Huge Old Town housing project clears first hurdle

Next up is a meeting with environmentalists concerned about the project’s impact on mountain lions and wildlife in the area and a City Council hearing.

A united Temecula Planning Commission on Wednesday night voted 5-0 to recommend approval of a huge housing development slated for the foothills west of Old Town, a project that includes more than 1,700 housing units, bike paths and walking trails, an elementary school site and a central park with a stairway leading to Main Street.

The commission’s recommendation will be forwarded to the City Council, which will have the final say.

The project, which has been dubbed Altair, is being pursued by San Diego-based Ambient Communities, which has built similar high-density housing grids in Mission Valley.

By choosing to go ahead with a vote, the commission rejected a call to delay its decision by The Nature Conservancy, which asked the panel to hold off until after a meeting on November 29.

At that gathering, area environmentalists and Ambient officials will be discussing one of the major sticking points, the number of acres Ambient is setting aside for conservation. The group also will be discussing plans for a small nature center at the southern tip of the 270-acre project site, which was purchased from the Firestone family in the early 2010s.

“The (wildlife) linkages are vital,” said Cara Lacey, project director for the Conservancy’s Connected Lands Program. “We’re very concerned about the impact there, we have concerns about the nature center,  the entire property on the escarpment and the undercrossing we’re currently trying to work on.”

The undercrossing would help mountain lions who live in the mountain range that separates southwest Riverside County from Orange County interbreed with a more diverse population of lions in the Palomar Mountains.

At the start of the hearing, Senior Planner Matt Peters addressed some of the concerns that area residents have had about the project, such as the housing mix. He said the plan for the land calls for a 750-unit cap on the number of apartments. The rest of the housing units will be a single-family homes, condos and live/work units.

Ambient Principal Rob Honer said later during the meeting that the housing mix will be market driven and the builders who step in to construct the project may decide not to build any apartments at all.

On the nature center, Peters said the city picked that option over a college campus or hospital pad because it is a less intensive use, which should translate to less traffic and fewer environmental impacts.

But he said that if there is a lawsuit challenging the project the city will reserve the right to consider other options.

Honer and Ambient’s architect Gordon Carrier introduced a video during their presentation that showed some of the design inspirations and the care that was taken to make sure the series of villages blended in with the area’s topography.

They also discussed how the project fits within the city’s grand vision for the city, which called for unlocking the potential of Old Town by adding housing and amenities, such as the community theater.

“It’s completely Temecula,” Honer said in the video.

For those who don’t want to walk to Old Town, Ambient will be putting money toward a smart shuttle that will take people from the heart of Altair to the Old Town bus stop, where they can connect with RTA’s normal routes.

More than 30 people signed up to speak during the hearing, an eclectic mix of environmentalists, local business leaders and residents of De Luz and Temecula who were concerned about traffic.

“I don’t think it’s right for Temecula,” said Beth Abshire, a 17-year resident who moved to the area from Santa Monica.

Abshire said she loves urban living but this particular project is not a good fit for that area, which is already hammered by traffic. She also questioned the wisdom of adding housing on the foothills of a mountain range that provides a verdant backdrop for the city’s residents.

“Do we want to chisel away the mountain and put houses?” she asked.

Supporters of the project, who wore yellow Altair buttons in a show of support, said Altair will complete the revitalization of Old Town, which included moving City Hall there, building the theater and using RDA funds to support construction of mixed-use buildings.

“Altair provides that missing link,” said Bernie Truax, a developer who is building a luxury hotel in Old Town and developing the vacant parcels in front of the Civic Center.

Truax was followed by a dozen business leaders in the area and the commander of the local VFW post, who all said the project would be a net benefit for the city and provide lower price points for people who are priced out of a suburban tract home.

“The community needs housing,” said Grant Anderson, CEO of the Boys and Girls Clubs of Southwest County. “Maybe it’s because I’m a millennial, but I wish something like this would have been available when I was moving here.

Pam Nelson of the local Sierra Club chapter said she was surprised to hear all the glowing comments about Altair’s potential to address the area’s affordability gap.

“We have to face reality,” she said. “We are in a restricted resources area. I don’t think Altair will fix that for us.”

In a Facebook post on TVD’s page, David Matics said the bulk of the units (98%) are assessed below median housing prices and rental rates in Temecula.

However, the single-family homes are assessed at a significantly higher price than Temecula’s current median selling price ($438K according to Zillow) and are nearly even with the median listing price ($495K), he noted.

“What sticks out to me most about these numbers, though, is the required annual income across all three categories of housing. We heard stories at the public hearing, that young teachers would be able to afford to live in town and our kids wouldn’t have to move away after graduating. It’s a comforting narrative but not a very realistic one,” he wrote.

“Still, some additional housing supply is better than none. And when I look at the Altair project in totality, I recognize that the applicant has made incredible concessions and compromises, city staff has done an enormous amount of research, and the Planning Commission has volunteered unquantifiable amounts of time and wisdom towards the effort of shaping a well-balanced recommendation for the City Council. I could hardly ask for more… except that we stay true to the numbers and don’t oversell a project that’s already plenty impressive in its own right.”

During the later stages of the hearing, Ed Dool, the “Godfather of Old Town,” said he was very, very supportive of the project. But he also mentioned that he supported the push to build an Old West theme park on that land years ago.

In retrospect, he said, Altair is a much better idea for that acreage.

Jane Santorum of the Julian Mountain Lion Project said the nature center would further “intimidate that corridor” and the council would be voting against nature by approving the plans.

Supporters of the center have argued that it could be beneficial for wildlife in the area if activity is limited to the day-time hours and there is additional oversight of the land that prevents incursions by transients, who have set up makeshift camps under the bridge near the city’s welcome sign.

After the speakers had their say, the commission asked questions of staff and the applicant, which included a back-and-forth about the number of acres that Ambient is conserving.

“We’re closer than we’ve ever been,” Honer said, talking about the possibility of reaching an agreement with environmental groups that would prevent a lawsuit. “There should be consensus in the coming weeks.”

Ahead of the vote, the five members of the commission explained why they were voting for the project and they tried to reassure the skeptical members of the audience that they have spent years studying the project and how it could benefit the city.

“I have two kids. They can’t afford to buy anything in Temecula,” said Commissioner Gary Watts. “They don’t want a yard, they don’t a big house.”

If that demographic ends up flocking to Altair, Watts said it will have a ripple effect on the entire western side of the city, bringing new development such as supermarkets and other commercial businesses that will cater to the new residents.

Commissioner Ron Guerriero said the project will take years if not decades to build, pointing to the Roripaugh Ranch tract as an example of a large development that has slowly taken shape in the northeast corner of the city.

“These things take time,” he said, trying to allay concerns about a huge influx of residents overwhelming the area’s already taxed roadways.

He also downplayed environmental concerns, saying huge swaths of habitat have been erased by projects such as Diamond Valley Lake but the kangaroo rat has survived and local residents have enjoyed the benefits of additional water supply and recreation areas.

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