ENCINITAS — It has been more than two years since the city purchased the Pacific View Elementary School site in downtown Encinitas for $10 million from the Encinitas Union School District.
The purchase — and the future of the property — resurfaced Wednesday as a source of debate between the City Council and mayoral candidates at the Olivenhain Town Council candidate forum.
While it was originally not a question asked to the candidates, several of the candidates criticized the council’s purchase of the 2.8-acre property, arguing the council drastically overpaid for the property.
“I voted against Pacific View, and it was because of the cost,” Councilman Mark Muir said as part of his answer about new projects that he would propose if re-elected. “It appraised at $3.3 million, and we paid $10 million for it.”
Muir said he believed the city could have accomplished the ultimate goal for Pacific View — an arts center — at a smaller pad at the Encinitas Ranch Town Center earmarked for a theater for the past 20 years.
Muir’s comment prompted both mayoral candidate Paul Gaspar and council candidate Tony Brandenburg to also level criticism about the cost of the project.
Councilman Tony Kranz, who is seeking re-election and was among the three-member majority who voted in favor of the purchase, addressed the purchase during his answer to a question about the chances of the city building an aquatics center.
Kranz called the argument that the city overpaid “nuts,” pointing to a $12.5 million value assigned to the property if it were zoned residential, which he said came from an appraisal done by the school district.
“The land at the coastline is well over $10 million. It’s a steal,” Kranz said. “It’s a moot point because it is not going to be sold…it is going to make an excellent arts center and I look forward to continuing with the process.”
Kranz’s comments drew the biggest applause from the audience.
The moderator later then asked each of the candidates why it’s taken so long for the plans for Pacific View to get on track and could the property support an arts center. The city in 2015 selected a group that calls themselves the Encinitas Arts, Culture and Ecology Alliance to negotiate a long-term agreement for the property.
But, as the moderator pointed out, many residents have questioned why the property is still boarded up and seemingly little activity has occurred since the purchase.
This reignited discussion about the property, with Muir again questioning what would become with the property.
“Part of the problem is they don’t have performance measurements, they don’t have a financial plan or some of the other stuff you would want to see before you would enter into an agreement with someone,” Muir said.
Tasha Boerner Horvath and Councilwoman Catherine Blakespear both then defended the purchase and discussed the need for the city to continue to support the ongoing efforts to develop the arts center on the site.
“We’ve heard a lot about the purchase, but the reality is that the city purchased it,” Boerner Horvath said. “So now it is up to this council and the next council to make this the amenity that we all know will make this downtown even more special.”
Blakespear, who wasn’t on the council when it was purchased, compared the purchase to the city’s purchase of property that ultimately yielded the Encinitas Community Park, the Community Center and City Hall.
“When you look at things in our town that are beloved (such as the park, community center and city hall) all these things had to be purchased at some point, and now they are gathering places for the community that we love,” Blakespear said. “Pacific View was either going to be something the city bought and turned into a vibrant gem, or it was going to be a subdivision or a high-end hotel, but most likely a subdivision, and I don’t think we need any more housing.
“I know it’s been a slow start but hopefully things will get moving faster, but I am happy to have (Pacific View) and I support that decision,” Blakespear said.
Phil Graham, who is running for council, has been critical of the purchase, but he said he agreed with Boerner Horvath that now the city must move forward with a plan to get the city a return on its investment.
“Now we have to deal with the repercussions of that (purchase),” Graham said. “We have an obligation to make it the jewel it can be.”
The 90-minute long forum held at the Olivenhain Meeting Hall covered ground that has been covered throughout the election season, including the candidate’s thoughts on the housing element proposal.
The candidates were also asked about their opinion of a speculated extension of Fortuna Ranch Road to connect Olivenhain with Elfin Forest (all said they did not support it), a potential aquatics center in Encinitas (all but Brandenburg said it would have to be weighed against other competing priorities) and bike lanes on Manchester Avenue between Encinitas Boulevard and El Camino Real as well as Caltrans’ plans for widening Manchester.
The candidates were also asked about projects they would propose if elected.
Among the mayoral candidates, Blakespear said she would continue promotion of the rail corridor visioning plan, while Gaspar said he would focus on projects with high community consensus, such as the Leucadia Streetscape.
Boerner Horvath said she would favor a cleanup of the city’s zoning code and land-use documents, which she said currently don’t serve the community. Graham said he would order an audit of city finances to make sure the taxpayer dollars were being spent appropriately.
Kranz and Brandenburg both pointed to addressing the rising issue of homelessness in the community, especially downtown. Muir said he would continue to press for funding and prioritization of open space acquisition and trail connection and development.