By G.W. Schulz
For locals familiar with the small town of Pacifica, nestled quietly off Highway 1 a few miles south of the city, major commercial development isn't the first thing that comes to mind. It's mostly a residential town with a Safeway, a Taco Bell, and not much else comprising its business community as far as chains go.
Over the years, various developers have targeted a patch of empty land near the beach that once served as an 87-acre rock quarry (known as Rockaway Quarry) until its owner grew old and Pacificans began using the now naturally outgrown tract as a network of unmarked trails.
An East Coast developer named R. Donahue Peebles bought the quarry last summer for $7.5 million and has pledged to build 350 exclusive hotel suites, 130 single-family homes, more than 200 town houses, live-work lofts and apartments, and an untold number of stores, such as the Gap and Trader Joe's.
But Peebles is up against one thing that has stopped developers in the past: a 1983 city ordinance that requires any developer to receive voter approval before including a housing element in the quarry's future. Pacifica has so much residential property as it stands that its early hope was to attract some commercial businesses to help fortify city coffers with new tax revenue. But Peebles stands to make a hefty chunk of change if housing is included in the development; he's told the business press in the past that single-family homes on the property could range anywhere from $3 million to $8 million.
Peebles has so far shrewdly declined to submit an official plan to the city, but through a series of public meetings has been promising a mixture of housing and commercial elements, both designed with New Urbanism concepts.
When we first reported this story a few months ago, records we'd obtained from Pacifica's City Hall showed Peebles had already spent $163,000 attempting to overcome the 1983 law with Measure L, which Pacifica residents will vote on today. Since then, we've learned that Peebles has spent $1.3 million, and critics are now complaining about two push polls residents have received in recent months. (One reported question: "Would you prefer this project or the big-box store it's currently zoned for?")
We noted that Peebles had hired a costly public relations firm (two staffers worked as communications hacks for both the Democratic AND Republican parties; only big money consulting gigs can truly ease partisan woes) and a group of Sacramento lawyers known for their success at carrying ballot measures. Tens of thousands more went to professional petition circulators. Peebles is no virgin to development battles. He's played a role in erecting major hotels and commercial office buildings inside cities on the East Coast where cronyism and pay-to-play politics are a fact of everyday life.
And Peebles isn't the first developer to take on Pacifica's 1983 law. Just a few years ago, a publicly traded Texas developer named Trammell Crow spent nearly $300,000 in an attempt to build 165,000 square feet of retail space, over 300 apartments and townhouses and a town center. The effort was easily defeated by voters. Some concern over how development at the quarry would impact the area ecologically still exists today.
Rain or shine, opponents of Measure L say they'll be taking a walk along the quarry this evening after an election party.