Murrieta council moves forward on plan to jump-start downtown

The specific plan area is divided into four districts that will have distinct focal points including the Civic Center, the creek zone, the Washington Avenue corridor and an area flanked by Juniper and Ivy streets and Jefferson and Plum avenues. Courtesy photo
The specific plan area is divided into four districts that will have distinct focal points including the Civic Center, the creek zone, the Washington Avenue corridor and an area flanked by Juniper and Ivy streets and Jefferson and Plum avenues. Courtesy photo

Murrieta officials have embraced a new vision for the city’s core, a 20-year game plan that could dramatically boost the area’s residential and commercial densities.

Council members enthusiastically approved the Downtown Murrieta Specific Plan Feb. 21, an act that sets the stage for key changes to a 320-acre area that overlaps the city’s government center, its historic district and a slice of flood-prone Murrieta Creek.

“I think it’s an amazing plan,” Councilman Jonathan Ingram extolled during the nearly 50-minuted hearing that capped a year of planning and review work. He said the plan has already attracted developer interest.

“I’m really excited beyond belief,” Ingram added.

Other council members and speakers were equally enamored with the process and the outcome. Patrick Ellis, president of the Murrieta Chamber of Commerce, labeled the effort a “phenomenal job.”

Not all the work is done, however, as city staff and a consultant must return in about two months to recommend the financial incentives that will be offered to developers, property owners and investors.

Those incentives would be aimed at spurring growth in the rectangular corridor roughly bounded by Kalmia Street to the north, Ivy Street to the south, Jefferson Avenue to the east and Hayes Avenue to the west.

No opposition surfaced during the planning process, which was kicked off with the first public workshop in February 2016. More than 100 people have attended meetings or presentations, and a similar number has written letters or responded to survey questions.

A specific plan is a detailed blueprint of the anticipated development of a designated area. Specific plans can be initiated by a developer or a government agency. Murrieta’s plan emerged out of a previous course of action that was adopted in April 1997 and last updated seven years later. That city-initiated effort was dubbed the Historic Murrieta Specific Plan.

But that plan contained flaws, and Murrieta officials opted to start over. Its shortcomings were identified in the new plan which, according to city officials, cost about $250,000 to prepare and present for approval.

“The levels of economic development and private investment have not been achieved,” stated the 70-page downtown specific plan that was recently approved by the council.

Temecula officials have shepherded two city-sponsored specific plans through the review and adoption process. Temecula had a few thousand residents when it was a sleepy enclave in the 1960s. That climbed to 27,000 residents by the time it became a city in December 1989. Now, Temecula boasts about 110,000 residents.

Temecula’s Old Town Specific Plan, which was years in the making, encouraged growth by offering such incentives as increased building densities, reduced parking restrictions and ample redevelopment funding for affordable housing and infrastructure improvements.

Old Town, which was deteriorating, became the target of city attention and funds. The city initially pumped about $6 million in redevelopment funds into that historic business district.

Temecula officials have repeatedly praised Old Town’s turnaround, saying public spending on buildings and other amenities helped spur more than $1.6 billion in private investment over the past 25 years.

The major anchor in that specific plan is the city’s $93 million Civic Center complex, which opened in December 2010 along Interstate 15 at Main and Mercedes streets. That complex includes City Hall, a parking structure, conference center and an outdoor amphitheater.

The Uptown Jefferson Specific Plan, which was adopted by the Temecula council in November 2015, could bring 10,000 or more residents to an area that is dominated by retail, commercial and industrial buildings.

That plan, which cost $250,000 to prepare and process, is aimed at reviving an aging, 560-acre business district that hugs the west side of I-15. That plan, which has yet to gain significant traction, could bring an influx of six- and eight-story buildings to a city that has few structures that size.

That specific plan also envisions a regional transit center near Temecula’s boundary with Murrieta.

Murrieta’s growth has mirrored its neighbor to the south. It was home to fewer than 2,000 residents in 1990, but growth was surging when the community became a city the following year. It boasted more than 107,200 residents in 2015.

Murrieta’s 33-acre Civic Center complex has also emerged as the heart of its bid to revive an aging residential and commercial swath west of I-15. City Hall opened in March 2008, and it is flanked by a police station, library and senior center.

Those buildings – which are connected by open space, landscaping and public monuments – required more than $20 million of city funding. A revamped fire administrative office and a community center are on the periphery.

The city owns other parcels within the specific plan area, but their eventual uses have not been determined and it is uncertain whether any will be sold to help finance infrastructure improvements, Cynthia Kinser, city planner, said in a recent interview.

“We want to make sure the city’s future needs are adequately taken care of,” she said. “We want to look years out at our future needs.”

Financing future infrastructure needs will be a challenge in the specific plan area, she acknowledged, especially since Gov. Jerry Brown years ago eviscerated local redevelopment programs.

Murrieta is weighing a range of financing possibilities, including the formation of a business improvement district and fee reductions within the targeted area.

City officials hope to offer a range of incentives aimed at attracting developers and investors. City officials hope the incentives will make it less costly for developers to build commercial and multi-family projects within the specific plan area than outside its boundary.

The key objectives of Murrieta’s plan call for robust economic development, increased pedestrian use, better mass transit services and a cohesive, attractive commercial core. It would also spur an influx of three- and four-story buildings and significant increases in residential and commercial densities.

The specific plan area is divided into four districts that will have distinct focal points. They are the Civic Center, the creek zone, the Washington Avenue corridor and an area flanked by Juniper and Ivy streets and Jefferson and Plum avenues.

Several speakers and council members have cited the need for the city to provide additional parking in the plan area, possibly via a structure similar to the one that Temecula built in Old Town. Such parking garages have also sprouted at the Promenade mall and the Pechanga casino as business has boomed at those places.

Mayor Rick Gibbs noted that a high level of interest in the plan area by developers and investors would quickly fuel the need for more parking. If that level of interest is noted, he said the city should move “sooner rather than later” to craft a financing strategy that could blend public and private funds for that purpose.

Once the development incentives are in place, city officials say Murrieta’s downtown will be primed for a surge that could begin to unfold in a few years.

“This (plan) has every element we talked about and then some,” Councilman Alan Long said at the recent meeting.

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