PRESS: The Valley News – August 2013

This article was originally published on the Valley News website on August 23rd, 2013 by Tim O’Leary (link to the article).

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Texas landowner steps aside, new plan set for vast tract west of Old Town Temecula

A new development plan is being crafted for the hills west of Old Town Temecula that calls for a cluster of up to 2,000 residences as well as land for open space and possibly a college or hospital.

The proposal comes about two years after a Texas land magnate abandoned his plans to develop the 271 acres that he had owned there for about three decades.

“This is the last large piece of land in Temecula,” said Robert Honer, a principal at Ambient Communities, the development company that has purchased the site. “We feel very fortunate to be in the right place at the right time. We take a lot of pride in what we’re going to do with the property.”

The project, which is being called Village West, is the latest of several development plans to target a shelf of land that was once destined to become the hub of a $74.5 million Western-theme entertainment complex.

That entertainment complex triggered widespread opposition and lawsuits in the mid- and late 1990s before the development plan was moved to Murrieta and later abandoned. So far, no organized opposition has surfaced to the plan taking shape under Ambient’s ownership.

“It’s not at all contentious at this early stage,” Temecula City Councilman Jeff Comerchero said in a recent interview. “They (Ambient) really seem to have a good sense as to what they want to do and what we need to do to get there.”

Honer said the company hopes to submit its formal application to Temecula by Thanksgiving, and forward it to city planning commissioners by late next year. If it is approved and built, the project would change the face of Temecula’s west side and alter its traffic circulation patterns.

Ambient’s purchase of the land from John Firestone at an undisclosed price was finalized in February. Firestone, who is said to be recovering from complications from a fall, could not be reached for comment.

Firestone forged a connection with Temecula long ago, and the site has been one of the most closely watched as subdivisions sprouted elsewhere and Old Town blossomed into a thriving historic business district.

The site is also a focal point because its development has hinged on the construction of the Western Bypass, a four-lane roadway that has been planned for years on the city’s west side.

Planning was set more than a decade ago to build a bypass that would skirt Old Town and eventually connect to an existing freeway interchange at Highway 79 South with a future interchange at the boundary of Temecula and Murrieta. The first phase of the bypass would link Highway 79 south with Rancho California Road.

Development plans surface, stumble

Firestone charted a longer, more storied history in the city than most other landowners and developer. He bought his land about 30 years ago, well before Temecula became a city in 1989.

The site’s development potential surfaced when Zev Buffman – a Broadway producer, arena builder and a founding partner of the Miami Heat pro basketball team – cobbled together a plan to develop a project that would play off Old Town’s historical setting.

Buffman rounded up some early financial backers, but he triggered widespread opposition. Buffman won a narrow victory in a March 1995 advisory election, but a grassroots group headed by a retired engineer packed city hearings and filed lawsuits against the project.

Buffman’s plan called for the use of Firestone’s land as well as 8.5 acres in Old Town that spanned out from Main and Mercedes streets west of Interstate 15.

But that project suffered setbacks, and Firestone stepped into a more visible role in April 1997. Buffman’s plans changed again, and soon he began eyeing a 66-acre site at the junction of Interstates 215 and 15 in Murrieta that has been referred to as the “Golden Triangle.”

Buffman eventually decided to shift his plans to Murrieta. He made the decision despite Firestone’s threat, which later materialized, to file a lawsuit over the move. Lawsuits filed by Firestone and others were dropped after the Buffman project unraveled in Murrieta.

Firestone began planning to build apartments on his land, but that effort stalled and he subsequently constructed an office building in the Crystal Ridge business park. About that time, he also filed a lawsuit against the city over a dispute relating to the stalled Western Bypass.

Much of the uncertainty over Buffman’s project, as well as Firestone’s efforts to develop the site, have centered on a city requirement that calls for developers to pay the cost to build the first phase of the bypass.

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a bridge across Murrieta Creek at Highway 79 South and another $11 million to build the four-lane bypass around Old Town.

In February 2010, Firestone crafted a new development plan for his property. That plan called for land to be set aside for about 2,800 homes and apartments as well as land for a hospital, college, city park and open space tract.

Firestone offered to earmark 26 acres of his land for a hospital site and 56 acres for a college campus if a state university or private facility could be located there. He also reached a non-binding “entitlement processing agreement” with the city that was intended to examine a range of issues that included the amount of land needed to build the bypass.

But delays crept in and Firestone suffered a series of health problems.

Ambient enters, sets plans

The string of stalled projects on the site drew the attention of a range of investors and developers, including several who held key positions at The Corky McMillin Companies and other firms. Several of McMillin’s principals, including Honer, created Ambient, which has developed several projects and has offices in La Jolla and San Luis Obispo.

Ambient was one of eight suitors for Firestone’s land which, over the years, had drifted on and off the real estate market. Then the recession and a subsequent scarcity of commercial loans impacted market conditions before serious discussions began last year, and Firestone finally agreed to sell the property to Ambient.

“It finally was real this time, and (Ambient) just separated themselves from the pack, if you will,” said Nate Pivaroff, the Irvine-based Lee & Associates broker who handled the transaction.

“People have always been interested in the property,” Pivaroff said. “It’s seen as one of the best properties along the I-15 corridor.”

Honer said Ambient principals had met with Firestone several times over the years.

Ambient was able to move quickly when Firestone’s property was listed for sale in November, Honer said.

“There was a lot of interest,” Honer said in a recent telephone interview. “He was interested in a quick close (of escrow) and we were able to do that. We were able to wrap that up quickly.”

Ambient plans to move first on a nearby project. The company hopes to build a 141-unit apartment complex called Temecula Foothills at the south end of Pujol Street near the Temecula Community Center and food pantry.

Honer said Ambient hopes to win approval of that seven-acre project, which it purchased in March 2012, in a few months.

Ambient has met several times with Temecula planning staff since it purchased the land, said Patrick Richardson, city community development director.

Honer said the city has been supportive, and Ambient is working closely with staff on the design of the Western Bypass, the designation of open space areas and the clustering of future residential and commercial uses.

“They’ve been very supportive of everything,” Honer said. “It makes sense to grade (the site) as little as possible.”

The height of the buildings will be lower than those proposed by Firestone, and the shopping and office buildings will be designed to serve residents of the planned community rather than draw customers from a larger geographical area.

“We don’t want to compete with Old Town, Honer said. “We want to bring them business.”

Honer said efforts are being made to make the Western Bypass less obtrusive and other funding sources, including developer fees collected for regional circulation projects, are being examined for that work.

Honer said a range of environmental safeguards are being examined, including a plant, animal and fire protection corridor that would buffer the project from the nearby hilltops.

Comerchero, who serves on a council committee assigned to the project, said he is pleased with what he has seen so far.

The impact of the Western Bypass and the intensity of the proposed development appear to be “substantially less” than Firestone envisioned, Comerchero said.

“It really will be a lot less intrusive than I thought it would be,” he said. “It really doesn’t go very high (up the hillside) at all. It doesn’t impact the view at all.”

Over the past four years, Temecula has purchased 158 acres for open space along the ridge west of the city. Some of those purchases have been partially funded by a regional conservation agency, which now owns and manages the parcels.

Meanwhile, the city continues to evaluate additional land purchases along the hillsides and ridges when key parcels become available, Comerchero said.

“We’re working toward that,” he said. “We don’t own all the properties we want. We want to make sure that whole corridor, that whole ridge, is protected.”

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