A Mall in San Juan Capistrano’s Los Rios District?

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From our south county friend Mike Laux:


The Los Rios District in San Juan Capistrano is the oldest neighborhood in California, and is on the National Register of Historic Places. I’m sure that many of you have been to Los Rios Street to enjoy the Ramos House Cafe, the Tea House, Hidden House Coffee, or any number of the cute little shops or galleries. It’s a lot of fun to take the train here and enter a neighborhood that was once the home of Native Americans that built, and worked at the Mission. A few of the adobes date back to the late 1700’s. There is a big canopy of old trees, there are no curbs or sidewalks, and it really feels like a step back in time. It’s not unusual to see horseback riders coming down the street.


One of the unique things about this area is that it is primarily a residential neighborhood where the shop owners live in the homes where the businesses are located. Not every house has a business, but a lot of them do. There are quite a number of restrictions placed upon the property owners concerning what may be built both in size and scope, as well as building materials. Some of the homes are in fact historic, and because of their “Mills Act” status, cannot be altered in any significant way. These rules are in place to maintain the rural feel that this neighborhood enjoys. If you want to change the color of your house, you need to get approval from the Cultural Heritage Commission and the City Council, so as not to adversely affect the character of the District. This area is a supporting element of the charm of the City of San Juan, and the Mission.


The largest piece of property is the Ito Nursery, which has been there since the ‘70s and has served the community well. The Ito’s being ready to retire, have let everybody know that they are ready to sell, and have a lot of people interested in the land. The City of San Juan has put restrictions on what can be done with the parcel, like they have with the rest of the District.

Ito Nursery Sunshine Greeting Card by Edward White

Ito Nursery Sunshine Greeting Card by Edward White

Here’s what the Specific Plan says about this piece of land, which is zoned Low Density Commercial:

Low Density Commercial (LDC) District.

Purpose and intent: To provide for low intensity commercial uses that reinforce the rural character of the Los Rios area and will not alter the existing topography. Such uses will require minimal, permanent structures, low lighting intensities, and will generate minimum traffic and parking demand.

Principal uses permitted:

Retail sales and storage of plants, trees, shrubs and other nursery items; farmers’ market items such as fruits and vegetables sold from temporary open air stands; arts and crafts display and sales; outdoor ceramics.

Non-retail uses such as greenhouse, crop and tree farming, wholesale nursery.

Park and recreational uses that are passive in nature such as picnicking, arts and crafts workshops, cultural performances, etc.

Conditional uses permitted:

1. The keeping of horses, commercial or non-commercial, as set forth in Section 9-3.620 of the Municipal Code, provided the density does not exceed six horses per acre and a live-in caretaker resides on the site.

d. Development Standards: Structures, permanent or temporary, shall be designed and sited consistent with the Architectural Design Guidelines and Site Design Standards of this Specific Plan and comply with the following:

Access and Parking:

All access to the property will be either from Paseo Adelanto, or River Street as depicted on the Circulation Plan of the Los Rios Specific Plan.

Parking shall comply with Section 9-3.602, Off-street Parking of the Municipal Code.

Development Processing:

Development shall be master planned and designed as a whole even though construction may be phased.

Any proposed structure, commercial or non-commercial, requiring a building permit, shall be subject to the Development Review Procedures of Part 4 of this Specific Plan.

Supplementary District Regulations: Unless specified otherwise, structures and uses will be required to meet all applicable development standards of Title 9, Article 6, Supplementary District Regulations of the Municipal Code.

In a nutshell, it says that the area is to remain rural. As we all know, the value of a piece of property is greatly affected by the zoning, and what you are allowed to build, or develop on that land. The Specific Plan restricts not only what can be built on this land, but what activities are allowed.


Enter Dan Almquist, the developer. As a member of International Council of Shopping Centers, you know what he wants to put in there, a mall! He has told the Ito’s that he wants to get the zoning changed so he can put in his mall, and that they can cash in on their nursery. The Ito’s would like to get as much money out of that land as possible to retire to Laguna, or Hawaii, or some place far from San Juan, and leave the residents with the consequences of this overdevelopment. His proposal includes 3 times the allowable square footage of buildings, restaurants that would put an alley full of dumpsters in residents backyards, block views, affect air quality, and put 300 parking places where it’s zoned for horses.


On top of all of that, it’s at the entrance of the only street that lets residents in and out of the Los Rios District onto Del Obispo Street. This street already has achieved gridlock because Del Obispo is crossed by Camino Capistrano, the Amtrack/Metrolink train track, Paseo Adelanto, and Alipaz St, all within a few hundred yards. We will have a really hard time coming and going from our houses. Dan Almquist, although promising transparency, has yet to offer his solution to this huge obstacle. He has gone around to the neighbors and told them how much he cares about their concerns, and telling them that he will conform to the Specific Plan. His proposal shreds the current zoning, but he lives miles away and his main concern is how much money he can extract out of that piece of land, not the residents. That is what developers do.

What our community needs to do is show up at the City Council Meetings, write your City Council Members, and let them know that you don’t want to see a few people profit at the expense of the local residents. I am appealing to all of those who come to this area to take a break from urban malls and gridlock. We need to protect the oldest neighborhood in California from the greed of developers.

Anybody with me ?

torches and pitchforks

Michael Laux
Los Rios St
San Juan Capistrano

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"Admin" is just editors Vern Nelson, Greg Diamond, or Ryan Cantor sharing something that they mostly didn't write themselves, but think you should see. Before December 2010, "Admin" may have been former blog owner Art Pedroza.