A dormant development debate – apartment densities – resurfaced at the Temecula City Council Tuesday night.
A decision on a proposed 120-unit project was delayed for at least a month amid renewed concerns over whether the proposed increased density was offset by community amenities. The hour-long review was reminiscent of similar debates that occurred prior to a development industry meltdown five years ago.
“That’s the real question that’s gnawing at me – the density levels,” Mayor Chuck Washington said at one point in the review of a project that would flank Mira Loma Drive and Rancho Vista Road near Vail Elementary School.
Councilman Jeff Comerchero noted that the city about a decade ago crafted a so-called growth management plan that called for lower-density projects to be approved unless a developer could identify some broader benefits to the community.
In an unusual twist, most of the concerns raised over the project came from the owners of two nearby existing apartment complexes. One of them, Robert Oder, was flanked by a pair of attorneys who cited traffic, environmental and density concerns. Some of those issues prompted Patrick Richardson, Temecula’s director of development services, to recommend a delay that will open the door for more study to occur.
Oder also complained that the name of the proposed project would be the same – Mira Loma Apartments – as his existing complex.
“I think a substantial amount of misrepresentation might be involved,” he said.
A.G. Kading questioned why his Temecula Ridge apartment complex was required to pay for costly community amenities more than a decade ago and the Mira Loma project is not.
“From what I see there isn’t any (amenities),” Kading said. “It’s a real issue.”
Six speakers told the council that they opposed the project or had concerns. Two audience members spoke in behalf of the proposed complex.
The development plan calls for eight three-story residential buildings consisting of 40 one-bedroom units and 80 two-bedroom units. Those buildings, as well as a 2,660-square-foot recreational center, would fill much of the 7.2 acre-site that contains the shuttered Carden Academy facility.
A seasonal stream that swells during heavy storms separates the project site from Vail Elementary School. Besides the nearby school, the development site is surrounded by existing homes and apartments. The proposed density change would require a general plan amendment.
In 2007, the council approved a zoning change for the site that would have allowed the construction of 62 single-family condominiums. That project would have a density of 8.4 units per acre, according to a city staff report. The proposed project would nearly double that density.
Oder and his attorneys questioned the depth of the city’s environmental review. They also detailed concerns over the project’s density and its potential drainage, parking and traffic impacts.
Councilman Mike Naggar noted that Oder’s attorneys may have been “telegraphing” the possibility of litigation, and he suggested that several key issues be examined further before the project returns to the council.
City planning and public works staff countered many of the concerns before Richardson recommended a continuance. Stuart Fisk, a city senior planner, said the higher densities would be acceptable because the potential impacts of clustered apartments would be similar to the spread-out condominium units that are allowed under the existing zoning.
Naggar identified a possible amenity – the development of a public trail alongside a portion of Empire Creek – that could help the apartment complex qualify for the increased densities. City staff and the developer will explore that possibility as some of the issues are examined. The council is expected to receive an update on the project or possibly review it again on Dec. 11.
The debate over development densities – which frequently flared during the city’s explosive growth boom – could resurface if an economic rebound sparks new demand for housing and commercial space.
Those debates could be repeated because most of Temecula’s large open tracts have been developed and future planning reviews will largely focus on so-called “in-fill” development. Many of those remaining development sites are flanked by existing neighborhoods.
A city planning document that cost about $130,000 and was crafted over a three-year period examines growth goals and identifies measurement tools and public projects that are intended to guide the city through the year 2030.
That Quality of Life Master Plan estimates that Temecula’s population, which has roughly quadrupled since the city incorporated in December 1989, will reach 145,000 as future growth and annexations occur.
For their part, Oder and Kading said they will look on with interest as city staff grapples with the identified issues and the developer of the proposed apartments picks a new name for his project.
“We’ll see how it works out,” Oder said in a Wednesday morning telephone interview.