SAN MARCOS — The San Marcos Planning Commission voted Monday not to recommend approval of the Restaurant Row mixed-use development due to a litany of concerns with parking and potential legal issues that one commissioner said warranted a “total redesign.”
The project has drawn massive public attention more than any other in the city’s recent history, with a proposed 202 residential units, a park and over 10,000 square feet of commercial space at the historic Old California Restaurant Row property along San Marcos Boulevard and Via Vera Cruz.
Originally a thriving hub of local restaurants, the site is long past its heyday, with a majority of businesses departing in recent years.
Developer and applicant Lennar Homes of California first made public its plans for the project last summer, and in the months since has held various community workshops to help finalize the design in preparation to go before the Planning Commission and City Council.
Commissioners, however, said they believed the project had been brought to them too soon. They praised several elements of the project but noted concerns related to parking and property disagreements with neighboring businesses that still need to be sorted out.
“I probably feel more nervous about this project than, quite frankly, anything we’ve had in a number of years,” said Commission Chair Christopher Carroll. “It feels like, if this project was given some additional time to bake, there’s a way for all sides to come together and get this project over the finish line. It feels like we should have waited another six to eight months.”
As an advisory board, the commission only provides its recommendations to the City Council. Commissioners voted 6-1 to withhold this recommendation but noted the council could still approve the project.
A City Council hearing for the project has not been scheduled yet, according to the city.
Apart from 401 parking spaces planned for residential use, Lennar has proposed just 100 on-site parking spaces for visitors to the Restaurant Row property. The project will otherwise rely on around 1,000 available spaces at the neighboring Sears/movie theater property to the west and the eastern portion of Restaurant Row that houses Fish House Vera Cruz, Cocina Del Charro and Buffalo Wild Wings.
Alex Plishner, senior vice president of Lennar’s San Diego division, said Lennar confirmed through a parking analysis that this is enough to meet the peak needs of all the businesses and Restaurant Row. Additionally, the planned 501 on-site spaces exceed the 477 technically required under city guidelines.
Despite this, commissioners said the project seems drastically under-parked, considering people will be accessing not only restaurants and homes but also the planned park, which includes pickleball courts and a skate park.
“This project seems woefully inadequately parked,” Commissioner Eric Flodine said.
Owners of Fish House Vera Cruz and Cocina Del Charro also said the project would violate private agreements they made with the Eubanks family — the previous property owners and founders of Restaurant Row —in the 1990s.
The agreements established shared parking plans between Restaurant Row, the two restaurants and the movie theater site, establishing a certain number of spaces on each site that can be used by visitors to the other sites.
According to John Butler, a co-owner of Fish House, one of these agreements granted his company 36 spaces on the Restaurant Row project site that are not accessible to the general public or for public use. Lennar has planned to have pickleball courts that will replace these 36 spots, as well as an easement that Butler said the business had to pay for at the time.
Butler, accompanied to the meeting by his attorney, said Lennar had not worked sufficiently with them to reach an agreement about how to navigate this.
“If the city authorizes this, the city is authorizing a taking of our property without compensation. I don’t want you guys in that position,” said Butler.
Plishner said Lennar is close to reaching agreements with the two businesses and that they have been trying to convince Fish House to give up its easement. He noted that the plans also include the option of 15 extra parking spaces alongside the park area.
Commissioners said the city could not police private agreements between outside parties and expressed frustration with Lennar for not settling the matter with other businesses before requesting approval for the project.
Approving it, they said, could lead to lawsuits against the city from affected business owners.
“I am very concerned about infringing on two longtime staples in our community and the parking issues, so I would like to see some further work done with them to mitigate the situation,” said Commissioner Diana Cavanaugh.
Other elements of the project also drew concerns, including a series of paseos planned to connect east-to-west through the Restaurant Row project and neighboring businesses. Commissioner Kevin Norris said the path “comes from nowhere and goes nowhere.”
“This is a connection to itself, and that’s it,” Norris said, noting that he would like to see it connect to other areas, such as San Marcos Creek, to increase walkability.
The residential element of the project will involve for-sale rather than rental homes, which Lennar described as “attainable” and “accessible.” The project will not include any deed-restricted affordable units, meaning Lennar will have to pay in-lieu fees to the city to support future affordable projects.
“It’s unfortunate that a project of this size does not have any affordable housing,” said Commissioner Robert Crain.
A piece of city history
Despite their criticism, commissioners, as well as several public commenters, said they understand the need for a change at Restaurant Row.
Plishner said Lennar recognized the strong community attachment to the site and the importance of preserving original design elements in the new development.
The project design was altered following community feedback to have more wood and brick elements reminiscent of the Old California style, he said. Lennar will also repurpose lumber from the site and transform the trademark bell found in the Restaurant Row signage into an element of the new playground.
“A key element of this project has been to create a sense of place,” Plishner said. “The new design references Old Restaurant Row but modernizes it for today.”
San Marcos Historical Society President Tanis Brown thanked Lennar for being “attentive to the history” and helping to preserve the site.
“I’m a little sad watching this, and I think for any of you who have lived here in San Marcos for a long time, you will have all of those memories of Restaurant Row,” Brown said.