Hundreds of homes to replace old downtown hospital in Escondido

Ever since Palomar Health decided to close its downtown Escondido campus in 2015, residents have speculated about what would happen to the 13.8-acre property that occupies a prominent spot in the city’s core.

On Monday, residents are invited to attend a meeting to learn about Integral Communities’ proposal to replace the old Palomar Medical Center with a mostly residential housing project.

The project calls for razing everything on the property and building 510 dwelling units and up to 12,000 square feet of commercial space. The proposal is not final and some details likely will change, city officials and the development firm said.

“The project is in the early planning stages and we are responding to comments from the city about its design and makeup,” said Ninia Hammond, a spokeswoman for Integral. “As we get into the infrastructure, grading, site design and product types, we are balancing what is saleable and marketable with construction and site constraints.”

To encourage high-density housing in the urban core, the property is zoned for 100 units per acre, meaning that, theoretically, if the buildings rose high enough and underground parking was constructed, more than 1,200 dwelling units could be built there. But the current plans submitted by Integral call for less than half that number based on what they think will sell best and not be cost-prohibitive to construct.

The “Palomar Heights” project includes three planning areas with a variety of multi-family housing and commercial components.

Residential units would range in size from 600 square feet to almost 2,000 square feet, with parking ranging from 0.70 spaces per dwelling unit to 2.25 spaces per unit.

About 900 surface-level parking spaces are proposed for the site, with additional street parking to be provided on Valley Boulevard.

The breakdown of residential units: A four-story apartment building for seniors with 90 apartments; three four-story apartment buildings with 258 units; and 162 three-story town homes.

According to the city, a “landmark structure” is also envisioned for the northeast corner of Valley Boulevard and E. Grand Avenue, serving as a focal point for Grand Avenue. The building would contain most of the proposed commercial space and provide access to the public.

Other features of the project include a dog park, a centrally-located pool/spa, and a community pavilion.

Since plans were first submitted to the city by the Encinitas-based developer late last year, the number of units has increased by 60 at the urging of the planning department.

“We met with them and told them we were looking to increasing the density on the site,” said Community Development Director Bill Martin. “It allows 100 units per acre. They came back with another revision to the site plan that added another multi-family building along Grand Avenue.”

Martin said he thinks “we’ve pushed them as far as we can” regarding density because to go to taller buildings with underground parking wouldn’t be financially feasible.

Integral agreed to purchase the property from Palomar Health a bit more than a year ago for $18 million. Originally, the deal was to be finalized in 15 months; however, that agreement has been changed and is now dependent on City Council approval of the plans before a check will exchange hands, city officials said.

Integral and Palomar Health are hoping for a quick planning process with the optimistic goal of winning City Council approval by the end of this year. It would likely take two to three years more to build the project.

Hammond said Integral plans to break ground “shortly after winning approval.”

The company is no stranger to Escondido. It is currently constructing, in conjunction with another builder, a 126-unit condominium complex on the other side of downtown where the old police headquarters building sat for decades across from the transit center.

City Manager Jeff Epp said Palomar Heights is a significant project.

“It’s a key part of our downtown and it’s located in the center of the community for all the same reasons there was a hospital on that site,” Epp said.

The Escondido Chamber of Commerce agrees.

“The Palomar Heights project is situated on a prime piece of property overlooking downtown and not too far for residents to ditch the car on the weekend in favor of walking to the historic district,” said Rorie Johnston, the chamber’s CEO and president.

“Retailers and restaurateurs are counting on business growth based on the influx of new residents who will be moving into the area. Though the density of the proposed project is well below the R-100 zoning, 510 new units will greatly increase the foot traffic in downtown and ultimately the revenue.”

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