ENCINITAS — The Encinitas Planning Commission punted approval of the proposed revitalization of the shuttered Pacific View Elementary School site to April, citing a lack of details in the plan.
A group called the Encinitas Arts, Culture and Ecology Alliance wants to transform the school site, which has been closed since 2003, into an arts, culture and ecology center called the Pacific View Academy of the Arts.
The commission voted 4-0 last week to postpone its decision until April to give the group a chance to address concerns raised by commissioners and neighbors about the parking, lighting, number of events and noise.
“I need some more details, and I’m not comfortable approving this until I get them,” Commission Chairman Glenn O’Grady said.
The plans call for the conversion of the former classroom buildings into a multi-faceted venue that would include a museum, educational institution, library, theater, multi-purpose auditorium, administrative offices, storage, a gift shop, outdoor snack bar and café, community/demonstration gardens, minor agricultural/horticultural
production and the retail sales of various ecology and sustainability-related items.
Plans also call for the project to be completed in two phases: Phase 1 would include basic facility improvements, disabled access and restrooms that would allow the group behind the project to slowly begin programming. Phase 2 would include the full implementation of programming, improvements to the parking lot area, new fencing and interior site landscaping.
The parking plan would require an on-site valet service in addition to self-service parking to reach the required number of spaces to meet the programming demands.
All of the commissioners present said they liked the vision put forth by the coalition of residents, stakeholders and visionaries, which the City Council selected to steward the transformation of the school site in 2015.
But they said the details of the plan were lacking key information, such as how large and how frequent would farmers markets and “outdoor sales” be, was there a lighting plan for the site, how would they control noise and would the totality of the changes warrant an environmental review.
John DeWald, the president of Encinitas Arts, Culture and Ecology Alliance, said the framework presented was broad by design.
“We made the broader framework and structured it so we don’t overuse the facility and don’t impact neighborhood substantially, which makes it little more complicated,” DeWald said. “This was the challenge staff has had in terms of trying to control it and give us enough flexibility.”
Several neighbors echoed the concerns of the commission.
At least one neighbor has expressed concern that the city is advancing the project without a proper review of the impacts to the neighborhood, specifically dealing with noise, traffic and parking.
The proposal calls for one large event a month with up to 300 people attending, four “small” events per month with up to 100 people, and up to two farmers markets per week. The proposal doesn’t provide details about the events, but city’s staff would have to approve the events.
Felix Tinkov is an attorney who represents Don McPherson, who owns a multi-family complex adjacent to the property. He said the city is approving the project in a piecemeal fashion in order to avoid environmental review.
At the meeting, he doubled down on those concerns.
“I don’t think anybody can look at what is being proposed and the folks behind it and think badly of anything, these are volunteers, these are folks that are looking to do a pretty amazing thing for the city of Encinitas,” Tinkov said. “But that does not change the law or what the law requires.”
According to the staff report, the city claims the project is exempt from environmental review based on several grounds: the project is using existing facilities and converts them from one use to another and that the project is an in-fill development.
Tinkov said the totality of the changes on the project grounds are not minor, and should be subject to some review.
“The way the city is attempting to avoid determining the impacts is by not saying anything now, but when (the Alliance) wants to have events, they will go to the city for a permit that’s granted over the counter, not at a Planning Commission meeting like this.
“Overall, the project might be a great one for the city, but they have to follow the right process,” Tinkov said. “They are trying to get every use under the sun permitted but they don’t want the environmental review that would come with it.”
Encinitas Arts, Culture and Ecology Alliance, a conglomerate of local entrepreneurs and luminaries, calls the venue the Pacific View Academy of the Arts, and has been working on it since 2015, when the city chose them over another bidder for the rights to spearhead the restoration efforts.
The city purchased the defunct campus from the Encinitas Union School for $10 million amid criticism that the city overpaid for the property. The criticisms lingered into the 2016 election, when then-mayoral candidate Paul Gaspar criticized the council for the purchase.
The controversy surrounding Pacific View has waned in the years following the 2016 election, as Encinitas Arts, Culture and Ecology Alliance engaged in various fundraising efforts to get their plans off the ground, and site cleanups to beautify the beleaguered campus in the interim.
The alliance received $150,000 from the county toward maintenance efforts at the school site and another $70,000 from the Surfing Madonna Oceans Project.