Temecula has struck a deal with one of its most prominent developers to construct a pair of commercial buildings on land flanking the iconic Civic Center complex.
The Town Square Marketplace, if it comes to fruition, would cap nearly a decade of uncertainty and negotiations over the fate of two city-owned parcels. The deal was hailed by council members at a recent meeting.
“I am absolutely thrilled with the way this turned out,” Mayor Maryann Edwards said. “I say: ‘Hurry up.’”
The decision to sell the lots to Bernie Truax II, who has developed land in Temecula on his own and with other groups, comes roughly one year after negotiation began on the fate of the lots that flank Main Street and together total about one acre.
Town Square Marketplace is the second project that is currently bubbling for Truax in Old Town. The other, a boutique hotel, is being simultaneously planned nearby on the site of a closed child care center.
If the marketplace and the hotel become a reality, Truax will broaden his imprint on the city and its historic business district. His first change to its skyline came in May 2014, when Truax and his family dedicated a boxy, art deco building that flanks Interstate 15.
That 67,000-square-foot building features the family’s name on a vertical sign. It was partially funded through the EB-5 immigration program, which is operated by the federal government and is intended to spur foreign investment.
The Town Square Marketplace deal would allow Truax to own and construct a pair of three-story commercial buildings. He would purchase the city lots based on a yet-to-be-done appraisal. Truax would construct public restrooms. The city will help pay for electrical upgrades in the area.
The Town Square Marketplace project would fill the final gaps in the city’s $93 million Civic Center complex, which opened in December 2010 along Interstate 15 at Main and Mercedes streets.
The 95,500-square-foot municipal complex and its connected parking garage anchor about five acres that the city cobbled together at a cost of more than $4 million. The Spanish-style complex includes a conference room, police satellite office, visitors’ center, outdoor amphitheater, a tile fountain and a mosaic mural that features historic themes.
As part of the land purchases, the city razed several aging buildings and moved the historic Alec Escallier House and its nearby barn. The remaining vacant lots, which are split by Main Street, are the focus of the deal between the city and Truax.
The hotel site is west of the Civic Center parking structure and south of the Town Square Marketplace lots. Plans call for the upscale hotel, which would blanket nearly 70,000 square feet, to feature three penthouse suites, three luxury rooms, 16 premium rooms, 21 deluxe rooms and 108 standard rooms.
The five-floor hotel would have enclosed parking and include an upper-floor pool. Hotel restaurants would range from pub offerings to fine dining.
Truax has worked throughout the country on numerous major projects over his nearly 70 years. Over a four-year period that ended in 2005, Truax helped prominent Temecula developer Paul Garrett to construct four commercial and industrial buildings at various locations in the city.
Truax has also faced such personal setbacks as two bankruptcies, repeated heart attacks, diabetes and bouts with substance abuse.
Truax has cited his Christian faith as an anchor that has helped him weather those personal storms. Truax and his wife are involved in the operation of a recovery center and home.
The projects feature a unique personnel mix. Truax has been joined by two retired Temecula officials – a former city manager Shawn Nelson and his former deputy Gary Thornhill. The two administrators had their hands on the tiller through major growth spurts that rippled through the city.
Nelson worked for Temecula about 21 years as community services manager, interim city manager and city manager. He formally stepped down as Temecula city manager in December 2011. He subsequently worked as a management consultant for the city of Menifee.
Nelson is also a founder of Jacob’s House, a Temecula-based nonprofit that provides hospitality housing for families with hospitalized loved ones. That facility traces its roots to the October 2006 traffic collision death of Jacob Nelson, the 24-year-old son of the former city manager.
Thornhill was one of Temecula’s first key employees when he was hired in 1990 as the city planning director. He played a pivotal role for the city as its population and regional importance surged in the decades after it incorporated in December 1989.
Thornhill was involved in city redevelopment efforts that cobbled together the Civic Center lots and set the stage for its development. Thornhill was eventually promoted to community development director and finally to deputy city manager, the post he held when he retired in 2006.
Thornhill helped run the city of Hemet and held other posts outside Temecula following his retirement.
Thornhill said Town Square Marketplace and the hotel will become new milestones in the transformation of Old Town from a sleepy commercial area dominated by antique stores into a vibrant cluster of stores, public amenities, apartments, offices, bars and restaurants.
“This is very exciting to me,” Thornhill said in a recent telephone interview. “It’s like seeing a dream come true. This is exactly what we envisioned when we designed the Civic Center.”
Thornhill noted that the timeline for Old Town’s transformation started in 1998 when a developer’s plan to open a Western-theme entertainment hub fizzled. That developer’s vision ultimately “would have been a disaster” for Old Town, Thornhill said.
The developer’s departure prompted the city to hire a consulting company to craft a development roadmap for Old Town that fused civic uses with private investment.
Aging structures were razed, many historical buildings were kept in place or moved, and taller, mixed-use buildings popped up. A smattering of developers constructed projects. Bill Dalton, a developer who boasted an extensive track record with the city, constructed four buildings in Old Town.
Three of Dalton’s projects tapped city redevelopment funds for a share of their financing. The state has largely eliminated that public funding tool, and Truax cannot seek city help to build his hotel or Town Square Marketplace ventures.
Both projects must receive city planning commission approval before they can proceed. Thornhill said Town Square Marketplace and the hotel are on similar tracks in the planning process.
He said the development team hopes to have its construction permits in place later this year. As a means to boost efficiency and cut costs, it is anticipated that both projects would be built at the same time.
Thornhill said the hotel project is more complex than the Town Square Marketplace buildings. It is possible that one or both projects would be finished by the end of 2018, he said.
Thornhill has told the Temecula city council that the projects will further burnish Old Town’s reputation as a regional attraction and the city’s center.
“I think you’re going to be blown out of the water when our team brings in the proposals in a few months,” he said. “There will be nothing like it between Riverside and San Diego.”