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Community hopes iconic San Marcos Restaurant Row will be memorialized in redevelopment plans

Old California Restaurant Row in San Marcos was once a popular destination for North County families. But these days, the site has more vacant spaces than open businesses, after being sold in 2020 by the family of the row's creator, Jim Eubank.

“My feeling is that the previous owners really let the place go, which is why a developer came through in the first place and saw an opportunity to tear it down and start fresh," said Erin Harper, the owner of Old Cal Coffee House.

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Tania Thorne
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KPBS
Pictured, the outside of Old Cal Coffee House connected to the closed down, San Marcos Brewery and Grill, in the Old California Restaurant Row in San Marcos, Calif. Dec. 6, 2022.
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Harper said her five-year lease was supposed to be up for renewal in 2021, but instead, “There was no offer of a new lease. It kind of rolled into month to month. That's when we figured out their plans weren’t to work with us or preserve us, we weren’t being told anything," Harper said.

In June 2022, the new owner, identified as Elizabeth Papera, teamed up with developer, Lennar Homes, to build a mixed use development on the site, with 202 housing units, 10,400 square feet of commercial space, and a 1.5 acre park.

Renderings provided to the City of San Marcos show a contemporary design, far removed from the Row's current old California architecture.

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City of San Marcos
Pictured, a rendering of a mixed use development proposed for Old California Restaurant Row in San Marcos, Calif. June 27, 2022.

To achieve the new look, many of the buildings will need to be demolished. The restaurants that will stay include Buffalo Wild Wings, Fish House Vera Cruz and Cocina del Charro. But other businesses, like Harper's, will be displaced, and their owners now have to rethink their long term goals. For Harper, that means relocating her coffee shop and rebranding.

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“Old California Coffee House is directly tied to old California Restaurant Row," Harper said. "And without Restaurant Row, to me the name just kind of sounds like old coffee.”

Harper already has a new name for her business: Ascend Coffee Roasters. But she has yet to settle on a new location.

Jim Hadley, the owner of 55 Yard Line Sports Bar, is also rethinking his plans.

"This was gonna be our retirement. We were gonna run it real good and when we call it quits... sell, and take our money and retire. So now that's out the window," Hadley said.

Hadley’s lease will be month to month after February. He said he has about a year and a half to figure out his next steps.

"It's just defeating to see this property in general go away. We've been in the town for 31 years, so we've seen it grow. This was the epicenter... and to see it disappear, it's sad," he said.  

Hadley said he understands the town is progressing, but he doesn't think the infrastructure is set up for that growth.

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Tania Thorne
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KPBS
Pictured, the road entrance to Old California Restaurant Row in San Marcos, Calif. Aug. 25, 2022.

"San Marcos Boulevard is terrible to drive on... (and) the 78, forget about that. And it's just getting more and more," he said.   

San Marcos Mayor Rebecca Jones recognizes the traffic concerns, as well as the need for housing.

She says she also talked with the developer about preserving history, telling them,"Yes, we need housing. However, it's important to remember that this is something that the community really cherishes, as far as the quality and the history of San Marcos. Because truly, Restaurant Row was part of what has put San Marcos on the map." 

She says the city expected changes for the site when it got rezoned for mixed-use development more than a decade ago. "Not that it would change right away, but that it would change at some point in time," she said.

We reached out to Lennar Homes multiple times to ask about the project, especially for details about the housing plans, but no one from the company was available for an interview.

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Tania Thorne
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KPBS
Interior of Old California Coffee House in the Old California Restaurant Row center in San Marcos, Calif. Dec. 6, 2022.

Whatever is in those plans, Erin Harper at the Old California Coffeehouse says she hopes they keep some of the elements that make Restaurant Row so unique.

"I'm hoping that they'll really preserve the character and what people love about Restaurant Row because of the wood beams, the tile work. This isn't just some run-of-the-mill, cookie cutter, development. This place has a lot of character and I think we need to work to preserve that. As well as the hard working business people here," Harper said.  

Work is expected to start in the spring on an environmental impact report for the development.