San Marcos Goes to Town : Small Community Lays Big Plans Based on New University and City Hall


Ask the mayor of San Marcos where his burgeoning young town is headed, and he talks about getting his hands on a used monorail from Disneyland to link a new City Hall, now on the drawing board, and a new state university, also on the drawing board.

San Marcos, perhaps best known historically for its dairy farm, chicken ranch, rock quarry and wholesale nurseries, is quickly and clearly maturing. The town is like some skinny little country boy sprouting in his adolescence with signs of sophistication and brawn and a vision of what he’s going to be when he grows up and moves off the farm.

“We’ve been a city waiting to happen,” Mayor Lee Thibadeau says, “and now, we’re finally happening.”


If Thibadeau sounds like a rah-rah civic cheerleader, little wonder--given where the city’s been and where it’s going.

When San Marcos incorporated in 1963, the first City Hall was upstairs from the mayor’s barber shop--plenty large enough during the first year of municipal autonomy to house the one and only city employee. The second--and current--City Hall is a modular building that previously was used as an Escondido bank office.

Even today there is no downtown, no shopping mall and no movie theater--and, some say, no clear civic identity. The community center is known, simply and appropriately, as The Barn, and that kind of says it all.

Hodgepodge development during the 1970s saw generally small and unspectacular housing tracts and apartment developments, strip commercial development and mom-and-pop manufacturing and industrial businesses housed in metal-sided buildings alongside California 78, which runs through the middle of town like an unwanted varicose vein.

But as other communities filled up, the outside world discovered San Marcos. Today it explodes with growth and development that gets Chamber of Commerce officials and real estate agents giddy.

Indeed, San Marcos was the fastest-growing city in San Diego County during the 1980s, nearly doubling in population from 17,479 residents in 1980 to 33,835 last January. That 93.6% population increase led North County’s tumultuous growth in the ‘80s, which saw Carlsbad grow by 74.8%, Vista by 72.3% and Escondido by 53.8%.


And San Marcos is just now finding its stride.

* It is still only one-third developed, given a general plan that calls for an ultimate population of 110,000 residents. Just last year, the town’s first master-planned residential community opened, and today there are plans at City Hall for thousands of new homes to be built during the next decade.

* Construction of a civic center, with a City Hall, county library and community center, is scheduled to begin next summer on a 59-acre parcel at Twin Oaks Valley Road and San Marcos Boulevard.

* Construction is to begin in the spring for the Cal State San Marcos campus, the first new state university to be built in 25 years. Ultimately, the campus is expected to attract as many students as San Diego State University, which, with 35,500 students, is the system’s largest and which spawned the San Marcos campus because of its own successful North County satellite center.

* Having successfully developed a 60-acre retail warehouse center anchored by the Price Club, Home Club and Levitz Furniture--a retail complex so rich with sales-tax revenue that it pays 15% of the city’s operating costs--the city now says it is ready for the ultimate stamp of successful suburbanhood: a shopping mall.

* The city already has spent more than $50 million in redevelopment funds during the last five years on a variety of public works improvements--and plans to spend another $323 million during the next five years, mostly to improve streets and flood control in addition to paying for the new civic center.

* City Hall staff members are working with local businesses in setting up employer-sponsored day-care centers and in encouraging employers to implement staggered working hours to reduce peak-time traffic congestion in town. At the same time, the city has paid for the installation of computer terminals in the deputy sheriff’s cars that patrol the city to reduce the amount of in-station paper work, and joined the city of Vista in paying for a Sheriff’s Department street-level narcotics enforcement team to target drug traffickers working the two cities.

* The city has endorsed the construction of a privately operated trash-burning power plant adjacent to a county garbage dump on the city’s rural south side, arguing that the controversial project is environmentally and logistically more feasible than continued reliance on landfills.

All this, in a community that grew by snores and yawns during its first 115 years of existence.

The first settler, Army Maj. Gustavus Merriam, came in 1875. He was a Civil War veteran who left his general store in Kansas in favor of this area’s drier climate for the sake of his wife’s tuberculosis. Merriam settled in the northern reaches of the Twin Oaks Valley, where he planted a sprawling vineyard, grazed cattle and raised bees.

German immigrants who had settled in Olivenhain, to the south of San Marcos, worked for Merriam and many moved into the valley.

By 1890, with expectations of the railroad coming through the small settlement out of Oceanside, a general store, a blacksmith and a hotel opened as the town’s first commercial cluster. The train took a slightly different route, however, and the would-be downtown found itself sidestepped by several blocks. New businesses opened along the railroad and from that time on, San Marcos never knew where its downtown was.

Even though a land company mapped out the town for parcel sales, the place was slow taking off, mostly because the ground-water supply was poor and there was no imported water. By the mid-1950s, with the population only a couple thousand, two of the largest businesses in town were the Hollandia Dairy and the Prohoroff Poultry Farm, whose 2 million chickens made it one of the nation’s largest egg suppliers.

By 1960, piped-in water from the Colorado River arrived in San Marcos, and the population jumped to nearly 10,000--a fivefold increase over 10 years.

In 1963, while Escondido to the east and Vista to the west began annexing toward one another, San Marcos in the middle decided to incorporate out of self-defense.

“Escondido had a shortage of industrial and commercial land and they thought the property along the railroad tracks in our direction would be an appropriate playground for them to latch onto,” said Bill Bulow, a barber who was elected the city’s first mayor when San Marcos incorporated.

But the city had an abysmal tax base, and public works improvements were virtually non-existent as the city began to grow around existing, narrow streets.

In the 1970s, City Hall welcomed any and all development to help subsidize the cost of operating a city, and low-end housing developments, attracted by relatively cheap land, thrived. But the community soon backed itself into a corner: the growth outstripped the city’s ability to handle sewage, and a building moratorium was ordered. When the moratorium was lifted in 1978, the country was in a recession. In 1983, when the economy improved, builders returned to San Marcos and the city, wanting to limit its growth, issued only a handful of new construction permits every three months. Builders literally camped in front of City Hall for the right to build even 10 or 15 houses or apartment units.

That building-limitation plan backfired.

“The larger developers, who needed 100 or more units for their projects to pencil out so they could pay for parks and other amenities, couldn’t get the permits they needed from us,” City Manager Rick Gittings says. “They stopped dealing with us and went elsewhere.”

Instead, the city played host to small-time developers building a few units here and there, but not contributing to the cost of widened streets, new parks or other community amenities.

The building protocol in San Marcos was again amended: Today, a developer can build as many homes as local zoning laws permit--as long as he pays for the streets, parks, schools and police and fire protection needed to serve the new residents.

The first builder to take the city up on its offer was the Baldwin Co., which is building 1,550 single-family homes near Palomar Community College. Project manager Cindy Shaffer estimates that each homeowner will pay between $1,700 and $2,000 a year in fees for up to 30 years to finance, among other things, a new community park, an elementary school, a fire station and the added cost of police protection required by the new residents.

“San Marcos is supportive of development as long as it pays its fair share for the necessary public facilities,” she says.

Adds Bill Snow, another developer who has worked in San Marcos: “It’s easier to build in San Marcos than elsewhere. They’re tough, but they’re fair. You know what they want of you when you go in. When you’re dealing with them, it’s a level playing field with no funny bounces.”

The growth is bittersweet to longtime property owners, such as Arie DeJong, whose family began the Hollandia Dairy in San Marcos in 1952. DeJong figures the 1,000 cows now grazing alongside Mission Road will be relocated to the San Joaquin Valley within five years because maintaining 130 acres of grazing land in the middle of San Marcos is no longer financially feasible.

The family is making plans with the city to turn the property into a master-planned residential, commercial and industrial development.

“I’m sure we’ll make a big profit,” DeJong says. “We’ll do very well. But I’ll hate to see the bulldozers come in and tear the place down for housing development. I’ll end up living in a nice home surrounded by other homes, and I’m not used to that. I’m used to living in a nice home surrounded by dairy cows.”

The city’s future focal point is not dairy cows but the new university, which will be erected at the site of the one-time chicken ranch.

The property was first purchased by developer Stephen Bieri in 1985, when he and his partners acquired 556 acres of land along the southern reaches of Twin Oaks Valley Road.

Bieri’s company planned a residential and commercial development there, but was persuaded by the city to sell 305 acres to the state for the campus after San Marcos beat out Carlsbad in spirited competition to host the 20th California State University campus.

Bieri says he sold the land to the state at a loss, but figures to make up for it in the end while he develops the surrounding land with residential, commercial and business park uses.

“San Marcos, with Palomar College and now the university, will be the educational hub of North County. In time, 40,000 to 50,000 students will be coming here,” Bieri says. “That offers us some intriguing opportunities.”

The next step, Bieri says, is in determining what sort of businesses to lure to his development. That will depend, he says, on the university’s emerging character, and whether it becomes a high-tech engineering, computer science or bio-medical resource center, or a more traditional liberal arts and teaching school.

Two hospitals--Kaiser and Scripps Memorial--are already considering building medical facilities in the university neighborhood.

The university hasn’t made up its mind what academic direction to take, but its president, Bill Stacy, says it’s clear in either case that the emerging town-and-gown partnership between the city and the school will benefit both.

“Typical town-and-gown relationships are cordial at best, but usually the town doesn’t want the university to interfere as a major player in the community,” Stacy says. “But we hear San Marcos saying, ‘We want you to be the essence of our city.’ That’s a wonderful start.”

Stacy and others say that, hard-core academia aside, the university is sure to provide an element of culture now missing in San Marcos, whether in theater, opera, music or art.

Says Mayor Thibadeau, “The university is giving us an opportunity to develop a major focal point, something we don’t now have.”

San Marcos will probably never have a downtown, Thibadeau says. Instead, officials talk of the “heart of the city,” a long-range commercial, professional office and residential development plan that will be anchored, on the north, by the new City Hall and, on the south, by the new university campus.

If Thibadeau has his way, the two will be linked by a monorail. The mayor wants to buy a piece of the existing Disneyland monorail system, which is being replaced by a newer one.

“What’s wrong with a people mover?” he asks. “Heck, people pay to ride them at Disneyland.”

Is the idea a bit far-fetched? “Well, maybe that’s an advantage of being a smaller town,” he says. “We don’t know any better.”