Imagine a neighborhood where vibrant city life blends seamlessly with the with the quality of life of Southern California’s suburbs. That’s precisely the vision of Gary Levitt, President and Founder of Sea Breeze Properties and the creative mind behind North City in San Marcos.
On a bustling Tuesday afternoon, Levitt and I sat on the patio at the Copa Vida coffee shop in North City. The adjacent street was virtually car-free, as the neighborhood was set up to promote pedestrian activity and nurture a “people-centric” environment.
As we chatted, vendors set up booths for the weekly farmer’s market. Students and other residents flowed in and out of the local shops and restaurants. Across the street, some professionals at the Union Cowork opened their doors to allow their dogs to lounge in the doorways. Behind us, cranes towered over the construction of the latest phase of North City, a testament to the growth of what Levitt calls an “urban node.”
“It’s what we need in Southern California,” Levitt said. As additional urban nodes are developed in other areas of North County and beyond, “suddenly you can afford to create mass transit between them, since there would be a lot of people living there.”
What is an Urban Node?
North City is an “urban node” – a place where a lot of people live in a smaller area within a larger suburban area. It provides the housing density that the region (and the rest of California) desperately needs without having to build that densely everywhere.
“All the studies say that the only solution we have to the affordable housing crisis is to build more,” Levitt said. “That will bring the cost of housing down because people like me will overbuild at some point. Then the person who has an older building will have to reduce the rent to attract tenants out of this building. It’ll trickle down.”
While many suburban residents express hesitation over building dense housing, Levitt asks himself what will be the impact to society if we DON’T build?
“In all the years I’ve worked in this business, nobody ever said to me, ‘We need some more homes, because we want our kids to live in our neighborhood, and there won’t be anything you can afford if we don’t help you build,’” Levitt said.
“As a society, now we realize that we should have looked at it differently. We should be building more, but we should do it in the right places. We believe [North City] is the right sort of place.”
Getting Into Development
Levitt is a chartered accountant and CPA, although he has not practiced as such in the USA. He obtained his Bachelor of Accountancy Degree in Johannesburg, South Africa and immigrated to San Diego in January 1982. Levitt’s first introduction to the real estate industry was as a controller for a very small company. Over 10 years, he learned all aspects of project management, development, entitlement, and financing. After that, he took on small development projects as a side hustle, which helped him gain the confidence to establish Sea Breeze Properties in 1998.
One of the skills Levitt developed is a keen eye for identifying areas of opportunity. He first focused on the SR 56 corridor, which was a future freeway at the time. After some years, he turned his eye to North County’s SR 78.
Choosing San Marcos
Where North City now stands, Levitt recognized the synergy of freeway access, future rail accessibility, its proximity to California State University San Marcos (CSUSM), City Hall, Kaiser Permanente, Scripps Health, and the planned expansion of Twin Oaks Valley Road. He began buying pieces of property and approached the City of San Marcos about the master plan for the area.
“Because there’s a university, rail, a hospital, and a freeway, we could look at things with a little more vision as to what it could be,” Levitt said.
The city established a task force that collaborated closely with Sea Breeze Properties to develop a new master plan. Encompassing 200 gross acres, it features an urban design with parking on the sides, spacious sidewalks, and a central area with trees.
Building Through Collaboration
Through this process, Sea Breeze Properties and the City of San Marcos have built a relationship of mutual respect for which Levitt is thankful.
“The opportunity created here in San Marcos is turning into the opportunity of a lifetime. The partnership we have with the city is becoming more special every day,” Levitt said. “We’ve earned their trust, and they’ve earned our trust. I really appreciate their involvement in and their recognition of what we’re doing.”
Levitt has a similar relationship with CSUSM, as North City expands on its southern border to include more buildings to support the university’s efforts.
“CSUSM is a great place to go to school. We want to help them be more successful, which also will help us be more successful,” Levitt said. “The people we’re working with believe in our vision, we believe in theirs. It takes time, but we’ve proven to each other that we both will go out of our way to do what we said we were going to do.”
North City – The Specs and Future Plans
Currently home to 16 businesses, North City also has a lot of housing density entitled above its retail spaces – 3,400 homes on 150 acres. Although the first building consisted of student housing for CSUSM – which provides 800 student beds – only about 20 percent of North City residents are students. The remaining 80 percent live in Block C, which consists of market rate rental housing. North City is also home to CSUSM’s Extended Learning Building and plans are in place to build another 500-bed student housing building.
Construction is already underway for the latest building in North City, which aims to fill a missing housing niche in the area. Levitt observed the typical progression in traditional suburban communities, starting with small townhomes for young adults and expanding to larger homes as families grow. When residents reach the empty nest phase and want to simplify their lives, their option is to downsize to the same type of unit they started with (which may not meet their current lifestyle needs) or leave the community.
Luxury Living for the Next Chapter
Levitt aims to break this mold by constructing a 12-story building with 460 units, 20 percent of which are luxury units tailored to empty nesters. These well-appointed residences will include a penthouse and townhomes featuring quality finishes, spacious decks, and concrete and steel construction so residents won’t hear their neighbors. The height allows Levitt to build more open spaces between buildings to create inviting areas where people would want to spend their time.
“We hope the young people who want to live in an urban area can be here. But at the same time, I want to build a product that applies to a person like myself, something an empty nester would want to live in,” Levitt said.
Levitt hopes some of the empty nesters within a five-mile radius will be willing to explore urban living in a community where they can easily meet friends, enjoy local amenities, and reduce their reliance on personal vehicles.
North City Synergies
With his keen eye for opportunity, Levitt recognizes the potential synergies for a large North County employer to locate to North City in such close proximity to CSUSM.
“There’s such an opportunity for a technology or health company to come here and have an influence what sort of degrees [CSUSM] would offer and be graduating students with skills to fit your company’s specific needs,” Levitt said. Since 80 percent of CSUSM’s graduates stay in the region, providing quality jobs with a livable wage in close proximity to their homes is a win-win.
“We are creating a place that young, talented people would want to live in, a place where you can walk to work and live in the same neighborhood.”
Leading the Suburban Shift
Levitt believes there should be other “North Cities” around the region, but he recognizes the need for him to prove that an urban place in a suburban location is a place in which people would want to live.
“Our goal is to create a place that’s desirable to come, visit, and live in. If we’re really successful, it’ll be something that other communities will replicate,” Levitt said. “It’ll have the best of everything, from an urban perspective, without some of the urban problems that are more prevalent in today’s world.”
To connect with Sea Breeze Properties, please email Erik at email@example.com for an introduction.
Read the story covering Rebecca Jones, Mayor of San Marcos here for more content.
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About the Author
Caitlyn Canby loves to discover and share people’s stories. She has her bachelor’s degree in Communications, Print Journalism with over 8 years of journalism experience. An Escondido native, she just moved back from Catalina Island to North County with her husband and two children to the town of Fallbrook. Caitlyn enjoys collaborating on projects as Marketing and Events Coordinator at SDNEDC, traveling, and exploring new restaurants, venues, experiences, and cultures.