The City of Oceanside, which has enjoyed a renaissance in recent years, is preparing for a major civic improvement: rehabilitation of a 465-acre former sand quarry for parkland and public buildings.

However, financing for the project — estimated to cost more than $100 million over 25 years — is far from certain. So far, about $25 million in tax revenue has been identified to pay for it. Those funds would come from a proposed commercial development on about 10% of the former quarry site. And, although an advisory committee has been at work for two years, the project must face a City Council vote.

The project is known as El Corazon (Spanish for “the heart”) and has proceeded in fits and starts during the past decade in the northern San Diego County community. For 60 years, the El Corazon site was a sand and gravel mine. Holes were created in the ground, and parts of the property sunk. About 40 acres are still too unstable to allow buildings on them and will become athletic fields, according to George McNeil, vice chairman of a committee that recently created a master plan for the property.

Despite the quarry’s history, the property has promise. The former mine operator gave the city the land in 1994. Garrison Creek runs along the undisturbed northern and western edge of the property and has created a lake.

The City Council approved a “ vision program” for the 465 acres in 1997, but the program got caught up in an unsuccessful proposal for a hotel and golf course proposed for a portion of the property. Developer Douglas Manchester also proposed a second hotel in the city’s downtown. Manchester’s projects collapsed after the Coastal Commission rejected the proposed downtown hotel in 2002 (see CP&DR In Brief, October 2003).

The planning process began again two years ago, after city voters narrowly rejected a ballot initiative that would have turned the entire parcel into parkland. A portion of the site is currently used for the city’s green waste recycling. The waste is helping to replace the soil at the site, which is so denuded from mining activity that “weeds have trouble growing,” said McNeil.

The 15-member, council-appointed committee is scheduled to present the draft master plan to the City Council this month.

“They worked really hard to reach a consensus,” Mike Blessing, deputy city manager, said of the committee members.

“I think it’s a plan that has success written all over it,” said Councilwoman Shari Mackin, a member of the El Corazon planning committee until she was elected to the council this year.

But approval of the plan, if it comes, is far from the end of the process. The council would still need to rezone the land, do environmental review and come up with funding.
Oceanside itself is undergoing a rebirth. For years, it had a reputation as a tough town with a high crime rate, in part due to its close proximity to the Camp Pendleton Marine Corps base. But in recent years, the city of 175,000 has been buoyed by job growth and a strong housing market that has some of the least-expensive coastal housing in the region. Several new residential, commercial and mixed-use projects are also under construction in the city’s revitalizing downtown core (see CP&DR Local Watch, November 2000).

McNeil and committee Chairman Hugh LaBounty said the current plan differs for the earlier vision program in its level of detail and greater citizen involvement. The first plan was a list of specific uses for the site. With the new plan, McNeil said, “we have specific recommendations for almost every inch.”

The plan would create the city’s largest park, with 363 acres of parkland and open space. The new park would provide athletic facilities in a city that has grown by 15,000 people during the past few years. McNeil said the city needs more park and recreation areas away from the city’s coastline. “You can’t play softball or soccer on the beach,” he said.

Another 47 acres would be devoted to public facilities such as a senior center, a community center, an aquatics center and a library. A commercial development on 55 acres in the southeastern corner of the site would help fund the public projects.

“We had enough acreage so that everybody got everything they wanted,” said committee member Joan Bockman, who previously was a member of the city’s Planning Commission.

Well, not everybody. Some people in the city were pushing for a golf course that would cover most of the property’s useable land. But an analysis prepared at the committee’s request concluded that a city-owned golf course would not be economically feasible.

The committee’s proposal calls for stores, restaurants and two hotels. The area around El Corazon is entirely built out, and the first hotel is expected to serve business clients at a nearby industrial park. The stores and restaurants would be within walking distance of nearby residential neighborhoods, McNeil said.

The expectation is that the city would lease property to a commercial developer. The committee recommends that the city dedicate tax revenue from the commercial development to El Corazon park and public facility development. The city could potentially issue a bond to speed up public development, with tax revenue from the associated commercial project paying off the bond.

The city got the idea for the finance plan from the nearby City of Escondido, which leased land for development of a shopping center to raise money for the building of Kit Carson Park. “We always thought that kind of model was what we were striving for,” said Diane Nygaard, a committee member.

McNeil described the development as “useable” for local residents and not a tourist destination. “I don’t think (people) will want to get off Interstate 5 to see it,” he said. “They’ll want to get off Interstate 5 to use it.”

The topography of the site, which consists of a variety of elevations, means the project will not end up as a flat, suburban park, according to Bockman. She envisions meandering drives with roundabouts, small parking areas, sculptures and native plants such as oak trees, Torrey pines and sycamores. One hundred and fifty acres around the creek would be left in a natural state.

Construction on a senior center on the property is expected to begin soon, regardless of the council’s actions this month.

Michael Blessing, Oceanside deputy city manager, (760) 435-3069.
Shari Mackin, Oceanside city council member, (760) 435-3029.
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