Jim Watkins

Jim Watkins

Discussing Del Mar’s past, present, and future

Posted on July 02, 2018

It was 1967 when Jim Watkins pulled into Del Mar, driving a well-worn car with a wife and four children in tow and $1,000 in his pocket. An investment analyst and developer who had built custom homes, motels, and apartments, Watkins went broke in the ’60s recession. But undaunted, he went looking for a new place to raise his family as well as new opportunity. Watkins had researched Del Mar’s potential and had a clear vision for its future. “I envisioned Del Mar as what it was back in the ’40s,” Watkins recalls, “a delightful seaside village with a European flavor and all kinds of charm and attractions.” His 1969 analysis, “Why Del Mar,” became the basis for a major revitalization effort after Interstate 5 bypassed the town in 1966, devastating its economy. Prior to that, when Highway 101 was the main thoroughfare between Los Angeles and San Diego, the village was a thriving pit stop for gas, food, and beverage. When the new freeway opened up, Del Mar’s businesses shut down, including the iconic Hotel Del Mar.

“Why Del Mar” concluded that “Del Mar’s greatest potential was simply to build on and enhance its very unique history and village character.” It called for converting service stations (there were nine at the time), upgrading existing structures for shops, and replacing the hotel once at the heart of the village. Watkins put together partnerships to renovate the Stratford Square building at the corner of Camino Del Mar and 15th Street, bringing in dozens of new businesses including the Golden Rolling Belly (GRB) English pub, Earth Song Book Store, The Sugar Plum Bakery, a sweet shop co-owned by Watkins’ late wife, Carol, a craft shop, and other stores. Developments also included the Del Mar Inn and Canterbury Corner.

 


Del Mar’s greatest potential was simply to build on and enhance its very unique history and village character


 

But the centerpiece of Del Mar’s rebirth was Watkins’ construction of the $40 million L’Auberge Del Mar in 1989 on a 5.2-acre site overlooking the sea where the Stratford Inn, later renamed Hotel Del Mar, once stood. Since then, L’Auberge has won many accolades, and according to Watkins, it has been the largest single source of net revenue for the city, providing more than $30 million alone in TOT (transient occupancy taxes), not counting sales and property taxes. Watkins’ company, Winner’s Circle Resorts International, also developed the first vacation ownership resort in California, across from the Del Mar Race Track. The company created many more such properties, becoming a leading timeshare developer nationwide in the 1980s. Watkins’ daughter, KC Vafiadis, is president of the company, which now manages multiple properties held by the family.

Del Mar’s economy has fluctuated with the times, but new plans are in the works. A $17.8 million civic center is now open at Camino Del Mar and 10th Street, a craftsman-style project that includes a city hall and offices, town hall, and television studio, as well as an underground parking structure with 140 spaces. Watkins and others fought for a “village square” concept,” passed by Del Mar voters, so the center also boasts a 13,000-square-foot plaza with panoramic ocean views for public events. His other daughter, Kit Leeger, is an architect who was instrumental in the civic center’s design.

Downtown Streetscape, a multi-year, multi-million-dollar revitalization plan, will spruce up the village with repaved roads and new sidewalks, lighting and landscaping, benches and art. Start of the project, delayed due to higher than expected construction bids, is now slated to begin this winter.

Watkins also believes it’s up to private enterprise to “reevaluate and reestablish what the community wants: a vibrant, pedestrian-oriented, economically viable downtown” by creating foot traffic on Camino Del Mar south of L’Auberge Del Mar. “Downtown is dead,” he declares, calling for the renovation of “ugly buildings” and bringing in new retail shops and restaurants such as the high-end eatery being developed by Hillstone Restaurant Group on the site of Bully’s North, the longtime landmark that closed last year.

Jim Watkins

Bernadette and Jim Watkins in L’Auberge Del Mar

Del Mar Plaza, a shopping and entertainment complex that opened in 1989, is now owned by Brixton Capital’s Marc and Patty Brutten, who are moving ahead with plans to invigorate the center. Marc Brutten says he’s in negotiations with a gastropub for a restaurant space on the plaza level, as well as a coffee shop and ice cream store on the street level site once occupied by Smashburger. A clothing store, a sports medicine clinic, and a dance studio are also planned. Many more community events are scheduled for the ocean-view deck, which Marc believes are key to the center’s long-term success. He is also working with the city to try to quickly modify the center’s signage and lighting.

Watkins is enthusiastic about proposals for “a world class resort without walls” on a 20-acre site between Via de la Valle and Dog Beach atop Del Mar’s North Bluff, which has long been in private hands. “The property has been closed off to the public for more than 100 years,” says Brad Termini, CEO of Zephyr Partners, which is developing the property with the Robert Green Company, both of Encinitas. “Our goal is to open it back up to the public.” Plans, which continue to evolve, include a luxury hotel, public park, walking trails, food and beverage offerings, and parking spaces. The developers have been on an 18-month “listening tour” to gather community input on the project and look forward to meeting with more groups this summer. Termini says no agreement has been reached with a luxury hotel operator as of yet but indicates there is “lots of interest.” Construction could begin as early as 2020. Watkins says the proposed resort could be one of the top facilities on the Southern California coast for weddings and conferences.

Ever the optimist, Watkins is known for his colorful sayings. One of his favorites is “Rip off that rear view mirror — all that matters is the road ahead.” Credited with redeveloping Del Mar in the past, Watkins’ vision is now firmly fixed on its future.   Andrea Naversen

Photo by Vincent Knakal