Residents say downtown Vista apartment proposal ‘does not fit’

VISTA — State density bonus rules may override local wishes when it comes to a four-story apartment complex proposed to replace a 96-year-old building in historic downtown Vista.

During the Vista Planning Commission’s April 5 meeting, Cross Real Estate Investors’ Greg Drakos presented a concept for Park Avenue Apartments to replace the New Community Church at 165 Eucalyptus Avenue.

The project proposes erecting two, four-story wings surrounding a five-story parking garage within the circular, nearly 3-acre site after demolishing a near-century old church. The design lists 56 one-bedroom units and 120 two-bedroom units, with 18 set aside to accommodate residents designated “very low income.” 

As presented, the main buildings would reach approximately 52 feet on the eastern elevation and about 50 feet on the western side. The city of Vista allows a maximum building height of 35 feet in the downtown area.

On Tuesday, visitors needed extra chairs to fill the Morris B. Vance Community Room. Many in attendance had concerns about the height of the building and the influx of traffic to surrounding neighborhoods, particularly to those living on Oceanview Drive, which overlooks the project site. 

“Where do we draw the line on that?” asked Commissioner John Aguilera, followed by an agreeable outburst from the audience, its second eruption of the night. 

While the city has limited discretion to deny the height concession, it is constrained. 

Under the California Density Bonus Law, cities must grant either a density bonus, concession or another incentive to a developer based on the ratio of market rate and affordable units. 

Per Vista’s Density Bonus Ordinance, any project qualifies for a density bonus with at least five units — 35 for senior units. This program overrides the maximum residential density rules dictated by city zoning or planning. 

The proposed 176 units exceed the city’s maximum density of 40 dwelling units per acre by 20 units. Also, the project would allocate 15% (18 units) for very low-income households, which qualifies the project for a 50% density bonus per state law.

Park Avenue Apartments is allowed three concessions, which impact the Downtown Vista Specific Plan. 

As proposed, the developer seeks to reduce the rear yard setback to 10 feet from 15 feet, exceed the downtown maximum building height by 17 feet, and eliminate the required 10-foot setback above two stories adjacent to one- and two-story buildings. 

“What good is our building height regulation in the city if it can be overrun by the state,” Commissioner Looney asked Vista’s Principal Planner Michael Ressler. “I know there are legal ramifications but what’s the cost?”

Rendering of Park Avenue Apartments, which would replace a nearly century-old church in downtown Vista.
Rendering of Park Avenue Apartments, which would replace a nearly century-old church in Vista. Graphic by KTGY

“We’re losing the uniqueness of our city due to Sacramento or to the federal government. If we don’t have a voice in our own city.. why do we need [the plan],” Looney asked.

Jim Ellis, who owns The Film Hub at 170 Eucalyptus Ave, echoed that sentiment later in public comment, adding that variances are a wonderful tool for development. 

“You just have to be careful about the precedent it sets,” he said. “People love coming [to Vista], they love spending time here, and we don’t wanna take away from that. 

The city could limit the height and other concessions, however, not without passing the test. Factors that would permit the city to refuse the concessions include identifiable or actual cost reductions, a public health or safety problem, an environmental problem, etc. 

However, Drakos aims to avoid legalities, he said, stepping forward to interject the commissioners. 

“We’re only a few months into this,” he clarified. “We don’t intend to pursue [a lawsuit]. Before we go down this path, our intent is to hear your concerns. “

Teetering on the edge of Vista’s historic downtown and residential zoning, the new build would include open space amenities, public art space, as well as improvements to infrastructure to and around the site. 

As part of the Housing Element rule, California municipalities must assess and grow with housing needs every eight years. According to Vista, more than 2,500 new units should be added to the residential stock by 2029. Of those units, 1,205 must be affordable to those with very low to moderate incomes. 

But some residents believe the city is moving in the wrong direction to fulfill its needs. In its latest 2021-2029 Housing Element on the city website, a community survey revealed issues with an oversaturation of apartment developments, affordable housing (rental and ownership), and issues with the development of a wide variety of housing types.  

Edward Watkins, who has lived on Oceanview Drive since 1961, has lost his view to other recent developments, such as those on Santa Fe Avenue and Vista Way. He and other residents in the area feel as though they’re losing their property value in addition to their Vista. 

“My family built this house up on the hill,” Watkins said. “And as with all Vista houses, they built it for the beautiful view to last for years. You’re surrounding us with all this high-density housing.”

Julia Shriver also grew up attending New Community Church in Vista. Her family has lived in the neighborhood behind the historic downtown since 1926. She believes the developer would be remiss not to reflect the current building’s Spanish influence and to heed the public’s concern about traffic safety and building height. 

“We’re told that it would be a blend of old and new, that it would keep a lot of the charm from the downtown area,” said Wendy Molling, who also lives on Oceanview Drive. “I don’t see that happening, especially with the size of the building.” 

Park Avenue Apartments has yet to be submitted as a formal application, as the developers continue to garner interest. The preliminary review consisted of renderings of the building design and orientation in the lot. The review did not include floor plans, a size-to-scale rendition of the project or a traffic study. The latter may be required at a later date but is not expected before an official application is submitted. 

However, traffic was a hot talking point for both the commissioners and the public. The major concerns are increased traffic drawn to the two-lane Oceanview Drive and the lack of parking for the new residents and downtown patrons. 

Rendering of Park Avenue Apartments. The proposed development exceeds the city's height limits for downtown but state housing law may override those limitations.
Rendering of Park Avenue Apartments. The proposed development exceeds the city’s height limits for downtown but state housing law may override those limitations. Graphic by KTGY

Lucette Tommasini has resided on Oceanview Drive since 1980. Tommasini said the road, which connects Civic Center Drive and South Santa Fe Drive, turns into a “racetrack.”

“This is going to be an environmental hazard with the traffic and with the burden on the neighborhood,” Shriver told the commission. “So think about that, don’t let the developer tell you .. we tell the developer what we won’t accept.”

Another Oceanview resident agreed, adding that the downtown area will feel the pressure that comes with adding more residents that need to park. Judy Furey added that the church parking lot has historically served as overflow parking serving the downtown on weekends and events.  

The project also calls for 236 parking spaces, The parking allowances follow state law and are not considered a concession. However, the commissioners and the public stressed concerns about overflow parking. 

Commissioner John Aguilera questioned the parking space allowed for the project, which includes 236 spaces on-site, which is nearly 100 short by city standard. Though there are an additional 52 parking spaces planned for offsite public parking. 

“One of the things that we need to be mindful of is we have so few parking spaces, and we know we’re gonna have more cars on-site,” said Commissioner Looney. “ We have to be mindful that the businesses have adequate parking for the future.”

Drakos said that the parcel lends itself to the city’s goals. Within the Downtown Vista Specific Plan, a tool for developers and property owners, the city sets out guiding principles to set the downtown as a commercial and cultural hub. 

Some of those goals are to create a “lively” mixed-use environment and to foster connections in those areas with improved parking, walking and biking networks. 

However, residents from neighboring Oceanview Drive are less than optimistic that the complex would benefit the area. Some even question whether the plan or the heart of Vista was considered in these early stages.

“This does not fit,” said Oceanview resident Moneca Shelhoup. “No.”

The Shelhoups built the home Moneca and her husband share in 1948. 

“Have some pride,” Moneca said, with some emotion behind her voice. “Think about our city, think about the people that live here, the people that built this.” 

The Vista Planning Commission recommended Drakos amp up public outreach, provide design specifics, and possibly consider a blend of modern with the Spanish-style architecture of historic downtown Vista. 

Drakos and his team will go back to the drawing board with hopes of eventually submitting the project for official application. 

The New Community Church, according to Ressler, is downsizing to a location on Santa Fe Drive.