Residents concerned about scale of Colby Circle project

A controversial residential development approved 12 years ago will come before the architectural commission next Wednesday for an extension.

The commission will decide on another two-year extension of the Colby Circle Townhomes on April 24 amid a new developer taking over. If approved, this will be the fifth extension of the project’s design approvals since 2007.

The townhomes are part of the Old School House Specific Plan, which was approved in 2006. The plan itself covers the entirety of the campus, from revamping the Old School House centerpiece to building a space for Trader Joe’s to the demolition of the old Claremont Inn in favor of apartments and a parking garage.

Part of the specific plan is a 96-unit townhome development to be placed at either side of Colby Circle, at the site of two parking lots. Those thin parking lots are currently used for customers and employees of the Old School House center.

But some in Claremont are not happy with the upcoming development, particularly those who live just north of the proposed development site at the Griswold townhomes. Katherine Rubel, who lives “right over the fence” from the site, is concerned about privacy and overcrowding.

“My biggest concern is to have something behind our townhome that is looming over the fence into our backyard,” she said.

According to the city, 43 townhomes will be on the north side of Colby Circle and 53 to the south of the street. The project has been characterized as the final piece of the OSH plan, since construction can only occur after the parking structure is built on the site of the former Claremont Inn.

The plans have been in progress for more than a decade. Initially approved in 2007, plans were delayed by the economic recession, as well as “the complexity inherent in the phased development of the entire OSH property,” the city said.

Community Development Director Brad Johnson noted those complexities include all the other aspects of revamping the entire OSH area.

“For a property owner to take on that level of rehabilitation and new construction of a bigger mixed use campus property, it’s complex,” Mr. Johnson said.

The design approvals have been extended four times—in 2009, 2012, 2014 and 2016, according to the city. If next week’s extension isn’t approved, the approvals are set to expire on May 9.

The Colby Circle development also appears to be changing hands—Newport Beach-based developer Intracorp Homes is in the process of purchasing the property, the city said. Intracorp is requesting the extension to “evaluate any design changes, prepare construction plans, secure financing, obtain necessary approvals and permits  and construct improvements that are prerequisites to the project.”

Mr. Johnson noted that it was hard to say what Intracorp wanted to change about the project because it hasn’t been finalized with the city.

“I’m sure they gave some ideas on trying to make it look more modern than the last iteration,” he said. “They mentioned a few ideas to us, ran some preliminary conceptual plans by us, but have not submitted any formal revision to us.”

OSH property owner Harry Wu was out of the country, but Claremont DoubleTree General Manager Andrew Behnke, who works with Mr. Wu, said the property owner decided to sell that portion of the property because he wanted to focus on maintaining the existing businesses and leave further development up to Intracorp.

“He’s more than willing to do it if he has to, but he’d rather not,” Mr. Behnke said.

Rick Puffer, Intracorp’s vice president of development, was not available for comment before press time.

Suzanne Christian is another Claremonter concerned about the project. She believes the development is too dense, will take away parking for businesses such as the Candlelight Pavilion, add to congestion on Indian Hill and be without amenities needed in a residential development.

“It’s not like there are one or two problems, there are 20 problems with it,” Ms. Christian said.

Ms. Christian says the project has inadequate parking—35 public spaces, in addition to residential parking—that could impact residents and local businesses in the area. The density of the project is also a concern—the 96 townhomes will be packed in with narrow driveways in between the buildings, she said.

“They are so narrow that even a city official told me the trash trucks are going to have to drive in and back out,” Ms. Christian said. “No turnaround, no room for emergency vehicles or anything like that.”

The upcoming townhome development at the former site of the Claremont Inn, comparatively, will have 30 units along with a parking garage.

Ms. Christian wrote a letter to the editor in a previous edition of the COURIER outlining her issues with the project.

Mr. Johnson claimed that the size of the development had actually been scaled down 44 units during its initial approval process in 2007.

Opponents of the project claim the townhomes will be three stories—a garage below-grade on the first floor and two floors of living space above. Mr. Johnson said the buildings were brought down to two stories in what he characterized as a compromise.

“I think the sensitivity to the neighbors to the north is why there were two stories rather than three stories,” he said.

Ms. Christian advocates for a new environmental impact report (EIR) for the project.

“It’s been 12 years since it was originally planned,” she said. “They need to have a new plan and a new environmental impact report. They need to go through the process again.”

Mr. Johnson disagrees that there needs to be a new EIR, saying the project has already been through the CEQA process.

“We wouldn’t recirculate an EIR, do a supplemental EIR, or a subsequent EIR unless there was a major change,” he said. “The ideas [Intracorp] are talking to the city about are more changes in a minor category.”

If the project was completely restarted from scratch, “The property owner would say that’s a legal taking of their property rights and the city would be in a legally challenged position,” Mr. Johnson said.

Mr. Behnke noted that when the specific plan was first being circulated in 2006, there was ample opportunity for the community to weigh in, including several neighborhood meetings where he said more than 100 people showed up.

“If people were saying it was all new to them, I don’t know where they were back in 2006,” he said.

Ms. Rubel first learned about the development in 2012, after she moved into the Griswold townhomes. Even back then, she said the city told her the project was not going to change.

“They said they would give me the plans and there’s nothing that could be changed about it,” she said. “That’s what they tell us now also, that it’s set unless [the approval] expires.”

Both she and Ms. Christian would like to see a development that is smaller in scale, with more green space. Ms. Christian is advocating for one-story units that are less congested.

“I could see them putting in a really nice development—pool, spa, workout area, a place for kids to play on the green,” she said. “Maybe another parking structure for outside people to park.”

Ms. Rubel wants a development that saves trees and allows more space, “something that looks attractive, like the rest of Claremont.”

“It’s disconcerting, it’s a lot of impact for one little area,” Ms. Rubel said. “It’s a lot of traffic and a lot of people. I’m fine with people, but I think it needs to be done thoughtfully.”

The architectural commission will decide on the extension April 24 at 7 p.m.. There will be time set aside for public comment. But Mr. Behnke made clear that the meeting will focus only on the time extension for the project, not about density or the number of floors. 

“That ship has sailed,” he said.

—Matthew Bramlett


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