A controversial zoning change for a Mission Viejo high-rise development that would bring a Whole Foods and 234 apartments to the city’s downtown makes its way to the planning commission tonight, along with a crowd with lots of questions.

The Garden Plaza Project is proposed to stand at 48,000 square feet in the heart of Mission Viejo’s busy civic center and commercial area. 

Many residents say that part of the city can’t handle the traffic it will generate, while developers argue the project will transform an aging commercial center and allow families to stay in town.

The rezoning would change the complex on the corner of La Paz and Marguerite from office buildings to mixed use, which the city doesn’t currently allow. The council will have to decide next month whether to add the mixed-use classification to the city’s code.

City planners are against the project, saying it could set a precedent for other developments and change the city’s landscape across town. 

“If the City Council were ultimately to approve amending the Development Code to include this new Mixed-Use zone, other developers could request this zoning be applied to different properties throughout the City, especially in conjunction with General Plan Housing Element opportunity sites,” reads the staff report.

If implemented, the project would add 12 affordable apartment units to the city’s commitment to provide housing for lower-income households.

Proponents of the project argue the development fits Mission Viejo because it would increase pedestrian traffic and opportunities for local housing, aligning with Mission Viejo’s redevelopment vision plan.

The developers also point to Southern California’s housing crisis as a current issue that must be addressed with these types of projects, especially as Mission Viejo attempts to reach its state-mandated Regional Housing Needs Assessment goals.

The emphasis for this development focuses on young adults entering the housing market who may be struggling to find local, affordable options.

“The Garden Plaza project has always been about the community of Mission Viejo and shaping a project that will be both sustainable and attainable for current and future generations,” Josh Gertler, a spokesperson from the project developers, wrote in a statement sent to Voice of OC. 

“We understand that certain aspects of our proposal have been more embraced than others. We look forward to continuing our dialogue with stakeholders to bring massively needed housing and high-quality retail for the benefit of the entire Mission Viejo community,” Gertler said. 

Yet because this six-story building would be the tallest development in Mission Viejo, many residents who value Mission Viejo as a quaint town are looking to end the proposed project with a denial of the zone change.

Common concerns include increased traffic, parking and noise in the area near La Paz Road, the proposed site for tonight’s zone change, which is already near the city’s major roads.

Thirteen opportunity sites were identified in 2015 for future mixed-use development, including the proposed site for the Garden Plaza development. The addition of mixed-use zoning to the city’s code could potentially open the door for similar applications in the other city areas.

This project comes at a time when Mission Viejo is contemplating a future look for the city and whether or not to lean into these types of large developments.

Just south from the proposed Garden Plaza project is the site of an ongoing controversy regarding the city’s purchase and future development of a Stein Mart building.

The city purchased the Stein Mart building for $11.9 million after six months of closed-door negotiations. Since then, resident sentiment advocating against large developments in the south county city has grown.

Carlos Pianelli has been spearheading a resident group specifically rallying against the Garden Plaza development. A petition features more than 5,400 signatures to stop the creation of new mixed-use land use designation and zoning districts in Mission Viejo.

“Two lanes of traffic in each direction will not sustain the amount of traffic at the corner of La Paz and Marguerite. Instead it will gridlock the city from every direction,” Pianelli wrote in an email to Voice of OC. “Air quality, emergency vehicles trying to get through, noise pollution and an unsafe environment for our five surrounding schools makes this monster of a high rise unacceptable.”

In February, Pianelli created the “Stop The Monster” campaign, which organizes demonstrations against the project and promotes residents to speak at council meetings. 

Other residents say the development could offer housing to younger families looking to live in the city. 

“I support the Garden Plaza Project because it will add desperately needed housing and upgrade an outdated shopping center,” said Ed Davis, a 15-year Mission Viejo resident, in an email. 

“We are in the middle of a massive and unprecedented housing crisis. This is an attractive proposal that brings badly needed housing plus jobs to a high-quality retail center which will keep our tax dollars right here to be reinvested in Mission Viejo and not a neighboring city,” Davis said. 

Ann Owens, a member of Mission Viejo Planning Partnership — a local organization that advocates for workforce housing — said the project features some flaws regarding housing. 

Owens said she thinks the development is too large for the proposed site and pointed to a lack of specific affordable housing units as a cause for concern.

“They aren’t reaching out to meet the community’s needs,” Owens said. “They’re not appealing to the people who really need it.”

Owens said that although the city is in need of high-density housing for young working families, this project does not effectively address housing insecurity issues.

Yet the developers say the project would benefit those in need of local housing opportunities.

The project is proposed by ValueRock Realty, an Irvine-based commercial real estate agency that owns some of the land at the development site. 

Although the full project proposal and environmental impact report haven’t been completed, the city council voted unanimously March 22 to expedite the vote on the zoning aspect.

“I would like to propose today that we as a city stop waiting on the developer to make up their minds and instead use our legislative powers to define the types of uses we believe would be in the best interest of Mission Viejo and its residents,” Mayor Wendy Bucknum said at the March 22 meeting. 

Later at the March 22 meeting, council member Greg Raths said he is against the project and will not be voting in favor.

After the planning commission votes to either recommend or deny the zone change, the council will consider it May 10.

Angelina Hicks is a Voice of OC Reporting Fellow. Contact her at ahicks@voiceofoc.org or on Twitter @angelinahicks13.

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