The Merkantile shopping center redevelopment project’s revised landscaping plan that preserves a long hedge and will add more trees got the green light Thursday from the Solvang Board of Architectural Review.

Board members also gave conceptual approval to the proposed signage plan, although with some reservations, and to the addition of 2,500 square feet of space to an existing building on the site at the corner of Alamo Pintado Road and Highway 246.

Work on the project slowed to a crawl last year after residents protested owner Josh Richman’s application for a development plan amendment that would have resulted in the loss of five trees and a hedge that lines the property along Old Mission Drive.

Richman said final engineering work revealed that to meet the slope required by the Americans with Disabilities Act, additional grading would be required that would damage the tree roots, and the newly discovered need to tear down and rebuild a retaining wall would have damaged the hedge.

In hearing an appeal of the amendment granted by the Planning Commission, the City Council ruled in favor of Richman but gave appellants a partial victory by requiring the developer to meet with neighbors to come up with replacement screening and landscaping that would meet residents’ concerns about safety, aesthetics, sound proofing, maintenance, drought tolerance and graffiti.

Council members required that the plan be approved by the Board of Architectural Review before work could proceed.

After meeting with residents, Richman and landscape architect Jim Burrows came up with a plan that was further modified following another recent meeting with residents that will not only keep the retaining wall but will also save the hedge.

In addition, Burrows told the board Thursday night that an additional 11 to 13 new trees will be planted along Old Mission Drive and should reach 20 feet in height in 10 years and that he believes the hedge height can be increased from 5 to 7 or 8 feet.

“What we are proposing is a ‘native’ feel that also draws from the neighborhood,” he said in describing the types of trees planned for planting.

“Our goal is to plant, especially along Old Mission Drive, as soon as possible to take advantage of the growing season,” he said.

The heavy public opposition at previous meetings on the landscaping plan was absent from Thursday’s meeting.

“It’s really clear Josh and his team did put a lot of though into it,” resident Gary Blake said of the new plan. “They listened to the neighbors. I really appreciate that.”

Blake said in meeting with their own arborist, they came up with some suggestions for improving the plan, including replacing the sycamore trees with oaks, which he said would grow at about the same rate and provide better screening in winter, when the sycamores would be bare.

He also recommended adding windows and awnings across the blank rear wall of the building “so it will not be so monolithic.”

But Burrows told the board that oaks would be slower growing and have a lower silhouette compared to the taller sycamores.

Board members were also generally pleased with the new plan.

“I think you’ve done an amazing job working with the community to make the landscaping right,” board member Karen Waite said. “I was a little concerned about leaving the hedge because it has a tendency to look a little ratty and unkempt.

“But you’ve really gone out of your way to work with the community,” she added.

Signs, signs, everywhere signs

In a separate but related issue, the project architect said they plan to seek variances for signs on the building fronts that are larger than those allowed by city ordinance.

Based on the ordinance, the New Frontiers sign on the front of that building would look like a postage stamp at 24 square feet, so architect Steve Rigor said they would seek a variance to allow a sign more proportional to the mass of the structure at 128 square feet.

He said they would also seek slightly larger signs on the monument directory signs at 2½-, 4½- and 6½-square-feet for the tenants rather than the 2-square-feet allowed by the ordinance.

Audience and board members didn’t seem to have much of a problem with the sizes, but they didn’t like the idea that the individual tenant signs on the taller monument directories would be internally illuminated.

They preferred to have only the lower Merkantile identification sign in front of it backlighted and leave the tenant signs dark.

“My understanding is this project is for locals,” said resident David Watts. “Signage is not really needed for that.”

Board member Elsemarie Petersen agreed: “I don’t think you need to have these lit. All the buildings will be very visible.”

Chairwoman Melissa DeLeon also had concerns over the fact there would be three directory signs, none at the entryways as specified in the plans.

“I’m not a fan of illuminated signs for these directory signs,” DeLeon said. “I think it loses what we’re trying to do.”

Board member Carla Duus also supported having two directory signs, one on Mission Drive and one of a smaller scale on Alamo Pintado Road.

Board member Mark Infanti disagreed about the lighting.

“If these are moderately lit lights, I don’t think they will be an issue,” he said.

Adding square footage

The third issue involved conceptual approval for the expansion of so-called Building A, where the People Helping People Thrift Store was formerly located.

The project architect said the U.S. Forest Service is interested in leasing the building for its regional office, but that would require adding 2,500 square feet of space — mostly on the lower level — to the 6,972-square-foot building, which would result in the loss of four parking spaces.

It would also require installing security fencing around the 10 parking spaces on the upper level, which he said would be screened by some type of vine that would grow through the fencing.

The exterior would be redesigned to make it “a little more ‘foresty’” and “Yosemite-esque,” the architect said.

Infanti expressed concern that the number of employees for the office would overflow the 10 parking spaces, but the architect said most of them would simply be checking in there, then going out to work in the field.

Waite was concerned about the fencing itself.

“We want to make sure it doesn’t look like a big federal compound,” she said.

“I think architecturally it’s gorgeous,” Petersen said. “It couldn’t be any better, I really like it.”

Board members voted 5-0 to approve the plan conceptually.

Outbrain