Monday, March 9, 2015

Seaside has a long history of poor land use decisions.

Monterey Downs, the controversial horse race track, hotel, and other assorted components proposed for an undisturbed portion of Fort Ord land, was a hot item at last Thursday's Seaside council meeting. I did not attend in person, but I did watch much of it on TV. The question of the day was whether the city should extend an exclusive negotiation agreement with the developer, Brian Boudreau, for another year or give up on it now.

In the grand scheme of things, it wasn't a major turning point or an earth shattering decision, but it drew an enormous crowd anyway. After two and a half hours of public testimony with a majority opposing the project, the council voted 4-1 to approve the extension.

No surprise there. With the exception of Jason Campbell, Seaside city council members have been known to drool excitedly over the prospect of any new development in Seaside, and something on this scale is beyond anything dreamed of before Boudreau came along. In short, they're seeing $$$$$ dancing in front of their eyes.

This isn't the first time Seaside leaders have been dazzled by the prospect of easy money. It has afflicted almost every mayor and city council over the last 30 years leading to a string of poor land use decisions of little economic value. One young lady, a student from CSUMB likened Seaside to an ugly girl who will accept a marriage proposal from the first guy who comes along. So true!

I've felt that way ever since Chili's restaurant came into town. Here was a prime lakefront commercial property, unlike any other available in the entire city, and the best use city leaders could find was a bargain-brand chain restaurant with a big red pepper above the door. The city told us Chili's would have outdoor seating overlooking the lake, but that never materialized. I have nothing against chain restaurants per se, but Chili's boxy building does little to take advantage of the property's scenic assets, and the standard corporate architecture cheapens the park setting.

Evidently, the city learned nothing from this experience, because the one remaining lakefront parcel is destined to become a drive-through hamburger stand.

A short skip down the street on the corner of Del Monte and Canyon Del Rey we got a Starbucks. We can thank the late Jerry Smith for that. Prior to Smith's administration that plot of land was to become part of a new train station to serve the revival of long-planned and much-needed rail service between the Monterey Peninsula and San Francisco. Its location across the street from Seaside's two biggest hotels was well suited to an intercity transportation terminal, and would have spurred future development in the surrounding neighborhood. But Smith took the quick coffee money and effectively blocked state and regional transportation plans to connect the Peninsula with California's growing passenger rail network.

A couple blocks north of there is the west end of lower Broadway, a run-down avenue which the city has been trying for decades to develop into a “downtown” environment with attractive shops and restaurants. About a dozen years ago I had the opportunity to talk to some consultants the city hired to help develop the lower Broadway plan. When I told them the city had just killed the train station I practically had to scrape their jaws off the floor, they thought it so foolish.

Meanwhile, the city sort-of managed to complete the first step of the Broadway plan with the completion of the City Center shopping center at the corner of Broadway and Fremont. They got the architectural design right, it's the most attractive building in Seaside, but the tenants are all wrong. They're the same kinds of neighborhood strip-mall stores you find all over town. That corner needs a major anchor, like a department store, to draw shoppers from all over the Peninsula, not just the immediate neighborhood. That in turn would attract smaller businesses to the rest of Broadway. If Seaside had a department store on one end and an intercity rail station near the other, Broadway would be well on its way to becoming an economic engine for Seaside. If only....

Here's another inexcusable failure. For decades Seaside has wanted to build a new library on Broadway next to the post office. $3.5 million from the county was made available for this purpose in 1997. Seaside lost the money in January 2014 because we sat on it too long.

Two other major projects have also been on Seaside's drawing boards for a couple of decades, including a resort hotel at the city's golf courses, and the Main Gate shopping center, both on Fort Ord land. These, too, have moved at a snails pace. Not a speck of dirt has been moved. Meanwhile, neighboring Marina has managed to slowly but surely redevelop its portion of Fort Ord making tangible economic progress while Seaside stagnates. Why is that?

Mayor Ralph Rubio offered a worn-out excuse at Thursday's meeting. He said Seaside can't develop the blighted areas of Fort Ord because the city can't afford to demolish the old concrete Army buildings to make the land suitable for new development – a problem he says Marina didn't have to deal with. He implied that the income from Monterey Downs would provide the necessary revenue for Seaside to clean up the blight, hence the importance of keeping Monterey Downs alive.

If that is true why did Seaside take on the responsibility to clean up the Army's mess in the first place if the city didn't have the financial resources to do so? Shouldn't the federal government be paying for that? And what is the Fort Ord Reuse Authority's role here? It's their job to help local cities successfully redevelop the former Army base. I haven't followed FORA's workings very closely, so I'm at a bit of a disadvantage here, but shouldn't FORA, not Brian Boudreau, be the one helping Seaside subsidize the clean up? We shouldn't have to scar undeveloped land to fund the redevelopment scarred land.

So Seaside has a long history of land use blunders. Many of them involved underdevelopment of prime real estate. Monterey Downs takes the city to the opposite extreme – overdevelopment – beyond the region's capacity to support it. Housing, shopping, hotels, and a racetrack hosting numerous special events all require roads and water to function, and we don't have a lot of either. The Peninsula already hosts dozens of special events every year, more than many big cities. How can our little corner of the world handle the additional crowds, without stressing our infrastructure and resources to the breaking point?

With Monterey Downs I think Seaside is taking on more than it can chew, especially given city hall's track record of poor judgment. The best case scenario I envision has Monterey Downs collapsing under its own weight. The forthcoming environmental impact report will likely show that the area hasn't the capability to support it, everyone will agree with the findings, and it will die a painless death. The city will then concentrate its focus on the Main Gate, the resort hotel, and lower Broadway – all non-controversial projects with basic infrastructure already in place – and hopefully get at least one of them off the ground in the next couple of years.

Dream on. If past experience is any guide, Boudreau and his friends at city hall will dig in their heels, spin the numbers to their liking, maybe scale things back a bit, and plow ahead. Monterey Downs will become an obsession, taking planning department resources away from the more credible projects. It would be analogous to invading Iraq and neglecting Afghanistan resulting in a mess on both fronts. In the end nothing will get done, Seaside's economy will continue to stagnate, and city leaders will blame everybody but themselves.

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