If you’ve ever been discouraged by the lack of convenient parking in Escondido, you will not be too heartened by City Councilman Ed Gallo’s prediction that “someday it will get done.” He was commenting at last Wednesday’s council meeting’s Item 8: DISPOSITION OF PROPERTY: 137-151 WEST VALLEY PARKWAY. Yes, that is correct, the city, with the current council majority’s approval, has entered into an agreement to sell the parking lot across from city hall. A lot that I have always found most convenient to downtown. If you’re interested in the details, you can see some of them on the city’s website: https://www.escondido.org/Data/Sites/1/media/agendas/Council/2018/09-19-18CCAgendaPacket.pdf .
The item was on the Consent Calendar. This is a group of items that usually don’t need much discussion by the council or public, e.g. approval of minutes, second readings of items that have been approved, but by ordinance, have to be covered twice in council meetings, minor budget adjustments, etc. Putting this item under the Consent Calendar seemed odd, but it was pulled from that calendar by the public.
Assistant City Manager Jay Petrek made a presentation about the proposed purchase. The buyer, Touchstone Communities, will pay the city “fair market value” (yet to be determined) for the lot. Another strange feature of this proposal. What they will build on the lot is also undetermined—another unusual facet. On Touchstone’s website they have a picture of a six-story building which they describe as “two brand new residential projects, which will bring additional parking to the area.” http://touchstonecommunities.com/portfolio-posts/downtown-escondido-redevelopment/ Well, actually, in the proposal they are only required to provide 76 public parking spaces to replace the 118 spaces now available in the lot. To me, the suggested design looks like something you would build with Legos—very out of step with the buildings on Grand Ave.
After Petrek’s presentation, Councilwoman Olga Diaz had some questions. Was there ever, in the city’s history, an example of the city entering into a contract without knowing the sales prices, or what would actually be built? She wanted to be consistent in her decisions and felt this proposal was totally inconsistent with prior city policy.
City Manager Jeff Epp answered that their sales agreement of the old police department building had been entered into without a complete plan for what would be built. Diaz responded that agreement had some structure to it—this proposal had none. Mayor Sam Abed interrupted with the assurance to Diaz that the city wasn’t selling the property with this agreement. City Attorney Michael McGuinness explained that, actually the city was selling the property, but could back out of the deal if they did not approve of the appraisal—as could Touchstone.
Five members of the public spoke about the proposal. Robert de Fillippi, owner of the restaurant on Grand by that name, noted that his restaurant added many thousands of dollars in sales tax to the city’s budget. Taking away that parking lot, would kill his business as well as others. Jim Crone, who owns a lot of Escondido’s business property, including two buildings on Grand, concurred, noting that Mike Morasco would not be happy if Dennis Snyder were to preempt some of his parking for Morasco’s physical therapy clinic for Snyder’s school. A member of the Downtown Business Association agreed with de Fillippi and Crone. Maria Bowman said she would be very happy to see such development. David Ferguson, representing Touchstone, went into some of the details of the agreement, including a reference to a selling price of around $1.4 million.
Diaz said she did not like the item being placed on the Consent Calendar. In the initial discussion about the project there had been talk of a parking structure being built on the city’s parking lot at the corner of Kalmia and 2nd. http://www.sandiegouniontribune.com/communities/north-county/sd-no-escondido-touchstone-20170630-story.html That was no longer on the table, apparently. She was opposed to the way the project was being approached, reiterating her comments on the lack of precedent for approving an agreement without much information about what the end product or sale price would be. She felt there should be much more allowance for public comment. If there were problems with the project later in the process, the developers would use the argument that they had done so much it would be unfair to deny them a chance to finish.
And then she pointed out what she felt was a big hurdle against the project, Councilman John Masson’s engineering firm’s participation in the project. Now Masson had recused himself from the discussion and vote on the project, and had done so in previous closed session meetings where the project was discussed. But, Diaz pointed out, in the ethics class she had just taken, as recommended by the city staff, that very scenario was discussed and concluded to be unethical. This could leave the city open to a lawsuit and invalidate every action the council took on the matter.
Gallo allowed that anyone who was involved with real estate knew that the buyers first determined the entitlements on a parcel before trying to build anything since they didn’t want to buy a pig in a poke. He did not explain why that process required the actual signing of a sales agreement before determining the feasibility, or why an appraisal and price couldn’t be determined before opening escrow. He then philosophized about the parking problem in the city, noting that in his own tracking of parking availability, he had never observed a time when there wasn’t plenty of parking in the lots. He then expressed his belief that a lot of the parking problem was due to the usurping of good parking by the retail stores’ owners and employees.
Councilman Mike Morasco didn’t think that the process had been “the opposite of transparent.” The council was not trying to “slip one by”. He elaborated on this “not clandestine” theme for a bit, and said that putting something on the Consent Calendar was not trying to hide it—since it could always be pulled. Then he echoed Gallo’s sentiment that parking was always a problem, maybe diagonal parking?
Abed said he wanted to address the trust issue. According to the City Attorney, Masson’s actions were perfectly all right, and putting McGuinness on the spot by asking for his agreement. An obviously uncomfortable McGuinness said that was true as far as he had observed. At one time or another, Abed continued, everyone on the council had a conflict of interest including Diaz, whose husband had worked on the police force. He admitted that there were issues with parking, but there would need to be a transitional parking plan.
Diaz said again that she disagreed with the process, and that elected officials making a profit on a project was a problem, as she learned in her ethics class. She was not accusing anyone of wrongdoing, but felt the situation was one that could lead to future litigation for the city. She noted that when her husband had worked for the police department and she was on the council, the situation had been reviewed by the legal department in depth, and it had been decided that there were so many layers between her position, and the position her husband held, there would be no conflict. In this case, there were no layers between Masson and Touchstone.
As expected, the motion was passed with “three yes votes, Diaz voting no, Masson abstaining.”