Strawberry fields mall: ‘Too good to pass up’

Strawberry fields mall: ‘Too good to pass up’
Developer Rick Caruso presented to the council Tuesday night about the benefits his new upscale retail shopping center will bring to the surrounding community. Photo by Ellen Wright

CARLSBAD— City Council unanimously approved the Agua Hedionda 85/15 Initiative, which proposed an upscale retail shopping center on a portion of the strawberry fields.

The initiative was approved after a six-hour meeting, which Mayor Matt Hall said, had more speakers on a single issue than he’s seen in his 30 years in public service.

The council approved the project because the proposal met all the city standards and regulations and because the property has been zoned for commercial use since the ‘80s.

“This plan has been developed in collaboration with the community, and it goes above and beyond what is required, by ensuring the future of the strawberry fields and providing public access to open space in perpetuity,” said Mayor Matt Hall. “That has tremendous value and will enhance our community for years to come.”

Developer Rick Caruso plans to build a shopping center on 27 acres between Interstate 5 and Agua Hedionda Lagoon.

Since the citizen led initiative process was used, council had the option to either send the project to a special election, to outright approve it or to think about it for 30 days.

A special election would have cost the city about $500,000.

Caruso plans to make the remaining 85 percent of the land, or 155 acres, permanent open space.

In an effort to get residents on board with the project, he proposed adding miles of publicly accessible trails and an outdoor amphitheater for use by the Agua Hedionda Lagoon Foundation’s educational program.

According to Mayor Hall, when Caruso first approached the city, Hall recommended Caruso do lots of outreach to the community because Lennar Homes was denied a project after citizen outcry.

Mayor Pro Tem Keith Blackburn said he approved the project because he believes it’s a good project and because the developer, Rick Caruso, is giving back an additional 21 acres of open space.

“I can’t imagine another developer who is going to come into this city, look at that piece of property and come up with a better deal for Carlsbad,” Blackburn said.

After Proposition D passed with voter approval in 2006, 50 acres near Agua Hedionda Lagoon were set aside for commercial development to keep the remaining 155 acres as permanent open space.

Caruso plans to develop about half of the commercially zoned space and reserve the rest as permanent open space.

Councilmember Mark Packard said he approved the initiative because it will enhance what is already in Carlsbad.

“It’s not too good to be true, it’s too good to pass up,” Packard said.

About 130 speakers voiced their opinions on the shopping center.

Those in favor said they admired Caruso’s other developments, The Grove and The Americana in Los Angeles and said many of the critic’s arguments were similar to that of the arguments against LEGOLAND, which is a top tourist destination in Carlsbad.

The opponents of the plan said it would bring traffic to Carlsbad’s already clogged freeway and urged the council to send it to a vote.

Critics also claimed the project was sidestepping the California Environmental Quality Act by going through the citizen led initiative process.

Last year, the California Supreme Court ruled citizen led initiatives did not need CEQA approval.

Assistant City Manager Gary Barberio told the council the proposal meets the environmental standards.

Barberio also pointed out that it was only the proposal that was approved so city staff will still work to ensure the development meets all of the city’s codes and standards as the plans firm up.

The Coastal Commission still needs to approve the project. At a press conference Wednesday, Rick Caruso said he expects there will be some issues there.

“I’m sure we’re going to have some issues but again, I’m very confident that we’ll get through it,” Caruso said.

City staff estimates the project will add between 2,300 and 2,400 jobs to the local economy and about $2.5 million in annual taxes.

The project had support from the strawberry fields owner, Jimmy Ukegawa.

As part of the project, he will continue to farm on 50 acres and provide produce to the restaurants on site.

Agua Hedionda Lagoon Foundation Chairperson Maureen Simons was one of the initiative leaders and said she supports the project because it will open up the lagoon to the public.

Caruso had to get a minimum of 10 percent of registered Carlsbad voter’s signatures to get the initiative in front of council and they received double the amount.

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