The Mission Viejo Planning Commission rejected a zoning change that would pave the way for a highly contested development in Mission Viejo’s downtown area and potentially allow for more such developments that could change the town’s skyline. 

The Garden Plaza Project, proposed to stand just north of city hall, would replace an aging commercial center in the city’s downtown area. The plans for the development feature 234 apartment units built above a Whole Foods store. 

After hours of public comment in a packed meeting chambers on Monday, the planning commissioners unanimously voted against rezoning the commercial center from office buildings to mixed use. 

However, the final decision will be left up to the city council, who is slated to hear this item on May 10. 

The council will consider the item with a recommendation from the planning commissioners against the project.

In the meantime, developers say they’re going to reevaluate the project and try to alleviate residents’ concerns. 

Since the proposed project area currently only allows small businesses, the zoning change would have added a new mixed-use element to the city’s code. 

But, city planners are against this change, and warn if the rezoning is approved, similar developments could be popping up around town. 

Thirteen opportunity sites were identified in 2015 for future mixed-use development across Mission Viejo, including the proposed site for the Garden Plaza development. City staff argued that the addition of mixed-use zoning to the city’s code could potentially open the door for similar applications in the other city areas, fueling the commission’s decision to vote against the zoning.

[Read: Mission Viejo Considers Changing Downtown Office Complex to High Rise Apartments]

This proposal comes at a time when Mission Viejo is contemplating a future look for the city. Commissioners at the meeting said that allowing the zoning change wouldn’t fit the character of the city.

“We are and should be recognizably Mission Viejo,” planning commissioner Andrew Quinio said at the meeting.

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

The developers argue that the project is necessary to address the local housing crisis and help young families find local, affordable housing options. They also say it will bolster tax revenue and increase job opportunities.

As the developer awaits the city’s vote next month, a representative said the company will look to improve the project and alleviate resident concerns.

“We do not object to the City of Mission Viejo’s Planning and Transportation Commission vote to deny our application for a proposed mixed-use zoning district,” said Patrick Cox, chief development officer at ValueRock Realty, in a Tuesday email. 

“We will take this time to pause and reevaluate details of the project so that we can address neighbor concerns while also maintaining key aspects of our proposal that have been embraced,” he said.

Carlos Pianelli, a Mission Viejo resident spearheading a local campaign against the project, said although the vote Monday night was a win for local residents, it’s not time yet for celebration.

“I want people to continue to spread the news to everybody,” Pianelli said in a Tuesday phone interview. “I don’t want people to be complacent and think that this is over.”

Pianelli created the “Stop The Monster” campaign, which organizes demonstrations against the project and encourages residents to speak at council meetings. A petition also  features more than 5,500 signatures to stop the creation of new mixed-use land use designation and zoning districts in Mission Viejo.

Residents against the project argue it’ll increase traffic, noise and parking problems.

Pianelli also said allowing a mixed-use zone change could alter aspects of what many residents view as a small town feel.

“We are going to canvas outside the district so more people can hear about this,” Pianelli said. “We want them to know this can happen at [their] location too if you agree to the mixed zoning proposal. The mixed zoning will allow a high rise to pop up anywhere at those 12 locations.”

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

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