By Sebastian Montes
Rundown buildings and bare pavement greet the eye where the Solana Beach pedestrian bridge over the rail line arches from the Cedros Design District and empties onto the intersection of Dahlia Drive and Highway 101. The nearest gathering place is several hundred yards away. Instead, there sit 1.9 acres that have over the decades housed a trailer park, gas station, electric bicycle store and drive-up coffee stand, to name a few of the parcel’s disparate, abandoned uses.
The prime property on the Pacific Coast Highway languishes in dilapidated disuse, despite being surrounded by millions of dollars in infrastructure spending
Now, after a widely panned proposal fell apart two years ago, a new plan is afoot that would turn the long-idle blight into a 95,000-square-foot hub of apartments, “creative offices,” a pair of chef-driven restaurants and specialty retail that puts a premium on walkability and community spaces.
“It’s a shame to pull through Solana Beach on the 101 and see a vacant, empty eyesore,” said Brad Termini, a Solana Beach resident and CEO of Zephyr Partners, which is proposing the project. “We don’t want people to think of our community as this. For as long as the 101 has been in existence, the 101 is where people came to shop and dine. That’s what the 101 was: the commercial district. We see a modern version of that and are trying to fulfill that spirit.”
Connectivity was the catchword on Saturday, Oct. 28, during the first of two open houses being hosted on-site by Zephyr, the Encinitas-based developer that bought the parcel more than a year ago. Zephyr’s preliminary designs — dubbed “Solana 101”— sketch out 95,470 square feet of office, residential, retail, restaurants and parklets, with the bulk of the floor space coming from the 25 rental apartments (seven one-bedroom and 18 two-bedroom) and 45,000 square feet of office space.
Roughly 100 residents stopped by the displays set up in the parking lot, several of whom touted the proposal as a missing link in the 101 corridor — a north-south connector along the historic highway and an east-west node between the Cedros district and thousands of oceanfront residents along Sierra Avenue.
The tenor was a far cry from the animosity that dogged — and eventually doomed — the plan American Assets Trust hatched three years ago for a three-story, mixed-use complex anchored by a 20,000-square-foot grocery store.
That proposal ran up against the city’s View Assessment Commission in March 2015 after two homeowners filed complaints that the complex would block their eastward views. Sharp criticism from residents followed at a public forum a few months later. The lot was back on the market by the end of the year.
Within months, Zephyr snatched up the property and set about reimagining its build-out, mindful to avoid its predecessor’s mistakes.
“We’ve had a benefit of listening to all the history and coming into it eyes wide open and knowing what the sensitivity points are,” Termini said. “So rather than fight it, we’ve tried to solve for them out front and tried to do something that makes the most of the community’s objectives.”
Zephyr has scaled down its proposal to two stories instead of three, with 85 percent of the project standing less than 27 feet tall. Buildings that front Highway 101 will be limited to a single story; two-story buildings will be set back at least 40 feet.
And while Zephyr’s proposal calls for roughly 10,000 more square feet of development than the American Assets plan, it is more spread out and steers clear of the maximum density allowed.
Walkability and public amenities are a point of emphasis: Zephyr’s plan is lined with parklets and open spaces that create pedestrian access throughout the site. Another key selling point is an underground garage with more than 300 parking spaces.
“The uses we’re going to have here could never use that much parking. So we imagine that people who can’t find a spot on Cedros, they can come here, have lunch, have a glass of wine and walk across the bridge,” Termini said. “The city has done this incredible job of building this public infrastructure, but we literally have a bridge to nowhere. Think of the public investment that went into this bridge envisioning that something would be built here. Now is the time.”
And while many residents still pine for a big-box grocer, it didn’t fit with Zephyr’s designs.
“The traffic impacts of a grocery store outweigh the benefits for a lot of the community,” Termini said. “So what we’ve decided to do is reimagine the project with retailers and restaurants — locally-based, chef-driven cuisine — uses that will be used by the local community and not drive a ton of crazy traffic.”
State-mandated environmental review is expected to wrap up in a few weeks, followed by a public comment period. On that timeline, Zephyr would present Solana 101 to the city council early next year and construction would begin at the end of 2018.
If approved, Solana 101 would be the first new, large-scale commercial construction in that part of Solana Beach since the nearby Beachwalk center was built 40 years ago — the kind of revitalization the city had in mind when it poured $7 million into renovating the 101 corridor in 2013.
Among those who stopped by the open house was City Councilman David Zito. While he withheld his reaction until the proposal goes before the council, he did acknowledge that Zephyr appears to have made strides in addressing some of the problems that plagued the American Assets proposal. But much remains to be determined, he said, on whether Zephyr’s plan is too big, generates too much traffic or poses other negative environmental impacts.
“All I can say is everyone in the city wants to see a project here. We want to see the area developed and we want to see this get put to good use,” he said. “Part of the reason we redid the 101 is to stimulate development of the whole corridor, but part of it is also to make sure we’re not trying to make 101 look like downtown La Jolla. It’s still supposed to be Solana Beach in the end.”
Doris and Stan Bergum, who live two blocks away, believe the Zephyr designs have done just that. The couple counted themselves as supporters of the American Assets proposal, but after seeing the Solana 101 designs on Saturday, they appreciated what Zephyr has brought to the table.
“They thought through a lot,” Stan Bergum said. “I think they understand what the people of Solana Beach were looking for as it relates to walkability and sustainability, solar energy, parking underground. There are a lot of a unique designs here, so I think we need to continue that and focus on bringing more affordable housing to the community. They’ve hit a lot of those things with this project.”
The next open house runs from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. on Saturday, Nov. 18 at the site. Learn more at Solana101.com.