|By David Fried, North County Times,
Knight Ridder/Tribune Business News
May 17, 2006 --- ESCONDIDO -- As they do with each proposed development in the city, Escondido's two primary planning panels have reviewed a $100 million-plus hotel and condominium project for the heart of downtown. And both groups reached the same conclusion: Hotel, yes; condos, no way.
Now, the final decision on whether to approve the project ---- and invest millions of dollars in it ----- rests with the City Council, which appears poised to go against the recommendations of the panels charged with vetting projects before they reach the council dais.
A majority of council members Wednesday said that, barring any major financial changes to the proposed deal with La Jolla-based C.W. Clark Inc., they were leaning toward supporting the developer's plans to build the hotel and an eight-story condominium project at the corner of Valley Parkway and Maple Street.
"People talk about, well (the condo building) doesn't belong here and you're going to dwarf downtown," said Councilman Ed Gallo. "This is not going to be a detriment. It's going to be a help to downtown."
Clark has proposed building a seven-story Marriott hotel on 1.4 acres between City Hall and the California Center for the Arts, Escondido. The site is currently a public parking lot.
Across Valley Parkway, on a separate parking lot, Clark wants to build an eight-story building that would house 127 condominiums and four levels of parking, including two underground.
The council will vote on the proposal at a meeting May 31.
Local merchants, the city's Design Review Board and Planning Commission have all embraced the hotel project, but have said an 85-foot condo building is too high a price to pay for the amenity.
This week, the commission overwhelmingly rejected the condominium building and parking garage as too large for historic, low-rise downtown.
The commission's vote echoed the opinions of the design board, which had voiced the same concerns, in almost the exact same language, the three times it considered Clark's project over the last nine months.
Moreover, the groups argued that the project does not create enough new parking to handle the added traffic the development would generate.
Clark's project would include 222 public spaces, 21 more than currently exist on the two lots.
Council members said that the panels' conclusions were important guideposts for their own decision. But they said the groups didn't consider every aspect of the development, including the financial benefits the project is anticipated to reap for the city.
"The commission's job is land use, that's their total scope," Gallo said. "As a city council ... we're in charge of the whole city, so we have to look and say, 'OK, what does this (project) do for the entire city of Escondido?'"
City officials expect the project to generate upward of $1.8 million annually in property, sales and hotel tax revenues. And the council has made bringing residential projects to downtown a priority for boosting local businesses.
Last year, the council agreed to spend at least $18.4 million to cover the costs of building parking for the hotel and condominiums. The city is still negotiating final figures and a land lease agreement with Clark.
Mayor Lori Pfeiler said the city's ongoing dealings with Clark meant there was some expectation that the project should work. But she stressed that it is important to resolve any community concerns, such as height and parking.
"Based on the time and money commitment the city has put into this," Pfeiler said, "we want to bring a great project to the city that can be supported by the community."
Council members Marie Waldron and Sam Abed also said the benefits of the project outweighed any negatives, and that they would continue to support the project so long as the cost to the city doesn't swell too much.
"It probably is not the ideal site," Abed said. "However, (the project) is the perfect fit for our vision to create urban living downtown."
Councilman Ron Newman, however, said that, while he fully supports the hotel project, he has doubts about whether the condos are appropriate.
"It's changing the character of our city, and once you change the character, you're not going to get it back," Newman said.
Craig Clark, president of the development company, said council approval doesn't mean much if people don't like the final product.
"I want people to talk about it and tell their friends about it," he said after the Planning Commission's decision Tuesday.
Clark added that his company might make some modifications to the building designs before the council meeting.
If Clark's project is approved, it would not be the first time the council has gone against the recommendations of the Planning Commission and Design Review Board in giving a green light to a controversial project.
Last year, the council unanimously approved a hotel project along La Terraza Boulevard that the commission had swatted down weeks before.
And in February, the council unanimously agreed to rezone part of a planned 186-acre business park to accommodate Palomar Pomerado Health's new hospital, an idea resoundingly rejected by the commission.
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Copyright (c) 2006, North County Times, Escondido, Calif.
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