An apartment project approved last week for the heart of Laguna Niguel’s Gateway District has drawn concern from area business owners and officials who see a possible shift in the original vision for the area.
The 351-unit apartment complex known as Gateway Village calls for four to six stories, open courtyards and a five-level parking structure off Forbes Road near Crown Valley Parkway. Apartments will have one to three bedrooms. Onsite amenities will include a pool, spa and fitness rooms. The project also includes three retail spaces facing Forbes.
But the project has brought confusion over what the district between I-5 and the 73 toll road will eventually look like. Some have said the original plan was to create a bustling downtown atmosphere with retail shops, while others say the biggest goal was simply to bring more family housing to the area.
Existing business owners in the largely industrial area, meanwhile, are mostly wondering what will happen if and when they are forced to leave.
The new apartment complex from Forbes Investment Partners could break ground early next year. It would join two other major apartment projects currently under construction further west off Cabot Road – the Crown Apartments and Career Lofts. They are the first major projects implemented under the Gateway Specific Plan, approved more than a decade ago.
City Planner Larry Longenecker said the City Council’s original idea for Gateway was straightforward.
“The vision is to be very flexible and responsive to the market,” he said.
Planning Commissioner William Kelley was the lone vote against the Gateway Village permit and tentative site map at the commission’s meeting last week.
“Essentially, there is no retail (in this project), in terms of what constitutes the Gateway area,” Kelley said. “Frankly, I’m a little hesitant to approve something that is so much different from what (the original Gateway Specific Plan) calls for.”
“It’s become clear that the retail component of this project was an afterthought,” he added, after hearing that Forbes Investment Partners had originally proposed the project without any retail. City staff then encouraged the developer to add shops to the project.
As approved last week, Gateway Village will have three retail spaces facing Forbes Road that total about 6,000 square feet.
The Gateway Specific Plan, however, calls for 10 times the retail space inside an overall project of this size – a requirement that, city staff suggested in its report on the project, was unrealistic from the start, when the Gateway plan was hatched in 1999 and later updated in 2011. Longenecker said this week that perhaps the retail requirement should be re-examined.
The retail requirement “is more typical of regional-serving commercial uses, not the resident supporting uses proposed with the” Gateway Village project, the report said.
Other concessions made for the project included allowing a project density of 70 housing units per acre – though 50 is the maximum in the specific plan – and 110 parking spaces where 206 are required.
To consider those changes, Longenecker said, Forbes Investment Partners had to provide some type of “public benefit.” The developer agreed to provide either 35 units for low-income houses or 18 for very-low income households.
Reactions from the other commissioners and city officials to the project varied. Commission Chairman Steve Rettig said he shared Kelley’s concern over the lack of retail in the project, but ended up voting in favor.
Commissioner Cher Alpert, meanwhile, said the focus was always adding more housing for families.
Other commissioners argued it would be difficult to require projects have a set amount of retail space until a larger population lived there.
Kelley insisted the original plan was a bustling street scene at the entrance of Laguna Niguel, a place friendly for walkers and bikers. Projects like Gateway Village, he said, are car-centric.
Other concerns include eventually adding thousands of more cars to an already congested Crown Valley Parkway.
City consultant Rob Olson, a traffic engineer with HR Green Inc. in Newport Beach, said short-term effects of the Gateway Village project on Crown Valley Parkway would be insignificant.
As additional development moves in, Crown Valley – recently widened on the eastbound side to help with congestion – will once again fill up with cars, he said. A westbound widening is also being planned, however, and Olson said that would make traffic flow normal again.
BUSINESSES ON MOVE
The project’s approval brought varied reaction from business owners in the area.
Greg Richardson owns a music studio in one of the buildings set to be demolished. He said he likes his spot and that moving would be an inconvenience, but it was nothing he couldn’t overcome. His customers would be willing to drive elsewhere, he said.
When informed last week that his building would be spared – the only such building on the block – Mark Kim let out a sigh of relief. His business, ABC Ice, is well-established at the location and has a custom, built-in freezer.
Kim looked out his back door and envisioned how the new apartment might look next to his building. He said he hopes his building isn’t the next to go. “If they paid me $2 million, maybe I’d think about it,” he joked.
Armando Besne, owner of Crown Valley Body Shop, said he isn’t so sure other business owners in the area won’t eventually be affected like he soon will be when his shop is demolished to make way for Gateway Village.
“Once the wheels get to turning, if they get these four buildings (demolished), it’s not that long before everyone else around here is going to be affected,” he said.
“Those of us who own those buildings are feeling the crumbling nature and the lack of forethought that went into building them. This gives us a chance to relocate.”
– Clayton Robinson,owner of an office building slated to be demolished
“It’s become clear that the retail component of this project was an afterthought.”
– William Kelley,Laguna Niguel planning commissioner
“What is being proposed is vastly more valuable than what is sitting there right now.”
– Steve Rettig,Laguna Niguel planning commissioner
“I never want to lose a business, so that’s always painful.”
– Mayor Robert Ming,upon hearing Crown Valley Body Shop would leave the city
“We don’t want to drive them out of the city and force them to relocate to Mission Viejo.”
– Steve Cienfuegos,speaking of businesses located in the buildings set to be demolished