commercial core of that community that would frankly eviscerate one of the compelling reasons many who live there chose to.

The revised plans would call for more residential units than originally approved with a commensurate decrease in available retail space and confining that retail to a single street.

To be fair, the developers are facing an economic reality that argues for less retail given the relative lack of success businesses already located there are having.

If ever there was a case of desire and expectation outpacing reality, this is it.

City planners and other proponents of the New Urbanism have been touting to an evermore-receptive audience, the concepts of “walkable” communities with retail and commercial spaces located near homes. It’s an attempt to get people out of their cars thereby reducing traffic congestion and the waste of precious space for parking lots, among other things.

The construction of numerous mixed-use projects, as well as the growing preponderance of master-planned communities like San Elijo, are examples of this philosophy.

Unfortunately, the general public has not caught up with this new thought. As a result you see mixed-use projects throughout the region with empty storefronts or uses in those storefronts not in keeping with the original intent.

In the case of San Elijo Hills, you see businesses struggling to make a go of it when people are conditioned to hop in their cars to head for the nearest big box center or chain restaurant.

To their credit San Elijo residents have suggestions for the developer. The likely efficacy of those suggestions however is subject to debate.

Suggestions included building space for larger, full-scale restaurants and larger storefront space in hopes of attracting more substantial retailers.

They also thought creating some other type of non-retail uses within the center would help attract more potential patrons to the local businesses.

While these suggestions seem reasonable, it’s hard for me to believe HomeFed hadn’t already researched the probabilities thoroughly. They are, after all, in the business of providing real estate for what the market wants.

Established businesses, and especially their bankers, typically research a location and develop analysis regarding probable success based on historical data and are less enamored with projections in virgin territory.

I suspect their inability to attract the right kind of retail uses that would justify developing the San Elijo Hills Town Center stems from the so-so success of its current retailers and an overall squeamishness on the part of conservative moneymen.

To avoid the proposed changes, San Elijo residents need to make an economic case.

Kirk W. Effinger was born in San Diego and raised in Southern California. He and his family have been residents of San Marcos for the past 30 years. His opinion columns have appeared regularly in the North County Times and, later, the San Diego Union-Tribune since 1995. He can be reached at k[email protected] or follow him on Twitter at @kirkeffinger