Renderings of a proposed six-story apartment in Escondido which is being opposed by the Historic Preservation Commission. Photo courtesy of Touchstone Communities
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Historic Preservation Commission speaks out against downtown apartment

ESCONDIDO — The Historic Preservation Commission has voiced its opposition to the proposed “Aspire” apartment complex proposed to sit across the street from City Hall.

In an unofficial advisory vote held at its Sept. 19 meeting, the commission decided 6-0 against endorsing the complex. Aspire, a six-story and 123-unit apartment building slated to sit alongside the entrance to Maple Plaza, is owned by Touchstone Communities.

Commissioner Carol Rea said she was surprised that city staff brought the proposal in front of the body for a second time. The Historic Preservation Commission had previously held an informational hearing about Aspire, two other projects, as well as the city’s new density transfer program, at its March 21 meeting.

The conversation held in March was then summarized in the informational documents given to Planning Commission members for its Aug. 27 vote on Aspire. But Rea told The Coast News that she feels that the staff summary documents given to the Planning Commission, which ultimately voted 6-1 in favor of the project, brushed over the concerns raised by the Historic Preservation Commission at the time.

She raised additional concerns at the Sept. 19 meeting, mostly along aesthetic lines.

“I question this project. It’s not a good fit for our historic downtown, it’s too large,” said Rea. “There’s not enough parking and it’s too big, too tall, too dense and just not a good fit for the downtown.”

Rea also asked why the Aspire property is now listed for sale on commercial real estate websites such as Crexi.com and Loopnet.com.

“What our understanding is is that the current applicant is proposing or is marketing the project,” Escondido Principal Planning Adam Finestone said in response. “The current applicant does not own the land, the city owns the land, so they’re marketing the project which includes the development and disposition agreement for the property. In other words, the city’s agreement to sell the project owner or the developer, as well as whatever the entitled project will be.”

Finestone added that City Council will determine on Oct. 9 whether Aspire gets the entitlement, or permit, that it needs to operate in the city — and thus ownership of that land parcel. Kerry Garza, president of Touchstone Communities, said that the company could not comment on the issue because it involved sensitive business issues.

But the real estate sales postings list the site as having a “prime location” and “entitled project” located in a federal “Opportunity Zone.” The posting also asks that “Prospects shall not contact the City of Escondido without the seller’s written authorization.”

Touchstone is represented by Cushman & Wakefield in the sale. An “Opportunity Zone” is a federal tax incentive for urban development created in 2017 under the tax bill signed into law by President Donald Trump.

Commissioner Nicole Purvis slammed the entire process which has unfolded so far on Aspire.

“I feel a little let down by the city that it would go through so many steps without full public transparency,” said Purvis. “There’s been a lot of closed session activity involved with this, and that’s completely normal for projects. But I just feel personally as a preservation commissioner, as well as a resident, that there’s been a lack of transparency from the very beginning on this project.”

One commissioner, Errol Cowan, said the city could “ameliorate” some of his concerns if Aspire had an architectural design paralleling that of City Hall and other historic downtown buildings.

“Looking at this from a standpoint of historic preservation, it seems like there’s nothing in the area that’s being preserved. No theme being preserved,” said Cowan. “I can understand new development, but I don’t see any reference to anything and as I said before, I wish as a city we could establish a theme to all downtown development so that we have something that is integrated and does refer back to some of the historic elements both in downtown in the city.”

Until that happens, though, Cowan said he does not stand behind the project.

“From a historic preservation standpoint, I see no merit in this project whatsoever and I would encourage everybody that has a role in entitlement to start thinking about an overall theme that is consistent for our architectural approach of all developments, including this one, and has a relationship to the history of the city,” Cowan said.

Touchstone Communities, responding, told The Coast News that it will incorporate elements of Escondido history on the edifice.

“Regarding the architectural style, the project’s use of brick, stucco, wood and metals melds textures and materials from Escondido’s past with a contemporary, relevant design that will improve the appearance of downtown Escondido and attract new residents,” said Addison Garza, executive vice president of the company.

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