Thursday, April 5, 2007
Bob Leidig strolls the downtown blocks of Carmel-by-the-Sea and identifies properties that his family owns. There’s the Village Corner, where he sipped his morning cappuccino; the Sharper Image shop, which used to be the Leidig Bros. Grocery Store; the Winters Gallery complex, which used to be a gas station; and the Court of the Fountains, which used to be a barn. His family has been in the area since his great-grandfather, John Martin, bought ranching land during the Gold Rush.
Now Leidig, an avuncular man in his late 60s, wants to expand his real estate kingdom in Carmel-by-the-Sea. The developer has asked the City to annex a 3.7 acre, trapezoidal-shaped property bounded by Valley Way and Highway 1—land he walked through on his daily trips to school as a kid, and where his grandson attended preschool.
If the powers that be approve the annexation, Leidig hopes to change the zoning so that he can remodel the abandoned Carmel Convalescent Hospital and build about 40 clustered condominiums. Although he’s asking for a high-density R-4 zoning designation, Leidig has agreed to limit the project to 45 units, a number that would hold for future property owners.
“We’re not gonna build anything that’s huge by any standard.”
“We feel our heritage is in Carmel-by-the-Sea,” says Leidig’s son Curtis, whose Leesburg, Virginia-based development company is working on the project. “We’re not gonna build anything that’s huge by any standard.”
But some Carmel residents—including homeowners on Upper Trail and Lower Trail, to the west of the hospital site—say that Leidig’s plan is too much for the neighborhood. During the comment period for an environmental study of the proposal, they submitted a stack of comments an inch thick, all of them in vehement opposition.
• • •
Sitting on the wooden deck of her Upper Trail home overlooking a spectacular view of Point Lobos, Pam Gillooly sips water with neighbors Chris McKay and Mike LePage, venting over Leidig’s proposal. Gillooly has lived in this house since her mother bought it in 1974, and she loves the spacious tranquility of the hilltop neighborhood. But she worries that if the City allows Leidig to annex and develop the hospital site at a higher density than the seven single-family homes its current zoning allows, it’ll set a precedent that could eventually crowd her space. “I believe this is the beginning of developers coming in and trying to take over neighborhoods, ” she says. “He’d be making a lot of money, and we’d pay the price.”
LePage worries about the impact of the additional traffic on narrow streets. “Why would I want one more car on the street?” he asks, two worry lines bisecting his sunglasses. “What is the benefit to residents?”
“Definitely no benefits to us,” Gillooly says. “They’re benefits to his”—she smacks her floral-print thigh—“pocketbook.”
McKay, for his part, has water on his mind. “Today we’ve got the lowest ice pack in the Sierras since the ’80s, and we’re talkin’ about building more homes?” But LePage defends Leidig on this point, noting that the site has an allocation of eight acre-feet of water, enough for about 50 homes.
The staticky chorus of a hip hop song—Cash rules everything around me—interrupts the conversation, and McKay, 60ish and wearing a V-neck sweater, turns away from the patio table to answer his cell phone.
• • •
At the Vista Lobos Community Center some 60 Carmelites—most of whom snub the complimentary shrimp and cheese, though a few sip the wine—listen skeptically as Leidig begins a presentation.
He opens with his key arguments. The Carmel Community Hospital operated from 1931 until 1962; then the building was converted into a convalescent hospital with an adjacent preschool, both of which shut down in a state of disrepair in 2004. “We believe this is a historical building, and it deserves to be in the city of Carmel rather than the county,” Leidig says.
Leidig stresses his plan to build a half-dozen affordable units—which would sell for about $150,000 or $300,000 for one- or two-bedroom units, respectively—to house some of the City’s workforce. “The city of Carmel needs low-income housing, and this is one of their opportunities to achieve that goal,” he says.
Leidig suggests that restoring the hospital and building high-end condos will improve neighbors’ property values, while leaving the abandoned hospital to rot and attract transients will bring them down.
Additionally, Leidig argues that the traffic won’t be any worse than it was when the convalescent hospital was operating in 2004.
What he doesn’t mention: According to City documents, a built-out project with 50 market-rate and 15 affordable units would generate about 445 daily trips. That’s more than twice as many as during the convalescent hospital days, but about the same as the community hospital’s historic traffic.
• • •
Leidig opens a gate on Valley Way, which would be the only entrance to the property. Walking over cracked pavement through the heavily treed acres, Leidig articulates his vision. “There’ll be a unit here, a unit here,” he says, pointing toward a little sapling and an ivy-strewn bank.
The oil-engineer-turned-developer sees fountains, courtyards, underground parking with visitors’ spaces, unique architecture, and clusters of 2,000-square-foot units going for roughly $1.5 million each. He’d build into the hillside, sparing most of the trees. “The neighbors of this property are not going to see these houses.”
Leidig says he bought an option to buy the property from Rigoulette, LLC, a Pebble Beach-based company. He won’t disclose the price, but he says the option will hold the sale until the City decides on the annexation and zoning.
But the property’s centerpiece is crumbling. The hospital, finished in 1930, is an H-shaped building with ivy on the outside stairs and cots still in the rooms. (An NYPD squad car and a paint-splattered table sit on the outside patio. Leidig says the current owner is filming a gory thriller in the derelict building. On a recent visit, he saw pools of fake blood in the hospital halls.)
Leidig says he’d like to gut the interior but retain the hospital’s concrete structure, put a condo or two on each end, a fitness center in the basement, and a community space in the center. He’ll restore the rotting windows and tear down the old building that used to house the preschool.
The renovation will cost “millions,” he says, making it “economically unfeasible” to develop the parcel as it’s currently zoned.
• • •
Though he’s invested tens of thousands on this proposal, Leidig faces formidable hurdles. He cleared one when the City’s draft environmental study concluded that the annexation and pre-zoning would have no significant impact on the neighborhood. But if the City rejects that finding, he’ll have to fund a complete Environmental Impact Report.
Even if the planning commission approves his requests, he’ll then have to get nods from the City Council and the Local Agency Formation Commission. If the City refuses to annex the property, Leidig says, he’ll likely apply for a zoning change through the County. But in that case, Leidig says, all deals in regard to density are off, and he may pursue plans to build a boutique hotel.
City planner Brian Roseth describes a Catch-22: Without a more detailed project proposal, the City can’t do a complete environmental review. And without a decision on the review, Leidig isn’t offering a more detailed proposal.
“We’re evaluating this project—not in a vacuum, but in a preliminary state,” Roseth says. “This project needs thorough environmental review, and it’ll have to be responsive to what they propose.”
Asked what benefits annexation would offer the City, Roseth sighs. “Well, I suppose there are a couple,” he says, citing the affordable housing units and a historic hospital. He says he’ll make his recommendation to the Planning Commission public on April 6.
“The first thing we need to establish is: Do we have the public service capability [for the project]? Would it have significant impact on the neighborhood? If we can’t answer those questions, then we shouldn’t annex the property.”
THE PLANNING COMMISSION WILL DISCUSS THE proposal AT 4:30PM, APRIL 11, IN THE COUNCIL CHAMBERS ON MONTE VERDE BETWEEN OCEAN AND SEVENTH. 620-2010.