The Temecula City Council on Tuesday night voted 4-1 to approve a housing development slated for the foothills west of Old Town, a project engineered by San Diego’s Ambient Communities.
The Altair development could add up to 1,750 housing units on a 270-acre plot of land that abuts existing housing and commercial development west of the Murrieta Creek, a parcel that years ago was considered as the potential site for a Branson-esque Wild West entertainment complex.
“This is going to be some of the most expensive land in the city of Temecula,” said Councilman Mike Naggar. “It’s going to be rent-and-a-half. … The views up there are stunning.”
Councilman James “Stew” Stewart cast the dissenting vote, saying he was concerned about the project’s impact to traffic on the freeway and the composition of the housing mix, which didn’t mandate the senior housing that he has long advocated.
The approval is scheduled to be finalized next year following the second reading of the various resolutions and ordinances the council voted to adopt Tuesday.
Various speakers asked the council to postpone a vote to allow for revisions to the project’s environmental documentation, which they argued did not properly look at impacts such as traffic, air quality and proximity to wildfire zones.
One speaker, Ms. Miller, brought an air of theatricality to her speech, raising her voice to decry the project as an egregious assault on the area’s flora and fauna.
“Tourists come to see the mountains with vegetation on it, NOT HOUSING,” said Miller, who chided the council for betraying the spirit of the fight against Liberty Quarry.
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Miller ended up being escorted back to her seat by a police officer after she refused to cede the podium when her allotted time was up.
Ahead of the hearing, Temecula residents expressed concerns about the traffic the project will generate but the council, bolstered by the testimony of city staffers, said the development will eventually improve the city’s traffic flow because builders will be required to pay for the $28 million Western Bypass, a new north-south connector that will run from Temecula Parkway to the intersection of Vincent Moraga Drive and Rancho California Road.
“That’s a hard concept to grasp,” said Councilman Jeff Comerchero. “I know residents have said to me you’re using voodoo math because that’s not possible, but that’s just good planning.”
Before the vote, Mayor Pro Tem Matt Rahn took the temperature of his colleagues, asking them if they wanted to defer the vote for 30 days or so but they demurred.
Years ago, the developer proposed giving the land at the southern tip of the acreage to the city for a civic use, such as a hospital site or a college campus. But the city eventually pivoted to a nature center idea to help assuage concerns of environmentalists who worried about development encroaching on a corridor that is used by mountain lions.
During the hearing, members of the Sierra Club and other environmental groups said the center is better than a hospital or college but they questioned the wisdom of doing anything at all with that property, arguing that it would be better as undeveloped open space rather than a dumping ground for dirt.
The housing plan for the acreage to the north of that civic site calls for a 750-unit cap on the number of apartments, or at most 50 percent of the units that end up getting built if the number is lower than 1,750, a concession won by Comerchero in a last-minute negotiation from the dais. The rest of the units will be single-family homes, condos and live/work units laid out in villages surrounding a large park, staircase to Old Town and a school site.
Edwards compared the Western Bypass to the extension of Butterfield Stage Road, which opened up a new north-south route that allows people to skip former “short cuts” through residential neighborhoods.
“This will provide the same benefit on the west side,” she said.
Some residents, however, weren’t sold.
Matt Nelson said the Western Bypass is “nothing.”
“It’s only going to be good as its ingress and egress points,” he said. “It seems like we spend our lives waiting in queue for something (mentioning heavy traffic in Old Town and long lines at the restaurants there) … at some point people will say I don’t want to wait in line anymore, we’re just not going to go there anymore.”
Edwards responded to criticism of the project by saying macro traffic issues (the freeway corridor) are being addressed, mountain lions are not being impeded and the project would help to address a housing shortage that puts a single-family home out of the price range of many people.
“We need some place for the young professionals to live,” she said.
At the six-hour mark, Rahn and Naggar debated the merits of the nature center, with Rahn saying the city should consider leaving the land as open space and Naggar saying that was a terrible idea that would deprive the city’s residents of an amenity.
“Are we going to listen to our residents?” Rahn asked. Naggar said the majority of the city’s residents would prefer the nature center.
Edwards jumped in after both members had their say to propose a motion that left the center in the plans and approved the project. The center, she noted, is unfunded and a future council will have a chance to pick up the debate at a later date.