Mission Viejo officials are moving forward with an ongoing plan to redevelop and update a 200-acre stretch in the middle of the city connected by Oso Creek – but at a roughly 32% cost increase than initially planned for.  

It’s expected to cost about $68 million – $20 million more than estimates from two years ago.

City officials say the increase is in line with inflation for construction materials and labor costs.

“We feel that that is completely within the realm of where things have gone in the last two and a half years,” Assistant City Manager Keith Rattay said during Tuesday night’s council meeting. 

“This is the natural progression of a project like this. We know a lot more about what the needs of the project are going to be and how things fit together. We’re just more informed,” he said. 

Mission Viejo officials have been working for several years toward a redevelopment plan to create more community centers and open space from Oso Creek Trail to Lake Mission Viejo.

The council voted unanimously Tuesday night to take another step toward the goal of connecting Mission Viejo’s civic and retail centers to other city spaces that’s been discussed for decades.

The plan would create more restaurants, storefronts, gathering areas and community centers in the area adjacent to Oso Creek over the course of several years.

It’s been an effort plagued with transparency concerns from residents critical of the plan.

Most notably, the city purchased a vacant and bankrupt Stein Mart building across the street from city hall for about $12 million to kick-start redevelopment.

[Read: Mission Viejo Moves Ahead With Stein Mart Purchase, Locking In Millions Of Bond Debt

That purchase prompted criticism from residents raising concerns about secrecy, with one critic bringing a lawsuit against the city during the negotiation process.

Plaintiff Jann Kronick-Gath claimed the city violated the state’s open meetings law during closed-session property negotiations with illegitimate agenda notices. 

[Read: Downtown Mission Viejo Property Owner Challenges City Hall Secrecy in Court]

But an OC Superior Court Judge determined that Mission Viejo City Council members didn’t violate state transparency law when they negotiated Stein Mart redevelopment plans behind closed doors.

[Read: OC Judge Says Mission Viejo’s Secret Property Negotiations Don’t Violate Transparency Law]

That didn’t stop some people from voicing concern about the massive price tag of the renovations.

“To me, no matter how you look at it, $68 million is a lot of taxpayer dollars for a project that is alternately described as a park or an entertainment retail center,” Mission Viejo resident Cathy Palmer said at the meeting.

Most speakers at the meeting supported the project as a way to update an area of the city many described as old and run down.

“My family and I feel that we have to travel outside of the Mission Viejo city limits in order to find top restaurants, entertainment, and a place to just walk around in a family-friends environment,” two-year Mission Viejo resident John Appleman said.

One problem for the city is the number of business owners in the shopping center across the street from city hall.

Some of these business owners, located near the Stein Mart building, have opposed the project and refuse to work with the city toward the redevelopment goals.

“It concerns me that despite the city’s best efforts and attempts to work together, it seems that there’s a couple owners that chose not to work together for any improvement to the Village Center,” Mayor Brian Goodell said. “What I’m hearing and what I feel is this is a tired center at best right now.”

In a search for potential contractors to start initial project development, only one developer expressed interest from the 17 firms contacted by the city.

City staff is set to create an agreement with that retail development partner to discuss moving forward with first phase elements of the plan — largely concerning the former Stein Mart building and surrounding areas.

Councilmember Cynthia Vasquez said she supported the project, but the lack of developer interest causes concern.

“It makes me wonder if there are aspects we’re overlooking,” Vasquez said at the meeting. “It makes me curious to know if there are insights that the developers have that we’re missing.”

The project in its entirety would span five different phases over several years. The council only approved moving forward with the first phase Tuesday night.

Future development phases will return to the council for further discussion as the project progresses.

“Let’s move forward with this first stage — this first vision,” Goodell said. “Let’s see where it goes. I think in the next 30 years, we’re going to look back and go, ‘What a brilliant idea this was.’ And we’re going to add another jewel to the beautiful crown of Mission Viejo.”

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


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