ESCONDIDO – During a tense hearing rife with project opponents present, the Planning Commission voted 6-1 in support of a six-story, 131-unit apartment complex across the street from City Hall alongside Maple Plaza. The project will now go before City Council for a hearing and vote.
Named “Aspire,” the facility is owned by Touchstone Communities and is slated to contain nine units for very low income households. Apartments will range in size from TK to TK square feet and the building will also contain two commercial tenants, one occupying a 1,985-square-foot space and the other occupying 2,304 square feet.
Aspire landed the permit under the city’s new Downtown Specific Plan, which is geared toward creating more high-density housing downtown. The goal of the recently amended plan is to boost business downtown, move people closer to the downtown transit center and comply with California’s Regional Housing Needs Allocation (RHNA) law.
Aspire is the second apartment complex owned by Touchstone Communities to receive a permit this summer, with “The Ivy” also receiving a green light in June.
Kerry Garza, founder and president of Touchstone Communities, cited the changing state housing landscape and its emphasis on “transit-oriented development” in making the case for the apartment complex in front of the Planning Commission. The goal, he said, it to get more “feet in the streets” to boost retail, restaurants and shops within the city’s downtown core.
“We’re looking for this project to be a marquee project for downtown to attract other developers to come downtown to do similar projects and increase the speed of the revitalization of downtown Escondido,” said Garza. The goal, he added, is to “make this a recognizable project that will put Escondido on the map.”
His son, Touchstone Executive Vice President Addison Garza, added that Aspire aspires to bring in more young professionals to experience what the city has to offer.
“Escondido has a lot of great places along Grand Avenue, great restaurants and shops, great parks and museums,” said Garza. “There is nothing that any other city has that Escondido doesn’t. So, we always thought we’d attract the kind of people attracted to that lifestyle, that can walk and use all these amenities.”
Opponents of the project sent a different message: that it would change the character of the historic downtown. It would do so, they argued, by adding in a building which does not resemble the area’s elder edifices, while also vacuuming up parking spots.
One of those opponents was Carol Rea, a member of the Escondido Historic Preservation Commission and a longtime resident of Old Escondido.
“This Aspire project is in the wrong location and the building is wrong for our unique downtown,” said Rea, adding she had concerns about increased foot traffic at nearby Grape Day Park without enough funding in the public coffers for maintenance.
Diane Gill, an employee at Flippi’s Pizza Grotto for 23 years, said she fears the restaurant could lose longtime customers due to a changing parking situation. But she conceded that having new residents downtown may bring in more customers at-large.
“If you can fill (the apartment units), we’ll be busy and I’m happy to know that, because it’ll be great for us,” she said. “But I don’t care about those new people coming to Grand Avenue. I care about the relationship I built with families for 23 years.”
Patti Thompson, the administrator of the well-trafficked Facebook group Escondido Friends, testified by reading a slew of comments from the page in opposition to the project. She also said that, as a real estate agent in the business for 27 years in the community, she does not believe Escondido will become a transit-oriented community anytime soon.
“I felt that it’s a sale and if you guys are getting information from (Garza) and taking it as advice, I’m sorry that you would,” said Thompson.
Ultimately, though, the Planning Commission was unswayed. Commissioner Stan Weiler said it came down to compliance with the Downtown Specific Plan, as well as RHNA.
“So, these are the things that are coming down from the state,” said Weiler. “And nobody seems to be pushing at the state-level. So, our hands are tied many times when we are reviewing these sorts of projects.”
Weiler also said he supports the project, saying he believes it will create “vibrancy” and in turn, bring more people into downtown.
Commissioner Jim McNair added that he sees it as an asset that there will be variety in the city’s downtown architecture.
“I don’t have a problem with the architecture,” he said. “I happen to like a variety of architectural styles in an area and not everything looking the same, like Santa Fe (New Mexico).”
Addison Garza, after the hearing, also addressed historical preservation issues.
“The project’s use of brick, stucco, wood, and metals melds textures and materials from Escondido’s past with a contemporary, relevant design that will improve the appearance of downtown Escondido and attract new residents,” he said.
He also expressed excitement that Touchstone had secured the affirmative Planning Commission vote.
“Aspire is truly a progressive project for downtown Escondido and increased community interest is expected as part of the public hearing process,” said Addison Garza. “We are fortunate that the Planning Commissioners voted based on the merits of the project – it meets the goals of the city’s Downtown Specific Plan, provides housing for a diversity of income levels, is a transit-oriented, mixed-use redevelopment project, and it will bring more activity to local businesses.”
Photo Caption: Renderings of an approved six-story apartment by City Hall in Escondido. Photo courtesy of Touchstone Communities