SAN MARCOS — A mixed-use project planned for the historic Old California Restaurant Row site is moving forward with unanimous approval from the San Marcos City Council, just one month after a rough start with the Planning Commission.
First introduced last fall and designed by Lennar Homes, the project includes plans for 202 housing units, over 10,000 square feet of commercial space, and a 1.5-acre park with a skate park and pickleball courts at the site along West San Marcos Boulevard.
The once-thriving dining and entertainment hub, established by the Eubanks family in the 1970s, has seen a steady decline, with the pandemic killing many businesses and several leases not renewed, leaving the site all but empty. The land was sold to San Marcos Restaurant Row LLC in 2020.
Mayor Rebecca Jones admitted during the council’s Dec. 12 meeting that she was initially concerned about the project erasing the legacy of the beloved site, but that seeing Lennar engage the community in the planning process and commit to preserving elements of the Row’s original design alleviated her fears.
“If someone tried to come and pretend Restaurant Row never happened, that would change our community. The fact that you listened but also responded was really important to our community. Kudos for that,” Jones said. “I think that this will end up being something really good for our city.”
Council members’ approval went against the Planning Commission’s recommendation in early November, which advised the council not to approve the project. At the time, the commission indicated a litany of concerns about inadequate parking on site and the project’s potential violations of private agreements with neighboring businesses.
Specifically, owners of neighboring restaurants Cocina Del Charro and Fish House Vera Cruz said the project as planned would infringe upon easements granted to them via private agreements with the Eubanks family in the 1980s and 1990s.
Lennar Division President Ryan Green told the council that in the month since the commission hearing, they added 17 parking spaces onsite for a total of 518 and that they reached an agreement with Cocina del Charro about their parking.
Discussions with Fish House owners about its easement are ongoing.
“The Planning Commission vote was a shock to us,” Green said. “But we didn’t rest on our laurels, and we heard what they asked of us.”
John Butler, co-owner of Fish House, said he has yet to come to a solution with Lennar. Butler claimed that the planned site of the park will eliminate 36 parking spaces granted to Fish House that are not permitted for general public use.
“Approval of the project as designed, and specifically the location of the park, is, in our view, a taking of property without fair compensation,” Butler said.
City staff and attorneys for the project said no documentation has been produced identifying the exact location of the 36 parking spaces and that the project would still allow the joint sharing of parking spaces between the project site, the Sears/movie theater property to the west and the eastern portion of Restaurant Row housing Fish House, Cocina Del Charro and Buffalo Wild Wings.
Councilmember Sharon Jenkins said she would have liked to see Lennar engage the neighboring businesses earlier in the process.
“I wish you had worked as hard before the Planning Commission happened as you did after… because I think that would have taken a lot of angst away from any people,” Jenkins said
Apart from Butler and his attorney, the remaining 15 public speakers made comments in support of the project at the meeting. Resident Becky Garrett said the city desperately needs the pickleball courts the project will provide, and 11-year-old Sierra Nevada said she would look forward to visiting the park.
“I love to play outside and roller skate and skateboard,” Nevada said. “I think you should vote yes.”
All housing units will be market rate, and the developer will pay an in-lieu fee to the city rather than providing affordable housing onsite. Councilmember Maria Nuñez said she was disappointed by the lack of affordable units but otherwise supported the project.
While the new Restaurant Row project plans to have eateries in the commercial space, they will be around 1,000 to 3,000 square feet, much smaller than the traditional sit-down restaurants that have been at the site.
Green said Lennar still has to choose tenants for the space, stating that “we want local, we want organic, we want eccentric.” However, they have promised a spot to Ascend Coffee Roasters (formerly Old California Coffee Company), which currently operates at the southwestern edge of Restaurant Row.
Council members said they hope the project will also lead to further positive development along West San Marcos Boulevard, including at the neighboring lot housing the movie theater.
“It’s going to be a starting point for sprinkling some life along the boulevard,” Councilmember Mike Sannella said.