By C. Jayden Smith
In the waning minutes of Tuesday, Nov. 1, MemorialCare’s continuous efforts to see the San Clemente City Council approve its proposal for a mixed-use development came to, what it sees as, a successful end.
The council voted in a 3-2 decision to allow the health care group to develop the approximately $84 million project that will include a 250-bed senior housing facility and a 7,500-square-foot medical office on its vacant hospital site on Camino de los Mares.
Mayor Gene James and Councilmember Kathy Ward voted against the project.
Mayor Pro Tem Chris Duncan spoke to some of the controversy and public’s frustrations with the project, stating the city was in a bind because of state laws that the project satisfied, despite certain aspects exceeding city standards.
“When people are frustrated that we’re not making minor adjustments, we’re not legally able to do that,” said Duncan. “I wish we would. I wish we could. We can’t.”
Councilmember Laura Ferguson’s support stemmed from a belief that the project was reasonable and that resident concerns about traffic and safety were properly addressed. She also desired to end what she called a lengthy and expensive process to determine the fate of the hospital site.
The project’s satisfaction of affordable and senior housing needs in San Clemente earned Councilmember Steve Knoblock’s vote, who said he felt confident in MemorialCare’s digital simulations of the development’s height and effect on the surrounding community.
MemorialCare Senior Vice President and Chief Legal Officer Tom Leary told San Clemente Times his group was pleased with the approval and mentioned their excitement for local seniors that would benefit from the project.
“We appreciate how difficult a decision it was,” Leary said. “We think the council showed real courage and real commitment to advance the goals of meeting the city’s housing needs.”
A smattering of cheers and applause came from supporters in the audience who stayed through the extensive portions of public comments to hear the council’s final vote, outlasting most of the packed and divided room that was present to start Tuesday’s public hearing.
After three reviews from the Design Review Subcommittee, a joint study session involving the council and the Planning Commission, and a separate Planning Commission discussion on Oct. 5—in which commissioners denied recommending the project for council approval—the project went before the council for deliberations.
The Planning Commission’s rejection stemmed from deficiencies in on-site parking, affordable housing across multiple income levels, and private outdoor space.
After the commission’s meeting, Leary said MemorialCare’s commitment to seeking the council’s approval reflected its belief that the project would serve the community well.
Within the plan, the lot containing the hospital building would be divided in two, one side for the two-story, 7,500-square-foot medical office, and the other for the residential structure.
To satisfy parking needs, the project would mark 251 covered spaces for residents and an on-site manager, 50 spaces for guests, and 38 spaces for medical office parking.
There would also be an agreement between the two lots to share 61 spaces, including all medical office parking.
MemorialCare is committing 20 of the housing units (more than 5%) for very-low-income households, satisfying California’s Density Bonus Law. As a result, the city would have no authority to stop the development from exceeding standards for the number of stories, height, elevator shaft height, floor area ratio, parking, and private balconies.
The concessions and waivers provided through the density bonus would allow for a roughly 51-foot height maximum, with portions of buildings having a fourth story, and much of the average roof height rising near or above the 45-foot limit.
The elevator shaft height would rise nine inches above the limit; the 0.89 floor area would allow for the building to cover more lot space than the allotted 0.5; and there would not be an additional 50 guest spaces apart from the parking agreement.
During MemorialCare’s presentation, Leary listed in a timeline that the process of working with a city on the property had been ongoing since March 2021, when city leaders approached the company with an idea to rezone the land for residential development.
The presentation also noted design efforts to reduce the image of a massive building, vehicular circulation throughout the property, and establish a more comfortable area for pedestrians.
With traffic and parking, a MemorialCare consultant said the project would generate fewer car trips than other allowable site uses, and that residents would have opportunities to make a safe U-turn or left turn to exit the property. The consultant added that peak parking hours between the housing facility and medical office would not overlap.
When asked for any possible challenges the city could pose to the project for exceeding development standards in the General Plan, City Attorney Scott Smith told the council it was in a tight spot.
According to the Density Bonus Law, Smith said, the city lacked the substantial evidence to prove the project did not have the right to be oversized and could not cite that project inconsistencies with zoning ordinances or general plan land use designations equated to a significant adverse impact on public health and safety.
Speaking for residents who felt MemorialCare’s simulations of the project height and impact on ocean views were inaccurate, James asked Leary why MemorialCare didn’t want to invest in installing height-indicative story poles.
Leary said MemorialCare felt the visual simulations were a better option that wouldn’t confuse passersby.
“We believe they’re accurate,” said Leary. “They create a clear record … If we deviate from that, it’s going to be obvious.”
Before the vote, James said he believed there was general support for the type of project in front of them, but that MemorialCare was taking advantage of the city by using state laws to trump local control.
Kathy Ward added that the entire process had been complicated and rushed, and that concerns remained for her regarding height and traffic overflow.
“There’s too many questions of what we’re actually getting and how it’s going to work for us to (approve) it,” she said.
According to Leary, MemorialCare will immediately begin the process of finding a development partner for the project. Over the past six months, he said, MemorialCare has fielded numerous offers from interested parties.
“We want somebody that’s going to work well with us,” Leary said. “We want somebody that understands the unique aspects of the city of San Clemente and that the city will be comfortable with as well.”
C. Jayden Smith
C. Jayden Smith graduated from Dana Hills High in 2018 before pursuing a Bachelor’s degree in digital and broadcast journalism from the University of North Texas. After graduating in December 2020, he reported for the Salina Journal in Salina, Kansas. Jayden loves college football and bothering his black lab named Shadow.