By Tina Richards

The Orange Planning Commission unanimously recommended approval of a 40-unit development on the site of the former Marywood Catholic School atop Villareal Street, during a public hearing, Sept. 21.

Now, the New Homes Company has only to gain city council approval before breaking ground on a project that will require the demolition of the historic Marywood school buildings and chapel, and force the hillside on which they sit to be excavated and rebuilt from the bottom up.  

Neighbors of the Marywood property have expressed their concerns about the impacts that vehicle traffic generated by the 40 new homes will have on their narrow residential streets and Santiago Blvd.  They are also leery of the noise, dust, truck traffic and disruption two years of demolition, excavation and construction will levy on their neighborhood.  And, protective of their community ambiance, they’d like to see the development scaled back by a few units so it “fits” better.

Good to go
Their objections, however, were overruled by the legal language of city codes and the Environmental Impact Report (EIR). The anticipated noise, pollution, and truck traffic generated by the project in the short term are within municipal standards.  Traffic studies that focused only on intersections along Santiago Blvd. (not side streets or the nearby 55/Lincoln interchange) determined that congestion at build out is within two percent of the “lowest acceptable service,” and the impact of nearly 400 car trips per day on residential streets is “insignificant.”

The New Homes Company’s site plan meets the R-1-6 zoning designation that has been in place on that parcel even as it housed a Catholic school.  The city’s general plan allows for two to six homes (averaging 4,400 sq. ft.) per acre with minimum 6,000-sq.-ft. lots. The builder is proposing less than three homes per acre on minimum 7,000-sq.-ft. lots.  

The only significant impact identified in the EIR is the loss of a cultural resource, that is, the architecture and history of the buildings slated to be torn down.  The builder and the city agree that preserving the buildings is not a viable option because they were built on unstable ground.  Geologic studies have not been able to determine if the movement has stopped or not, but with two City of Orange water tanks located at the base of the slope, the city would prefer to stabilize the hill.  In addition, continual slippage or compaction will eventually render the structures unsafe. 

To mitigate the cultural loss, New Homes has arranged with the Catholic diocese to retrieve all of the artifacts before demolition, and some of the salvageable material will be reused in the project. 

The road not taken
While neighbors who will be affected by the development find the city’s sentencing of Santiago Blvd. to “lowest acceptable service levels” galling, and fervently believe that the demolition/excavation exercise will stomp on their “right to quiet enjoyment” of their property, they are infuriated at the city’s refusal to apply “infill development” standards to Marywood.  

Created in 2004, largely to protect Old Towne, the infill development guidelines are intended to preserve neighborhood character and streetscape integrity.  Using those guidelines, Marywood neighbors believe the project might look different.  If categorized as “infill,” Marywood would have to “respect existing residential patterns, follow the established scale and massing of the existing streetscape, and avoid abrupt changes in neighborhood character.” That is, the proposed two-story mini-mansions would more likely be single-story rambling, ranch-style houses. “This isn’t Aliso Viejo,” resident Michael LeBeau points out, in defense of the “infill” designation.

In addition, infill guidelines discourage gated communities.  As it stands, Marywood will be gated and residents are insulted by the concept. “Putting a gate there suggests that extra security is needed,” says Hugh Devaney, “or that the new homeowners are an elite class that existing residents can’t share the streets with.” 

Maybe so, maybe no
While the EIR clearly describes the project as “infill development,” city planners say it isn’t. Because the criteria for infill development is poorly defined in city documents, Marywood’s status is open to interpretation.  Infill development is considered to be “four houses or less on a parcel” or “new single family dwellings.” The city says, at 40 homes, Marywood is too big and that infill standards do not apply.  Neighbors say Marywood is, in fact, “new single family dwellings,” and so the guidelines do apply. 

Meanwhile, New Homes has agreed to a few concessions to satisfy residents.  While it considers the gated community to be a marketing asset, it may be willing to provide pedestrian access.  Instead of grading 13 hours per day, the work schedule has been reduced to eight hours per day.  And crushing building materials on site to be used as fill will eliminate some 1,300 truck trips up and down Villareal.

The City of Orange, however, dismisses residents’ concerns about negative impacts because, while they may be heinous to those who live there, they are well within legal limits.  Terrie Warner lives within a mile of the project.  In its response to her comments on the EIR, the city said that her “right to quiet enjoyment” was irrelevant.

During the hearing, New Homes Vice President Doug Woodward said, “Marywood is not a building, It’s not an investment.  It’s where you live.”  

“Exactly,” Terrie Warner says, “exactly.”

Marywood development gets the nod from Orange Planning Commission