One of downtown San Diego's largest property owners, the Santa Fe Pacific Realty Corp., unveiled plans Friday to build its first residential project in the center city, a striking, 387-unit apartment complex spread over 2 blocks across from the 13-story Embassy Suites hotel.
If approved by Centre City Development Corp., the agency in charge of downtown redevelopment, the $25-million project, called Seabridge, would be about 1,000 feet from the bay, the closest such residential development to the water downtown.
The Spanish Revival architecture of the building, similar to the former police station nearby, won praise from several CCDC board members, but the board refused to endorse the project outright because of concerns about the structure's 500-car parking garage and the lack of street-level activity around the perimeter.
But an upbeat Pam Hamilton, CCDC's executive director, said afterward that she expected the problems to be easy to resolve and that she will return the project to the board in two weeks, on Nov. 17.
Among Seabridge's most palatable aspects to redevelopment officials are that it would be the first rental residential project in the agency's domain to be built without public subsidy.
As now designed, Seabridge would cover about 2 acres bounded by G and F streets, Pacific Coast Highway and the railroad tracks. It actually consists of two buildings separated in the middle by California Street. But the street would be closed to motor traffic and left as a minimum 40-foot-wide pedestrian walkway, allowing people to stroll through the project.
The two buildings would be joined near the roof by a pedestrian bridge, a byway allowing tenants to reach facilities such as a rooftop swimming pool. Sizes of the mostly one-bedroom apartments would range from 515 square feet to 875 square feet and rent in the neighborhood of $630 a month, a modest enough rate to attract young singles working downtown, according to the developer.
Parking would be provided on two levels, with the bottom partly underground. Rising on top of the garage would be four floors of apartments reaching about 60 feet in height. Seabridge's most striking design feature would be two 84-foot-tall towers flanking the G Street entrance to California Street.
Although both CCDC board members and the agency's staff like Seabridge's overall design, it will require exemptions from design guidelines in place for the Marina Redevelopment Area. And that is where the project stumbled Friday.
There are two main concerns. One is that some board members think that more of the parking garage should be placed underground, thus reducing the height of the street wall and placing first-floor tenants closer to the street than the current 14 feet. Second, Seabridge has fewer entrances on its perimeter and no street-level retail space as required by the Marina design standards.
Santa Fe and its development partner, JMB Realty Corp., maintain that it will cost at least $1 million to lower the garage in the ground, in part because of added construction costs but also because a deeper excavation will expose the underground water table.
The problem then would be possible toxic pollution, according to Alan I. Jaffee, JMB's senior vice president. He said there are gasoline and possibly other contaminants underground. CCDC is familiar with underground pollution due to a perplexing hydrocarbon plume of several hundred thousand gallons lying under several blocks the agency is trying to develop.
Jaffee said he is not only concerned about cleanup costs but also with the delay that would be involved. He said his company experienced a significant delay because of underground pollution at a Huntington Beach project and would avoid a repeat at almost all costs.
It is for that reason, he said, that the garage occupies the entire first level of the project, though it will be screened from view.
But some board members, such as Patrick Kruer, say they must be persuaded that lowering the garage is so expensive as to make the project economically unfeasible. Kruer said it would be hypocritical of CCDC to criticize others--such as the Port District and Seaport Village--for not building underground garages, and then not follow its own advice.
"I think the issue is one of sending the wrong message," he said.
Referring to the lack of enough entrances into the project from its perimeter--there are 10 instead of the required 14--and its absence of retail space. Jaffee and his architect said they have tried to design the complex so that it isn't a continuous blank wall. Providing more entrances would require removing several apartments and redesigning the parking garage. Having the garage at street level is what removes any retail space.
CCDC's staff says Santa Fe can meet the retail space requirement by adding ground-floor shops at the Embassy Suites across the street. CCDC chairman John Davies, who called the proposed exemptions minor, said it is "ridiculous" to require retail space when there is no demand and in the face of much vacant retail space in new downtown buildings. Davis also said that Seabridge is smaller than what Santa Fe could legally build on the site.