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Amazon seeks to build a distribution center in San Clemente

An Amazon Fulfillment Center in Birmingham, Ala.
An Amazon Fulfillment Center in Birmingham, Ala. Amazon is reportedly looking to develop a 20-acre site in San Clemente’s business park for a new distribution center.
(Jenny Jarvie / Los Angeles Times)

Amazon.com, Inc. is eyeing a 20-acre site in San Clemente for a new distribution center, a major regional development that would fill the city’s already busy business park.

The new proposal is shrouded in secrecy, with City Hall adhering to what they describe as a confidentiality agreement with the private real estate company Greenlaw Partners LLC. But Greenlaw is a go-to real estate company for Amazon, and it is targeting the vacated San Clemente site for a 105,000-square-foot warehouse that would host what developers describe in city documents as an “e-commerce delivery station.”

For the record:

1:22 PM, Jun. 10, 2021An earlier version of this story misidentified Arrow Santos as a marketing manager at Kidder Mathews and the blog he contributed to as a company blog.

A city official also confirmed he was working on the project when a resident emailed him opposing “the Amazon distribution center.”

Amazon won’t acknowledge the proposal and instead issued a standard statement about not publicly discussing its future roadmap.

The development comes at a booming time for the online shopping giant, and it follows other key expansions in Southern California such as a delivery station in Mission Viejo, the purchase of the former Orange County Register headquarters in Santa Ana and the purchase of a 31-acre site in Irvine, where the company already has a huge distribution center.

The proposal to City Hall initially only required approval from the Planning Commission, but San Clemente Senior Planner Stephanie Roxas told TimesOC on Tuesday that Greenlaw now plans to seek a development agreement with the City Council. Such agreements require more scrutiny and can involve negotiations about project amenities and developer contributions.

“One thing we’ve been hearing from our City Council members is they really want to understand what the community benefits would be as part of this development proposal. Usually, that’s very subjective,” Roxas said.

Roxas said city staff “expressed concern” about the confidentiality agreement, as did City Council members.

“We didn’t really see it as being in the applicant’s own interest to keep everything confidential,” Roxas said. “But ultimately, it’s their decision.”

Roxas said the city hopes to host a public “study session” with Greenlaw in July that will include a presentation by the company’s traffic consultant “to be a little more transparent about what’s in the application, because there is a lot of misinformation happening there.”

The road to approval in the seaside town of 65,000 could be bumpy. San Clemente residents have a history of opposing development, and some already are rallying against the plan.

Residents approved the Distrito La Novia-San Juan Meadows project 10 years ago, but that aspect of the project is reined in by uncertainty.

“The response we’ve seen has been overwhelmingly negative,” said Arrow Santos, a marketing assistant for the real estate company Kidder Mathews. Santos first reported the proposal last month on a blog for an individual Kidder Mathews broker. In addition to general opposition, he said he’s fielded calls from people “asking why we’d bring attention to it.”

“Which to me kind of speaks to what the true intentions are,” Santos said. “I think if the big business players thought this would be beneficial to local residents, they would not be going to the lengths of secrecy that we’ve seen. It’s hard to really imagine another reason than avoiding the court of public opinion.”

No one with Greenlaw returned phone calls seeking comment for this article, and CEO Wilbur Smith did not respond to emails.

Founded in 2003 and headquartered in Irvine, Greenlaw has been steadily swooping up properties for Amazon over the last few years, with news outlets reporting recent projects in Palmdale, Simi Valley and Bakersfield. Meanwhile, Smith donated $10 million to USC last year, and the school renamed its real estate development department after him. His success pairs well with his client’s: Amazon reported a 44 percent increase in net sales in the pandemic-era first quarter of 2021 compared to the first quarter of 2020, or $108.5 billion over $75.5 billion.

“They’re growing like gangbusters, and the reality is, by and large, the public values the service Amazon provides,” said Daniel Flaming, director of Economic Roundtable, a Los Angeles-based research nonprofit. But meeting that demand “in a way that’s compatible with the quality of life in communities is kind of a work in progress,” Flaming said.

The Planning Commission’s design subcommittee reviewed the proposal May 12. Commissioner Zhen Wu said the proposal is a “huge economic development” and job builder that would fill “an underutilized space” in the business park. Developers expect to have 11 trucks ferry goods to and from the center, “primarily between 10 p.m. and 8 a.m,” Roxas told the subcommittee.

The company initially had what Roxas described as a “very ambitious” goal of breaking ground within six months, but she said the pursuit of the development agreement likely will extend that timeline.

Santos said the space Amazon wants to develop “could provide between 50 and 100 industrial spaces for small, locally owned businesses owned by people who have chosen to raise their families in San Clemente.”

“What a lot of people don’t realize is this really is San Clemente’s last vacant land for all time,” Santos said. “Once this is constructed, this is it for the future of San Clemente.”

Meghann M. Cuniff is a contributor to Times OC. She’s on Twitter @meghanncuniff.

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