Developers: More Hotels and Events, Less Restrictions to Grow IB Economy

Published July 13, 2012 by Imperial Beach Patch.

A panel of five developers told city officials Wednesday that for Imperial Beach to grow a successful economy, it should shorten the project approval processes, raise height limits and do its best to market and brand the area.

The city of Imperial Beach staff and city council received suggestions at the workshop meeting on which direction to point the city’s resource at a workshop meeting at City Hall. The meetings are held once a season.

Since it wasn’t an official council meeting, no action was taken during the workshop.

Instead at the meeting’s conclusion Mayor Jim Janney asked City Manager Gary Brown to work with Assistant City Manager Greg Wade to bring a report back to council at a meeting next month that details the sort of actions council can take based on the panel’s recommendations.

“Every government is asking itself ‘What do we do post-redevelopment?'” said Sherman Harmer, president of Urban Husing Parners. “‘Where do we get new money? How do we replace redevelopment and where are the opportunities?'”

Harmer is also a professor at USD’s Urban Studies graduate school program. He said he has recently been to similar meetings in La Mesa, San Marcos and Escondido.

The meeting’s panel was assembled at the council’s request, Wade said.

In previous workshop meetings and city council meetings, councilmembers asked staff to seek more advice in areas like land use development and planning on what direction to take post-redevelopment agency.

Wade said city staff needs ideas on how to “generate tax revenue, to create economic development, to foster businesses in our community.”

Before the panel spoke, City Councilmembers spoke briefly about the kinds of big questions they wanted answered.

One of the questions doesn’t stand out, said Councilman Ed Spriggs, but a single question stands out: how does the city get to a place where its finances are sustainable and it can survive without redevelopment?

“Without redevelopment, our financial projections and a very astute financial record indicate that if we don’t grow our revenue sources and various revenue sources then we won’t be able to even maintain our current levels of public safety in the next two to three years,” he said.

Councilmembers Lorie Bragg and Jim King said Spriggs hit the nail on head.

Mayor Janney wanted to know the panel’s opinion on why their is a lack of investment in the area.

“Why aren’t people coming here to build?” he asked.

Linville Martin called the city’s building codes and restrictions the biggest impediment to growth.

“If you want to be a classic southern california beach town then that’s a choice you have to make. cause if you do, you’re not going to get any TOT,” he said.

The city’s Commercial Zoning Review, an amendment to commercial zoning rules, will appear in front of council Aug. 1.

To save entrepernuers and businesses time, a streamlined Environmental Impact Report process will be part of commercial zones amendments to appear in front of council Aug. 1, Wade said.

Martin said the city should allow taller buildings in order to increase property value.

About an incentive program in the rezoning plan that allows buildings to be an additional five feet tall, he said, “All that allows you do is put an air conditioner on top of the building. That doesn’t make any sense at all. I mean if you’re going to do it, then¬† you should do it right.”

“And those things will sell because they are in a prime location. You get along that close and when you can see the water, all the sudden you have value,” Martin said.

Later in the meeting Mayor Janney asked if the city “blew it” by establishing a 15-foot ground floor requirement in its zoning amendment plan.

Most important is the pedestrian experience and amenities provided in the area, said Stephan Haase who has and in the public sector as a planning director for the City of San Jose..

“The more valuable that is by how all the public ground is developed and all the amenities in that area that you share, the height won’t be an issue anymore.”

“I don’t think you blew it,” Haase said. “I don’t worry about height if I don’t like the street.”

Hotel and restaurant entrepreneur Brett Miller said he hopes to someday do business in Imperial Beach. If there was land on the water right now he would want to build something, he said.

Miller owns and operates 14 hotels and restaurants primarily in Pacific Beach, Arizona and Bakersfield.

“It got into our blood. It got into us,” he said repeatedly throughout the night about IB.

Two years ago, Miller worked with the city and a property owner to invest in an apartment complex at the corner of Imperial Beach Boulevard and Seacoast Drive. The project fell through when agreements over price and other matters could not be met.

Describing the difficulty and years long process it took to build the hotel Tower 23 and its restaurant Jordan in Pacific Beach, Miller recommends removing road blocks or limitations to development like height limits.

He also advised the city to take advantage of what is already here.

“Every night at sunset you have one of the greatest spectacles that God has ever provided,” he said. “And if you provide a place where people want to be, they’re going to show up.”

A formula to successful redevelopment involves quick processing but branding and marketing must be seen as a necesssary investment as well.

“You need to tell your story,” he said. “It needs to get inside their hearts and you need to sell that emotion.”

Other changes that could have a positive impact: defer fees until a project is completed, low-cost processing fees for land use entitlements or other city services.

Underutilized properties like empty lots or dilapidated property need to be put to use as well.

“I drove around tonight before the meeting and on Seacoast you have one house sitting there where you should have a four-story building,” Harmer said.

Harmer also encouraged working to get investment north of Palm Avenue along San Diego Bay at the city’s northern edges on the waterfront.

“Look at that whole area in the north there, by that back bay where you can actually get something going there, but it does encroach on a residential area so you’ve got to deal with that,” he said.

It can take time, but a concerted and combined effort can pay off, Harmer said.

“When we went into Little Italy 12 years ago, Little Italy was a dump,” he said. Builders, marketing and branding have turned the area around.

Consistent programming, marketing, branding and an active Business Improvement District were key to attracting people to Little Italy, he said. Other panelists said music festivals can be a successful way to bring large amounts of people to town.

“Every time you have a space like that that’s public realm, you just want to leverage it to death. add as much programming as you can to it. create as much¬† traffic and it will build your retail it will build your sales tax it will build your property tax,” he said. It’s just a catalyst. It’s a money engine.”

Harmer said 85 percent of reservations for his hotel The Lafayette Inn are made online, so image is very important.

“You can rebuild that street into something that has great artistic and photographic value and that would do more to bring value and hotel visitors than any other thing I can tell you,” he said.

Toward the end of the meeting, Councilman Ed Spriggs asked if panelists believed the city should focus attention on the Seacoast Drive commercial area “not to the exclusion of other areas but as a way to begin developing ourselves as a visitor serving community.”

Panelists emphatically agreed the Seacoast Drive waterfront is critical to the city’s economic future but serving the needs of visitors and residents don’t have to be mutually exclusive.

“The locals are going there too, so if you can find a way that people who live in this community and people who visit this community can enjoy the same thing and not treat it as an either or opposition,” Brett Miller said.

Cindy Killman was one of three people who attended Wednesday’s meeting who was simply an interested local resident.

She moved into a place on Seacoast Drive in 2009.

“I’ve been coming here 20 years,” she said. “I stayed at the Seacoast Inn when it was just a rat trap.”

Killman liked the tone of discussion at Wednesday’s meeting but said sometimes with the city it seems like the left hand doesn’t know what the right hand is doing.

She thinks the city should allow short-term rentals longer than 30 days and the area needs a dog beach.

Robin Clegg also recently moved to Imperial Beach.

“I’ve got to say I was blown away by how amazing this community is and I don’t think I’ve recovered yet from realizing I actually own something here on the water,” she said.

Still, the area needs better restaurants, more retail options and bike racks for starters, she said.

“And I cannot for the life of me figure out why you would have your office commercial on the downstairs level on the oceanfront where you have all the management companies where there should be retail. Move those guys upstairs to the residential part,” she said.

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