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After 35 years in public education as a high school English teacher and university administrator, I began my second life as a freelance writer, winning San Diego Society of Professional Journalist awards for my opinion columns in the former San Diego daily North County Times and the San Diego Free Press.

Monday, October 3, 2016

Vista's Mixed Use Zone: A Developer's Dream

Imagine a city where developers are able to choose from among 57 different business enterprises for a downtown site, either for a single use or any combination thereof. Here's a small sample from the ala carte menu.

Bank or financial facility
Multi-family dwellings
Recycling collection facilities
Retail shops and restaurants
Check casher
Pawn Shop
Service stations
Bail bond businesses
Bargain-basement stores

Add to that list temporary uses for carnivals and circuses, a farmers market, and seasonal sales of pumpkins and Christmas trees.

Welcome to Vista, California, where the purpose of its Mixed Use Zone is "…to allow for a mix of residential and commercial, or just residential, or just commercial (standalone) land uses."

It's a developer's wet dream.

One developer has already received the go-ahead from the city's Planning Commission to build a high density, 41-unit apartment complex on a 1.5 acre site in a scenic downtown area known as Creekside.

He's now proposing an 88-unit apartment complex on a 3-acre site near City Hall, where he'll demolish a 22,000 square-foot building that once housed shops in the Breeze Hill Promenade Shopping Center.

Silvergate Development Manager Ian Gill introduced his plans two years ago. They've been met with strong opposition from a group calling themselves Vistans for a Livable Community, who say plans for Creekside and Breeze Hill violate twin goals listed in the Land Use and Community Identity Element of the city's General Plan: smart growth and sustainable development.

Opponents say the developer's plans should be denied because of their high density, which would create unacceptable additional parking demand, traffic hazards, the violation of smart growth goals, and the abandonment of balanced commercial growth.

At the City Planning Commission's September 6 meeting a motion to disapprove the Creekside plan was interrupted by the assistant city attorney, who claimed a state law required it to be approved unless there is documented evidence the project would have "a specific, adverse impact upon public health or safety." Following his opinion, Commissioners voted to approve the plan. That decision has now been appealed to the City Council by Deputy Mayor Amanda Rigby.

There's a solution to the developer's standoff with his opponents. He could build at both sites to conform to the density and building height requirements in the city's Multi-Residential Zone, like those governing the 300-unit Charlemont condos located near his Breeze Hill project, reducing density by limiting dwelling units to 15 per acre.

That would bring the number of Creekside apartment units down from 41 to 23 and the Breeze Hill plan from 88 to 45. The first floor of all buildings could be leased office and retail space, creating actual mixed use sites.

By doing so Silvergate could satisfy the land use and community identity goals in the General Plan: retaining and expanding the city's economic base, addressing housing needs, and maintaining the safety and convenience of roadway users.

But follow the money to see why that would be a non-starter with the Deep Pockets.

Pathfinder Partners LLC, a San Diego-based real estate investment firm, bought the Breeze Hill Promenade Retail Center for $7.35 million in August 2014. Here's what Mitch Siegler, Senior Managing Director of Pathfinder wrote in his April 2015 report to investors about the Breeze Hill purchase.

The center includes two free-standing buildings – one a national drug store chain and the other a national bank…Red hot demand for these. We’re planning to sell them and recover our entire investment. And we’ll be left with the 10-year-old, floundering inline retail center in back – for free. Highest and best use isn’t retail but residential. We hope to demolish the retail center and build 100 apartments.

That explains why the retail center floundered. Property owners were in no hurry to help it succeed. The Breeze Hill property changed to mixed-use in 2012 at the owner's request, when the city updated its general plan.

As one shop owner put it in a September 19 letter to Mayor Judy Ritter and the Vista City Council, "This was not a failed shopping center, it was a shopping center that was failed by its owners."

Her shop was located there from 2009 - 2014. Beginning with an application to rent a space, she described her experience with the leasing agency. After waiting two months for a reply, she called them back. It took another six months before the lease was hers.

The agency promised her several other businesses were on the way, the center was filling up. But over five years only three new businesses moved in.

She realized the owners had no intention of renting out the surrounding shops when one of her customers, planning to open an exercise business there, tried to contact them about renting a space. Her calls were never returned.

After the Planning Commission voted to table the Breeze Hill project until it gets an Environmental Impact Report, Silvergate's agitated Ian Gill drafted a letter to John Conley, Director of Community Development/Engineering, asking for an appeal of the Commission's action. Conley agreed to schedule the appeal, citing development code, section 18.04 .5 0B .2, reading: "…all decisions of the planning commission are appealable to the City Council."

City planners have told those opposing the projects the goals in the city's General Plan are only "guidelines," and that Silvergate's plans dot all the "i's" and cross all the "t's" in the building codes of the mixed use zone. Fair enough. But they may also be leading Vista backwards down a path toward the zone-free urban decay reminiscent of the 1950's.


  1. The appeal on this case to overturn Planning Commission approval for mixed use was filed by Deputy Mayor ? This will be a case that deserves public attention.

  2. The appeal on this case to overturn Planning Commission approval for mixed use was filed by Deputy Mayor ? This will be a case that deserves public attention.

  3. Does this sound familiar? You bet...coming to a town/city near you. Thanks again Richard for pointing out the obvious and digging deep for the details to support your story. Makes one wonder where all the other so-called journalists are.

  4. The mixed use zone was created during the update of the Vista General Plan in 2012. Many parcels of land were rezoned with this designation including the Breeze Hill Promenade shopping center located near the county courthouse and across the street from another high density 221-unit apartment project (Avalon) that was developed under the mixed use zoning code.

    The proposed Breeze Hill Project uses the “residential only,” up to 40 units to the acre portion of the mixed use zoning code. We believe this project violates several Land Use and Community Identity (LUCI) policies and goals in the General Plan including density, parking, height and community character. If normal multi-family standards applied, the developer would be required to provide 40 more on site parking spaces, more landscaping and larger set backs than the mixed use zoning requires. The architecture is box-like and does not fit in with the adjacent homes.

    On-street parking is next to non-existent and the shop owners in Breeze Hill Plaza are already feeling the effects from Avalon residents illegally parking in the shopping center. Visibility on Breeze Hill Road is poor in several areas due to curves and cars on both sides of a 30 foot street. People routinely make u-turns in the middle of the street to get to So. Melrose Drive causing dangerous traffic conditions.

    Breeze Hill once enjoyed a sense of community character and the potential for more shops, jobs and services in the Breeze Hill Promenade shopping center. Now Vista neighborhoods are a target for developers who want to build strictly residential developments using the mixed use zoning.

    This zoning has been used for these purely residential projects which have been built or approved in about the last two years: Avalon (221 units), the Alexian (407), Skye Apartments (290) a project on S. Santa Fe and Mar Vista (96) and S. Santa Fe and Cypress (22), Creekside - under appeal (41), and the recently submitted Monarch project (179) on the site of the old Sycamore Creek mobile home park. These projects total more than 1200 units and do not have a commercial component. There are a few other smaller projects that are in the works that are using the mixed use zoning for purely residential developments. Typical mixed use would be more like 65 percent residential and 35 percent commercial.

    The city has now acknowledged that the unintended consequences of the mixed use zoning need to be addressed and have scheduled it as a public hearing at the Oct. 18 Planning Commission meeting.

    Unfortunately, any changes will only apply to future projects going forward. It does nothing to fix the density issues that have been created or the loss of services and jobs caused by tearing down a barely 10-year old shopping center. And, there is no undoing what the Avalon project did to Breeze Hill.

    Please plan to attend the Oct. 18 Planning Commission Meeting at 6 p.m. at the Civic Center to share your ideas and concerns about Mixed Use zoning. It is time for residents voices to be heard on this issue that is changing the face of Vista.

    Vistans for a Livable Community is a local resident group dedicated to maintaining and enhancing the quality of life in the city of Vista, California.

  5. Thank you for that excellent summary of the MU issues, VLC! Best of luck in bringing about change.