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San Marcos Feels The Good And The Bad Of Rapid Growth

By any measure, a great deal has happened in San Marcos lately, and the city is feeling both the benefits and pressures of the growth and change. A city of 58,000 in northern San Diego County, San Marcos is the scene of a new 3,400-unit housing development, aggressive redevelopment by the city, extensive construction and rehabilitation of affordable housing units, and a growing California State University campus. City officials have worked to get control of their town's destiny. Capitalizing on a CSU campus that opened in 1990 and Palomar College, a huge community college across town, San Marcos leaders decided to fill the north county's "educational niche," City Manager Rick Gittings said. San Marcos is not a "college town," but CSU San Marcos is building its first dormitories. And apartments, condominiums, retail development and institutional uses such as health care facilities are part of a master plan for the university area approved in 1989. Development in the master plan area has quickened of late. "The last several years, we seem to have done a number of things right," said Mayor Corky Smith, who won a third, four-year term as mayor in November. But there are traces of discontent. Backers of an initiative that would require voter approval of zoning changes submitted petition signatures in October. Supporters came up about 30 valid signatures short of qualifying for the ballot, but they vow to return. The recent election could pose a problem for the huge San Elijo Hills development. Smith will now command a council majority that many people believe will not be as friendly toward the project. And traffic congestion remains a problem on city boulevards despite more than $100 million in improvements to surface streets and freeway ramps. Located on Highway 78 between Escondido on the east and Carlsbad and Vista on the west, San Marcos remained a rural backwater into the 1980s. The city incorporated in 1963, growing slowly and somewhat haphazardly for more than two decades. The lack of infrastructure became an issue during the 1970s, and voters eventually approved an initiative requiring development to pay its fair share of infrastructure capital costs, as well as operations and maintenance. But the city is still trying to catch up, Gittings said. Since the late 1980s, however, the city has seen a different approach to development. Larger projects based on specific plans or master plans have become common. The largest of these is San Elijo Hills. Approved three years ago, San Elijo Hills encompasses 3,400 single-family houses and condominiums, a school site and a 19-acre commercial center on 1,920 acres in the grassy hills between San Marcos and Carlsbad. About one quarter of the housing units — but none of the commercial amenities — have been built. Partially designed by New Urbanist architect Peter Calthorpe, San Elijo Hills was named "Master Planned Community of the Year" by the National Homebuilders Association earlier this year. The project has proven popular with buyers, too, as reflected by a price escalation. Currently, condominiums start at about $280,000, while most of the single-family homes — all of which are at least 2,300 square feet — run from nearly $500,000 to more than $700,000. These prices were unknown in San Marcos until very recently. Still, San Elijo Hills has its detractors. Cynthia Skovgard, an unsuccessful City Council candidate who headed the rezoning initiative, called the project "horrid, appalling and abusive" because it fills open space with houses. Access to San Elijo Hills and to a neighboring housing development is limited, with one two-lane road (now being widened to four) serving as the only route — and it provides a better link to Carlsbad and Encinitas than to the rest of San Marcos. An extension of one of the San Marcos's main boulevards to San Elijo Hills is planned, but money is lacking, Development Services Director Charles Schaffer said. The poor access is a sticking point with Mayor Smith, who earlier this year was on the short end of a vote to limit San Elijo Hills building permits until a new road is in place. The more immediate controversy has shifted to a golf course proposed for a ridgeline above town. Although it was empty land at the time, the city placed the San Elijo Hills site in a redevelopment project. In fact, most of the city lies in one of three project areas created from 1983 to 1989. As those areas grow, the city's tax increment grows. The city expects to get about $17 million in tax increment this fiscal year. Gittings conceded the city could not draw the same redevelopment boundaries under the 1993 reform of redevelopment law (see CP&DR, December 1993, May 1993). "I'm not so sure that ‘reform' was a good thing," Gittings said. San Marcos receives only 7.5% of property taxes — roughly half what many cities get — so it needs to be creative. "You can't do anything with 7.5 cents," he said "What we've done with the redevelopment areas is balance that a little bit." The city has indeed used its redevelopment agency to revitalize older areas, and the affordable housing program is ahead of most cities'. Since 1995, the city has added 1,500 deed-restricted units to its affordable housing inventory, Assistant City Manager Paul Malone said. New development, rehabilitation and conversion of existing mobile homes each account for about one-third of the total. About 1,000 more units are pending. That is a substantial turnaround from 10 years ago, when the city had an affordable housing deficit and was the target of a housing advocates' lawsuit. The city has also served as a developer to generate revenue. The city developed a recreational vehicle mall, and then invited tenants. A three-year-old civic center — half of which is leased to other public entities and private enterprise — is surrounded by about 50 acres that is available for site leases. Already, developers have constructed restaurants and two office buildings on the city-owned property. This approach has angered some. "They should sell out all of their real estate holdings and do what a city is supposed to do," said James Eubank, developer of a collection of eateries on San Marcos Boulevard called Old California Restaurant Row. "Take that money from all their real estate holdings and put it into some infrastructure," Eubank urged. Gittings defended the city's strategy and pointed to a voter-approved charter amendment that allows the city to develop land. The city is constantly searching for "revenue streams we can generate that the state can't get its hands on," he said. Contacts: Mayor Corky Smith, City Manager Rick Gittings, Development Services Director Charles Schaffer, City of San Marcos, (760) 744-1050. Cynthia Skovgard, initiative proponent, (760) 744-8380. Jim Eubank, Old California Restaurant Row developer, (760) 744-0550.
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