San Clemente seniors will have more housing options following the City Council’s approval of a 250-unit apartment complex to be built where a vacant hospital building currently stands.

Following a lengthy debate, the City Council gave final approval in mid-November to a request from MemorialCare, a non-profit health system, to develop a mixed-use project that would demolish the existing medical building and construct the for-rent senior residential units and a 7,500 square-foot medical office, according to a city staff report. The proposed project – for which MemorialCare will seek a developerwill reserve  8% of the housing units for very low-income residents.

Mayor Gene James and Councilmember Kathy Ward were the dissenters in the 3-2 vote. The majority of the council members were in favor of the project – a decision that went against the Planning Commission’s recommendation – while James and Ward said they could not go along with the proposal due to the magnitude of the proposed plan.

Some members of the public spoke during a three-hour discussion of the item at a council meeting in early November, with those in favor saying the city needs more affordable senior housing and those opposed contending the development would not be a good fit for the community.

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After the City Council faced a lawsuit from MemorialCare regarding the vacant property at 654 Camino de Los Mares, a settlement agreement stated that the two parties must reach a deal concerning the property’s zoning. According to the agreement, if a resolution is not reached, the city would be held responsible for maintenance fees for the location. 

While James and Ward said they are not opposed to housing being built, they had reservations.

“I feel like MemorialCare is taking advantage of us here. I feel that this is a project I want to do, but this is not something I’m going to agree with that goes beyond 45 feet,” said James after learning that the development would go beyond the city’s building height requirements.

Greg Sanders, land use attorney for MemorialCare, said during the public hearing that a financially feasible affordable housing project requires density.

“The consequence of the Density Bonus Law can be, as explained, very high, very wide, very deep, very massive and this project is far short of what could be built,” Sanders said. 

The California Density Bonus Law requires that when an applicant seeks a density bonus for a housing development within the jurisdiction of a certain city, that local government must comply with the law, according to California Legislative Information. However, the local government may still request that the applicant provides adequate reasoning to be eligible for the bonus. 

Ward said she favored more housing.

“I’m not saying no on housing, I’m just saying this development or this project I don’t think is fully ready yet or something that I could approve,” she said.

Ward also expressed concern that the project may not be the best fit for the community.

“If we end up voting for a bad project that doesn’t work, it’s there forever, forever, and people would look at it and go ‘why did the city approve that?’” she said.

The city’s Planning Commission shared the same concerns as Ward’s and James’s when the commission in early October unanimously recommended denial of the project. 

Members of the public who voiced their opinions during an early November property rezoning initial council hearing were also split on the proposal.

“There is a need for housing in this community on all levels; affordable housing, housing for seniors who want to downsize and stay in the community close to family and friends, and seniors looking to move to San Clemente to live out their retirement,” said Beth Apodaca, a longtime city resident in favor of the project.

Mary Rampone, a realtor from Regency Real Estate Brokers, said the housing project is the right thing for the growing senior population. 

“Seniors deserve to stay close to their families and stay in the community they have called home for years,” she said. 

Connor Medina, government affairs manager for the Orange County Business Council, which according to its website is an organization working to enhance economic development within the county, urged the council to support the mixed-use designation.

“Making this investment now is meeting where the demographics are going; it’s meeting where the demand will be,” he said. 

According to research by the Orange County Business Council, residents over the age of 65 are expected to make up 29% of the Orange County population by the year 2060. 

“This is an investment in San Clemente’s future and Orange County’s future,” Medina told the council.

However, not everyone was in support of the proposed project.

“This project can only cause more traffic, more noise, and more danger for pedestrians, especially young kids,” a 12-year resident of San Clemente told the council.

Resident Donna Vidrine urged the council to vote no on the project.

“This application is fatally flawed in several ways; it’s too big in all its dimensions and short on parking. It’s a beast,” she said. 

In voting with the majority, Councilmember Laura Ferguson said she didn’t want to delay the development.

“I think it’s a reasonable project that’s been brought forward. The impacts that were of a concern to citizens regarding traffic and safety have been addressed by two third-party neutral companies that have indicated that this is going to be 30 to 40 percent less traffic than the hospital had incurred when it was open” said Ferguson. 

The city does not have information on a timeline for the project.

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