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Envisioning a business park: Council approves policy for selling city property


The Escondido City Council at its June 20 meeting approved draft policies to govern acceptable use and development of land sold by the City in the Downtown Transit Station Target Area—with a dream of a business park hovering near.
Many cities of similar size have a business park. Escondido doesn’t, and Mayor Sam Abed would like to see one. A business park the city would encourage in the same way it encouraged the Westfield North County mall (originally called North County Fair) 30 years ago.
In a staff report to councilmembers, Assistant City Manager Jay Petrek reported on the proposal for approximately 25 acres the city owns. When Escondido approved its General Plan several years ago it included areas where the goal was to increase employment density, retain business and attract key types of business that pay higher wages. This area is considered “ripe for development,” he said.
Guiding principles in the plan included “increasing employment densities and attracting businesses with salaries that raise the City’s median income.”
The city acquired the five properties in this target area over the last decade with the purpose of eventual redevelopment. Mayor Abed has made clear over the years that he wants a business park on this city land. Current uses include a public works yard and bus maintenance.
Petrek told the council, “The intent of these policies is to aid the City Council in making efficient, consistent decisions with regard to disposition of city-owned properties within this important target area.”
The assistant city manager displayed a map originally drawn several years ago that indicated the city properties and surrounding properties, and their proposed uses. “Dynamics have changed since this map was drawn,” he said. “Five key properties are owned by the City and it controls the sale and development. It makes sense to establish guiding principles for future sale of the properties.”
The city previously sold the old police station headquarters on Valley Parkway to Integral Communities for a mixed use development of 126 residential units.
The proposed “guiding principles” for the new policy included the following:
• City shall specify occupancy
• City shall optimize the sale price or lease rent
• City shall either retain or acquire approval authority on the future building design, including square footage and parking ratios.
• Buyers should provide information regarding employment opportunities including number of jobs, employee densities, salary ranges, sales tax generation
• For projects involving retaining the existing improvements, buyers should provide information regarding how the use and as built status of the property will contribute to overall local well-being from an economic standpoint.
• Buyers should expect to demonstrate how the intended use of any city properties will facilitate the future development of surrounding private property.
Deputy Mayor John Masson commented, “I like these policies. I think the next step is to develop an area plan, so we can set the bar at the height we want the bar set. Perhaps identify some uses we want, such as high paying jobs, manufacturing, whatever. Creating an overall plan.”
Asking if the plan only applied to city-owned properties or included a larger area, Masson added, “I think overall, the bigger the plan covering the majority of properties, the better. So they can understand how to repurpose and fall in line with what we want as a city.”
Masson said he didn’t want to get into specific, but to talk about what kinds of businesses they want to encourage, such as uses that increase the job base and walkability.
Mayor Abed agreed, “I think this is an excellent start,” he said. “We have struggled with developers. We did not have any standard.” The city wants to avoid self-storage and warehouses, “the least desirable in job creation,” he said. “With a business park on city-owned property we could create between eight hundred and a thousand good-paying jobs. We should have high expectation for a business park.”
Calling land near the Transit Center and next to the confluence of I-16 and Hwy 78 “the most valuable piece of land in the city,” he lamented that it is currently used for public works maintenance and bus maintenance.
“I want to set a vision for our business park and set development standards,” said Abed. “Let’s use it to create a business park. We talked to a lot of people, but now this is the peak of economic development. We have about twenty-five acres that the city owns. I’d like us to give direction to staff to create development standards to eliminate warehousing and storage.”
Abed said he wanted to set such standards at least for city-owned land “for a higher standard of developments while maintaining flexibility.” He envisions computer manufacturing or green manufacturing that creates jobs that pay $75,000 and higher. “Let’s make the highest and best use out of this very valuable land.”
Councilmember Ed Gallo said, “This is exactly what I told our city manager three city managers ago. This land is too valuable to keep storing trucks and gas. That was seventeen years ago. So the wheels of progress move slow, but we are getting there.”
The right kind of development can change a neighborhood, said Gallo. “Look at downtown San Diego. Where Petco Park is was a piece of crap. Look at what has happened since it opened. That’s dynamic. I like the idea of focusing on what kind of things that we want, not the type of things somebody wants us to take. But we also have to say, but this is what we will do.”
Recalling that it took two referendums to build the regional mall at Via Rancho Parkway, Gallo added, “Just imagine if it hadn’t been built there, we would have a six mile commercial quarter running through downtown. If you think ahead what you want to do and make it work, it will happen. Everybody is talking about sprucing up Grand Avenue. This is one way to do it, because this is just a couple of blocks away.”
Councilmember Olga Diaz commented, “I’m glad to see some effort for standards of disposing of city property. I’d like to see it citywide.” She said it would “be nice if standards for city-owned property were more open and universal and have it on our website.”
She added, “Often when we get offers, they come because one of us knows somebody. If you don’t have a property for sale the masses can’t find it. I would like openness.”
Diaz was concerned about possible conflicts of interest caused by sale of city land and members of the city council and planning commission. “There are lots of ways to calculate benefit,” she said. “I have concerns in this area. I’m of a mind that I can’t support selling city owned property if there’s a conflict, I can’t support it.”
She said the proposed standards didn’t address this issue. “I would like to see it addressed.”
Abed said he thought the city already has a conflict of interest policy for city surplus property.
City Manager Jeffrey Epp said, “There are policies that apply to sale and purchase. They are stale. We could look at them again.”
Abed said he felt like Diaz was “making accusations. This is nothing of substance. Every city council member has abstained from voting [on property transfers they might be conflicted over.]”
City Attorney Michael McGuinness added, “To my knowledge we have been doing that.”
Abed added, “Every council member has abstained from such votes. Personally, I surpass the legal requirements. If you have specific issue, you bring it up. We need to adhere to conflict of interest standards. Throwing accusations publicly is not good. We have been very sensitive, we have met with the city attorney several times on this.”
Diaz responded, “I have brought it up with specific instances.” She said she was thinking about not only this council but future councils. “When we review policies, we should always be forward thinking. I’m not making accusations,” she said.
Gallo said conflicts of interest can be esoteric and hard to define. “Ten years ago, I had a real estate license with a company that was marketing a piece of property the city was thinking of purchasing. I took myself off the listing group. I had told the City Attorney that I would have no personal profit if the property was sold and he said to me: ‘Do you want to go to jail?’ I had to move my license for a couple of years until the city decided not to buy the land. Once that was over I moved my license back.”
Councilmember Mike Morasco said he agreed with Diaz because he recently finished ethics training. “It’s forever alarming when you go into the nuances of what is legal, and technically considered ethical. It’s important for us to be extremely aware of all these nuances. It’s almost impossible. It’s frightening when you read this stuff. Things done with good intentions and became problematic later.”
The vote to adopt the new policy was 4-1, with Diaz voting no.

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