The Costa Mesa Planning Commission recommended Monday that the City Council deny a proposed 744-unit self-storage project, saying the developers should do more to soften the blow for business owners who would be displaced by the project.
Commissioners voted 4-1, with Chairman Robert Dickson dissenting, to advise the council to reject plans to demolish the 37,883-square-foot Autoplex strip mall at 375 Bristol St. and replace it with a two-story facility with about 98,800 square feet of storage space, plus a freestanding 5,000-square-foot food hall and a 1,200-square-foot management office.
The project is a joint venture of property owners Sanderson J. Ray Development of Newport Beach and Costa Mesa-based Cardinal Development.
Commissioners repeatedly praised the project’s design but were concerned by the strident opposition of Autoplex tenants whose shops would face the wrecking ball if the proposal moves forward.
“I have a lot of trouble approving this project, not because there are deviations with it or because I think it generates traffic or that it’s too tall, but because I don’t think we’ve done enough good-faith efforts to deal with the ramifications of the project,” Commissioner Colin McCarthy said.
I don’t think we’ve done enough good-faith efforts to deal with the ramifications of the project.
Many of the tenants who spoke Monday said the project could force them to close for good if the cost of moving proved prohibitive.
“This is very frustrating to know we might just be gone because we don’t have the resources to move, to relocate, to start building from the ground up again,” said Olivia Bean, general manager at Sandwich World, a restaurant in the commercial center, which also contains automotive service businesses.
The idea of shuttering Sandwich World and another restaurant in the center, Sushi Imari, was particularly objectionable to some who sent emails to the commission about the project.
A few emails favored the development. Gena Reed wrote that it “represents a substantial benefit to the city due to improvements in landscaping, aesthetics, street frontage and sustainable initiatives.”
Commissioners asked project spokesman Paul Freeman whether relocation assistance has been considered for displaced businesses.
“We haven’t discussed that and I don’t know what precedent there is for that,” Freeman replied.
He said he is sympathetic to the tenants’ situation but that the Autoplex is not financially sustainable, partly due to a trend of auto dealerships offering their own repair and parts services, which he said makes smaller shops less viable.
“At the end of the day, what do we have?” he asked the commission. “We have a property owner making a decision that the current business model is not sustainable. And what have we brought in? We’ve brought in a project that has less traffic, no variances. It increases the most popular uses, the food, and is a really beautiful building.”
Tenants were officially notified in August that the plan was moving forward, Freeman said. The earliest the project would break ground is October 2017.
Business owners in the center bristled at the idea that their shops aren’t pulling their weight financially. In a report they sent to the Planning Commission before Monday’s meeting, they estimated that, combined, they have more than 60 employees and generate about $350,000 in annual tax revenue for the city.
Commissioners acknowledged that the property owners have a right to pursue redevelopment of the 3.2-acre site near John Wayne Airport but that they think more needs to be done to help the existing business owners.
“I find it very discomforting that we are being put in a position where the landlord has apparently not, or the owner of the property has not ... worked things out with these long-term tenants,” Commissioner Stephan Andranian said.
The project’s fate eventually will be up to the City Council, but commissioners recommended denial.
The lone holdout was Dickson, who suggested continuing the item to a later date.
In an email to the Daily Pilot after the commission’s vote, Freeman wrote that it appeared the property owners were being “effectively punished for doing the right thing.” Rather than kick out the tenants immediately and go to the city with a plan to redevelop empty buildings, they chose to give “years of notice” and promise “to pay in the event of early terminations,” he said.
“The commissioners said they loved the project except they couldn’t support it owing to the tenants’ opposition, which commissioners took as a measure of the owners’ failure to do what they should have done to ‘work things out,’” he wrote. “I’ve rarely seen anything like it.”
Luke Money, firstname.lastname@example.org