Sunday, December 2, 2007

At Last, A New Midtown Corridors Code

I’m sorry for the delay on this, but I fell ill after Monday’s meeting and am only now recovering.

Last Monday (11-26), the Council approved the Midtown Corridors code, including a large number of changes from the draft that was prepared by the staff. This action took place at the end of our second very long joint meeting with the Planning Commission.

Technically, both bodies discussed the code; then the Planning Commission made recommendations, then we approved the code with changes. Thanks to the Planning Commission for their hard work. The code will return to us for a second reading, probably on the consent calendar, in a couple of weeks – on December 17th, I think.

Overall, as I’ve said before, I think the Midtown Corridors code is a great improvement over the current code, and it’s an important step forward in implementing the General Plan. Gradually, we are knocking off these codes and plans called for in the General Plan. The Downtown Specific Plan is approved; now the Midtown code. In January we will hopefully knock off the Victoria Corridor plan and then wrap up the Saticoy & Wells Community Plan. Then we can move on to the North Avenue, Westside, and Midtown community plans. You can read more detail about this in the article I wrote in the Star on Sunday 12/2.

The big issue, of course, was views. I’m proud to say that we took what I think is the first action ever in a city code to protect views.. Here’s what we did:

-- We retained the suggested five-foot side-yard setback for corridor properties that are located at intersections with north-south streets.

-- We decided to require a 10-foot-wide sidewalk on the side-yard portion of all the corridor properties – that is, a 10-foot sidewalk will wrap around to the side street.

-- In order to maintain viewsheds along the hillside-to-ocean corridors (through streets), we will now require the upper floors of buildings on the through streets to be set back even further. That is, a building at Main and Seaward would be required to have a 10-foot sidewalk, a five-foot setback, and a further setback on the second and third stories.

-- To protect the terminating vistas looking northward, we required that the third stories of three-story buildings at a terminating vista be set back such that the ridgeline is visible from 200 feet to the south at a height of five feet.

Here’s a rundown of the other changes we made:

-- We clarified that all building heights must be expressed in the code in terms of both stories and feet.

-- We knocked down the height limits for buildings south of Thompson on either side of Borchard (the Vons and Big Lots shopping centers). Height limit will now be 45 feet (three stories) except on the areas immediately adjacent to residential areas, where height limit will now be 35 feet (two stories).

-- While retaining the “arcade” and “gallery” building types, we clarified that the arcades and galleries could not encroach on the public right-of-way (i.e., can’t be built over the public sidewalk).

== In deference to Community Memorial Hospital, which is required by state law to under a major renovation, we clarified that CMH’s future plans are probably best addressed by a specific plan rather than simply following the terms of the new code.

-- We decided to permit four-story buildings on the south side of Thompson at Seaward.

-- We allowed a few more uses in the main zone along Main and Thompson to permit business support services, as well as art studios and bars and taverns with a use permit.

-- We required landscape screening in the rear of the corridor properties where they abut residential properties.

-- We specified that the code should come back to us in a year for review.

Several other ideas didn’t fly. They included the following:

-- Picking up on an idea from Planning Commissioner Scott Boydstun, I suggested that we require all third stories be set back 10 feet from the street, to maintain the two-story feel of Main and Thompson. This didn't pass.

-- Councilmember Jim Monahan moved that we cut the parking requirements to match those downtown – essentially, from 2 spaces per unit to 1-1.5, Nobody seconded the motion.

-- Mr. Monahan also moved to limit heights to 26 feet to match the VCORD initiative. No one seconded this motion either.

Saturday, November 17, 2007

The Midtown Corridors Code

On Monday, at long last, the City Council – together in a workshop with the Planning Commission – will consider the proposed Midtown Corridors Development Code.

The Midtown code is one of many steps our community is taking to implement the 2005 General Plan. As I have said before, our General Plan is very general, and especially in those parts of town that we have designated for infill development, we must draft very specific codes and policies to implement the General Plan.

I believe that the code can still be improved, and on Monday night I will work with my fellow councilmembers to make it better, especially in the dealing with views and the relationship between the projects on the corridors and the existing neighborhoods adjacent to them. But it is important to adopt this code very soon – if not Monday night, then as soon as the staff can return to us with the final changes. That’s because this code is a vast improvement over the code that is currently in place, for two reasons.

First, despite the rhetoric we have heard from some residents, this code represents a very significant downzoning along most of the Main and Thompson corridors from what is currently allowed. The current code permits six-story (75-foot) buildings in significant portions of the Midtown corridors now. The proposed code reduces the maximum height to two or three stories (between 35 and 45 feet) everywhere except at the Five Points area. Enacting this downzoning is long overdue.

Second, the code provides much more detailed direction to developers on setbacks, the mass and scale of buildings, and general design (as opposed to architectural style). This is a vast improvement over the current code, which is either too vague or too permissive on most of these points. This lack of specificity is part of the reason why recent projects have drawn a lot of fire.

For this reason I favor the quick adoption of the code, subject to additional changes we may direct Monday night. It may not be perfect, but it’s way better than what we have now. As the saying goes, we should now allow the perfect to become the enemy of the good. We should get this thing as far as long as we possibly can on Monday night and pass it as soon as we can.

Implementing the General Plan

As I said before, there are a number of policies and action steps in the 2005 General Plan that lead the City toward a new code for the Midtown corridors. Chapter 3 of the General Plan calls for an “infill first” approach to development and identifies the Midtown corridors as one of the focus areas for infill development. Specific actions called for in the General Plan include:

* Action 3.9, which directs us to adopt code provisions that designate mixed-use areas.
* Action 3.14, which directs us to utilize infill development to accommodate needed housing as identified in the Housing Element.
* Action 3.15, which directs us to adopt new codes to comply with the Housing Element.

In the Housing Element, which is also part of the General Plan, there is a specific policy (Policy 3.9), which directs the city to “promote higher density housing as part of mixed-use developments along parts of Thompson Boulevard and Main Street in Midtown Ventura.”

In passing the General Plan two years ago, we adopted all these policies and action ste[s and we reaffirmed adoption of the Housing Element, which was originally adopted in 2004.

The General Plan also contains a policy (Policy 3A) that we maintain our “cherished community characteristics,” and there is an action item under that policy (Action 3.3) that we “require preservation of public view sheds and solar access”. I do not believe the code currently implements this policy effectively and I will work with my colleagues Monday night to make changes to address this problem.

Possible Changes to the Code

Over the past few weeks I have read the code in detail and consulted with a wide variety of people on the staff and in the community about the proposed Midtown Code. For example, I met with Camille Harris, Diane Underhill, and Claudia Armann, all of whom are involved in Bungalow Neighbors and VCORD, to discuss the proposed code in detail. I also reviewed Diane’s very detailed suggestions. I met with Scott Boydstun, an architect who is a member of both our Planning Commission and our Design Review Committee. Under the Brown Act I am permitted to speak with two other members of the City Council before the meeting, and I chose to chat with Christy Weir and Ed Summers, hoping to find a lot of common ground – which I did.

I also talked to a lot of people in the neighborhood when I walked precincts during the recent campaign. In general, I found the neighbors to be most concerned about what I call “adjacency” – they wanted to make sure that the adjacent neighborhood is not overwhelmed by the size and scale of the new development. Many were concerned about views; and others said that they did not like the current blighted properties near their houses.

All that said, here are some areas of concern and some thoughts about how the City Council might tweak the proposed code on Monday night:


While the code has been pending, there has been a lot of debate over how to protect views of the hillsides from the flats of Midtown as infill development along the corridors takes place. The General Plan calls for preservation of public viewsheds and solar access, but it doesn’t define public viewsheds. (For the record, the pending VCORD initiative calls for the preservation of the ”existing City views of the hillsides and coast”– it doesn’t use the word “public” – but the initiative doesn’t provide a specific definition of viewsheds either.) Clearly, to truly implement the General Plan policy, the Midtown code must provide more specific guidance on public viewsheds in Midtown.

This is a somewhat tricky issue, because the height of the hillsides varies dramatically from block to block in Midtown. In many locations, even existing one-story buildings block hillside views from nearby public vantage points, while in other locations a three- or four-story building would not block the views. So on the question of views, where you stand really does depend on where you sit.

The most important public viewsheds in Midtown are the hillside-to-ocean view corridors that run along the north-south streets. It’s important to keep these view corridors clear, so that you can see the ocean from up on the hill and from the flats you can see the hillsides.

But there are two types of north-south streets in Midtown: through streets and terminating streets. Catalina or Seaward would be a through street, which goes up into the hillsides or ends in a place where there are no buildings. Santa Rosa or Pacific would be a terminating street – a street that terminates at Main Street and would therefore have a building on the north side, potentially blocking views. (The “terminated vistas” are identified with stars on the Regulating Plan between pages 20 and 21 of the code.)

Through Streets: “Daylight Plane”

The code currently proposes a five-foot sideyard setback on properties at the intersection of a north-south street and one of the two corridors. This is a good attempt at maintaining the view corridors catching hillside views to the north, but the setback standard on through streets such as Seaward should be more stringent.

There’s a concept in architectural regulation known as the “daylight plane” – a kind of a geometrical standard that requires buildings to step back, wedding cake style, from the street according to a specific angle – say, 45% -- as they get taller. A building located on the corner of a corridor and a through street should be subject to a daylight plane requirement for the sideyard setback – call it a “sideyard plane”. That way, view corridors will remain open – and the higher up you go on the building, the wider the view corridor will be.

This same rule should be applied to intersection parcels on Thompson, where virtually all the streets in Midtown are “through” streets – that is, they continue north at least to Main.

Terminating Streets: Third-Story Setback

Terminating streets represent a different problem, because a building on the north side of Main Street holds the potential to completely block hillside views from terminating street
that faces the building. However, this potential problem can be solved by adopting one simple rule: If a building on the north side of a terminating street is three stories high, the third story should be set back from the street sufficiently so that the ridgeline of the hillside is visible from 200 feet south on the terminating street at a height of 5 feet. The code should allow thin or narrow architectural features (such as a steeple) to protrude higher so long as the view is not obstructed. This is easily included in the code because there is already a Terminating Vista Overlay District proposed (page 28).

Not all views from every point on Main Street would be protected by this rule – but not all views from every point on Main Street would be protected even if buildings were limited to two stories. A distance of 200 feet is about a third of the way from Main to San Nicholas, meaning that the hillsides would become more prominent as you move farther south. They would be readily visible from San Nicholas and certainly from Thompson. Combined with the application of the “sideyard plane” rule on intersection lots on Thompson, this rule would maintain excellent north-south viewsheds along Thompson.

View From Along the Corridors Themselves

It is impossible to maintain every public view of the hillsides from every vantage point on both corridors. Existing buildings – even one-story buildings -- already obstruct some views completely. However, the combination of the sideyard plane rule (applied at through cross-streets at both Seaward and Thompson) and the third-story setback rule (applied on terminating streets) will maintain varying building heights throughout Midtown. The hillsides will remain visible from most locations along the corridors.


The most frequent concern I have heard from Midtown residents about infill development along the corridors is that new buildings will tower over adjacent residential neighborhoods. The new code represents a significant improvement over the current code but I think a couple of tweaks would make it better.

The current code permits a three-story building to back up to a residential neighborhood with a 20-foot setback. As it is currently written, the new code increases this setback to 30 feet, while retaining the 20-foot setback for two-story buildings. I think the practical effect of this change will be that most developers will create “wedding cake” buildings that will step down to two stories toward the rear property line.

However, the proposed code should be changed so that landscaped screening is required at the rear property line between a corridor parcel and an adjacent residential parcel. This can be easily achieved by simply expanding the “Landscape” section associated with each building type.

Having a one-story difference between the corridor building and residential building behind it is good policy. But I am hesitant to require the step-down in all circumstances – that is, create a complete prohibition on three-story buildings adjacent to one-story houses – for one simple reason: Every homeowner backing up to the corridor has the right under our zoning code to add a second story. Therefore, as it currently stands, the theoretical maximum height for a commercial parcel is one story taller than the theoretical maximum height for a residential parcel. If we ever create, for example, an historic district somewhere in Midtown that removes the possibility of homeowners adding a second story, then I would favor eliminating the step-down option and requiring that adjacent buildings on the corridors be only two stories.

Building Height Definitions

The current code defines allowable development mostly in terms of stories, rather than feet; though it does use feet in at least one instance (the T4.5 zone on page 22). The staff report does include a chart translating stories into feet.

The code should include both stories and feet in every reference to avoid confusion.

There has also been some concern that the allowable building heights on the corridor parcels are higher than one might expect – for example, 45 feet, rather than 35 feet, for a three-story building. This is mostly because the ground floor of a commercial building is typically 15 feet high with at least a two-foot space above it for mechanical installations. In fact, as proposed, the code requires a 15-foot minimum ground-floor height. Most of the three-story buildings that have been proposed along the corridors so far have come in at about 40-42 feet high.

Part of the purpose of the code is to encourage retail and live-work on the ground floor with residences above, so therefore I think a height limit in the 42-45-foot range is appropriate. However, we should also define the maximum height of each floor (15 feet for the ground floor, 10-12 feet for the floors above) to ensure that no project can actually have four floors.

Building Types

The list of allowed buildings types include two types – “gallery” (page 46) and “arcade” (page 47) – that permit the buildings to encroach onto the sidewalk space if the sidewalk space is provided beneath the second-floor building (arcade) or balcony (gallery). The intent is to provide a “walkway” effect like The Arcade in Ojai, but with living space jutting out into the public right of way above.

These building types do not currently exist in Midtown – or, so far as I know, anywhere in Ventura. Furthermore, because of noise concerns applicants seem to be pushing upstairs residential units away from the street rather than pulling the building toward the street.

Therefore, these two building types should not be permitted under the code.

Diane Underhill has suggested that two of the larger building types that would be permitted – “stack dwelling” (page 72) and “commercial block” (page 74) – should be prohibited on lots shallower than 150 feet. I frankly think it is unlikely anybody will try to build these building types on shallow lots, but I appreciate the point. It is possible that some developers will assemble two or three fairly shallow lots (say, 100 feet deep) along one of the corridors and seek to build one of these two building types.

Some residents may fear lot assembly because they think it will result in a monolithic project, but I have a different view. I’m more concerned about applicants trying to stuff big projects on narrow lots rather than shallow lots. The worst projects I have seen are the ones on the 50-foot lots. So I think that assembling lots gives the city far more ability to force the applicant to design a good project. And remember that the 20- and 30-foot setbacks would still apply. If we prohibit these building types, I’d suggest we prohibit them on narrow lots rather than shallow lots.


On some portions of Main and Thompson, the residential character of the area remains, and the code respects this character by requiring the buildings to be set back from the street according to the predominant existing setback on the block. A block where buildings currently come all the way to the sidewalk will require no setback; a block where buildings are set back residential style will require a similar setback for new buildings.

However, in both T5.2 and T4.5, a variety of front-yard encroachments are permitted to allow for porches, stoops, and the like. This might make sense in a brand-new development where it is also possible to design streets to be narrow with slow-moving traffic. But it does not make sense along Main and Thompson. These encroachments should be eliminated.

Five Points South of Thompson

The proposed code would designate the Five Points area as T5.2, which is the only place where the current six-story zoning would be retained. Taller buildings make sense at Five Points, especially near Community Memorial Hospital and on the triangle of Five Points, which is not adjacent to any residential areas. However, tall buildings don’t make sense south of Thompson along Borchard, which is adjacent to a residential neighborhood. As it is currently written, the code retains the T5.2 zoning south of Borchard but places an overlay (“Residential Overlay Two”) on the areas adjacent to residential to limit them to three stories. The entire area below Borchard ought to be rezoned to T4.5.

Three-Story Moratorium and the Pending VCORD Initiative

Diane Underhill of VCORD has asked that we include in this code a moratorium on all buildings over 26 feet in the Midtown corridors because of the VCORD initiative, which is currently pending at the county while the signatures are verified. I see why VCORD would be interested is taking this course of action. But I do not believe we should allow the pending initiative to stand in the way of taking steps to protect views in Midtown now.

Essentially, what VCORD is asking is that we place a moratorium on buildings over 26 feet tall along the Midtown corridors while we wait to see whether an initiative has qualified for the ballot which, if it qualifies and if it passes and if it is legally valid, would place an moratorium on buildings over 26 feet fall for up to two years while a committee is appointed to draft an ordinance to protect views.

My opinion is, Hey, let’s take concrete steps Monday night in the Midtown code to protect Midtown views now.

Thursday, November 8, 2007

Thank You!

I just wanted to say thanks so much to everybody in Ventura who voted on Tuesday. I'm very privileged to have been re-elected, and I look forward to working with all my colleagues in the future to represent you and move Ventura forward. In the days and weeks ahead, I'll try to write frequently on the issues we are dealing with, in order to keep you informed ... and to continue listening to you!

Thanks again


Thursday, October 18, 2007

Who's Endorsing Who?

When it comes time to vote, people often look to organization they trust and respect for guidance. So during campaign season, we candidates go around and talk to many organizations here in town asking for their support.

So far, I’ve been lucky. Most of the organizations who do endorse candidates have chosen to endorse me. We have yet to hear from a number of important organizations – especially the Ventura County Star, which is viewed as one of the most important endorsements. The Star did endorse me last time around.

When you try to figure out who has endorsed who, I realize that all those different signs and mailers can get confusing. A number of people have asked me how I have managed to forge alliances with all those different candidates – based on the combination of names they’ve seen on different signs and mailers. I wish! Although I have good relations with just about all the candidates, I have endorsed the other two incumbents, Christy Weir and Carl Morehouse.

All those different combinations you see on signs and in your mailers come from all the different groups who endorse candidates, not from the candidates themslelves. We’ve seen all different combinations. I’ve been paired with Christy Weir and Jerry Martin in one instance; with Jerry and Carl Morehouse in another; and with Carl and Doug Halter in yet another. The only exception here is the sign at Victoria and Telegraph. Carl, Christy, and I put that sign up ourselves.

Here are the groups who have endorsed me (that I know of!)

Ventura Citizens for Hillside Preservation
VCHP was the first group to endorse me – both in 2003 and today. I’m always grateful for their support and I am continuing to work to preserve the hillsides.

Ventura Police Officers Association
Ventura City Fire Fighters Association
Both these organizations endorsed me whole-heartedly. They both do a great job. I was proud to campaign with them last year in favor of Measure P6, the public safety funding measure. P6 didn’t get the two-thirds but it did get 62% -- more than any of us are likely to get in this election!

Service Employees International Union Local 721
SEIU represents most city employees as well as those who work for Ventura County, Gold Coast Transit, and other public agencies. I’m very grateful to SEIU because of the way the union cooperated with the City when I was first elected. We had a couple of tough budget years and SEIU agreed to take no raise in exchange for no layoffs. That got us through the hard times.

Ventura County Coastal Board of Realtors Political Action Committee
The Realtors PAC didn’t endorse me last time, but I’m pleased they decided to support me this time. I told them that I am especially proud of the city’s workforce housing program, which will provide a second mortgage for city employees seeking to buy a house. I’m also proud of the fact that we will be expanding this program beyond city employees, working with other large employers such as Community Memorial Hospital to help their employees as well. I believe this program will help both employees and the real estate market.

Stonewall Democrats
The Stonewall Democrats are active on a variety of social justice issues, but they especially focused on gay and lesbian rights.

So far, who hasn’t endorsed me? Two groups.

Tri-Counties Central Labor Council (AFL-CIO): My interview with Tri-Counties focused mostly on Wal-Mart. I stated my position, which is that I believe we should restrict the size of retail stores on Victoria. I believe Tri-Counties wanted a stronger position against Wal-Mart and has not endorsed me.

Greater Ventura Chamber of Commerce Political Action Committee: Not only did the Chamber PAC not endorse me (or the other incumbents), they didn’t even interview us. The Chamber PAC has been critical of the incumbents for supposedly being pro-tax (because of P6) and anti-development (partly because of Wal-Mart).

In other words, one group didn’t endorse me because I’m not tough enough on Wal-Mart and the other group didn’t endorse me because I’m not easy enough on Wal-Mart. That's politics for you.

Wednesday, October 10, 2007

Cleaning Up the Planning Process -- I Think!

On Monday night (Tuesday morning, actually), the City Council voted 4-3 to approve an item brought forth by Councilmembers Brennan and Summers designed to improve the development review process. The votes in favor were Brennan, Summers, Monahan, and Weir. The votes against were Andrews, Morehouse, and myself.

I didn’t vote against the item because I opposed everything in it. In fact, I supported five of the six items contained in the items. I voted against it because I couldn’s support the sixth item as written. I found it confusing and I thought it called for shift in direction that I couldn’t support. We had lengthy discussion, and it was clear that most of us agreed on the first five items but we were split on the sixth.

However, Councilmember Monahan moved to approve all six items at once – admittedly it was midnight and we were all anxious to go home – and so therefore I had to vote against the entire package because I had concerns about the one item. Because of Mr. Monahan’s motion, we did not have the option of voting in favor of the five and then “agreeing to disagree” on the sixth.

I think that Councilmembers Summer and Brennan and I agree on the direction we should take, so I am hopeful we can work this out when the item comes back to us for further discussion.

For the record, here’s what their item called for:

Direct staff to review the goals below and present a plan for implementation including strategies, feasibility, potential impact and timeline.
a. Creation of a 30-day maximum initial application review to determine completeness.
b. A plan and organizational structure to reduce overall time in the application approval process by 20%.
c. Adopt a procedure to allow applicants to outsource the creation and drafting of Specific Plans for projects in excess of 20 acres and provide for the ability to allow higher fees in exchange for retaining contract planners to assist with the overall work force.
d. Create a work plan for the implementation of the recommended application workflow including conceptual design review and Commission/public participation process as identified by the Commission Task Force. This should include the involvement of current staff and applicants to review the recommended process in comparison to other similar agencies. [This item refers to changes to the development review process proposed by a task force appointed by the council a couple of years ago.
e. Consider the use of a portion of the increased fee income for development to support the addition of one or two staff positions to assist in the implementation of the objectives.
f. Complete a City-wide coding and zoning ordinance to be used in conjunction with the Housing Approval Program (HAP), downtown and retail stregies. This should be completed as quickly as possible to provide clear direction for development and reduce the urgency for other "Plans."

Although I had some concerns about Item c, I was more than willing to vote in favor of Items a-e. The staff did state – with some justification – that they are doing many of these items already, but I saw no harm in clarifying that it is a council priority to get them done.

Item f was the subject of most discussion. On its face, it seems to me that Item f calls us to do a citywide code, something we have said in the past is unnecessary. Many constituents also feared that Item f also meant that we would lower the priority of Community Plans on the Westside and in Midtown and just do codes instead. Without clarification I couldn’t support that item.

To back up just for a moment, everything we are talking about here has to do with how we implement the 2005 General Plan. That General Plan called for an all-infill approach to development, and it states that most new growth will accommodated in a few focus areas in town, specifically the North Avenue, the Westside, Downtown, Midtown, and Wells-Saticoy.

But our General Plan is very general, and we all recognized that we had to create more specific policies and rewrite zoning codes for each of these areas. Part of the problem was that, especially in Midtown and on the Westside, we had done many different plans, workshops, and charrettes over the years – but we had never adopted any of them as actual city policy.

At first we directed the staff to create a new zoning code citywide, but then we realized that this was unnecessary because the vast majority of the city – mostly existing single-family neighborhoods – was not going to change anytime soon. So we directed the staff to write codes only for the focus areas.

Since then, here’s what’s happened:

1. We approved our revised Downtown Specific Plan. This contains both policies and codes for downtown.

2. We have been simultaneously crafting the Saticoy & Wells Community Plan (which contains policies) and processing four Specific Plans (which contain codes) for the Wells-Saticoy area. Admittedly, this has taken a lot longer than we thought.

3. We are currently drafting an interim code for Midtown, with the idea that a Community Plan would come later.

4. The staff put out a request for proposals for the North Avenue Community Plan but has not started work on that project yet.

5. We have not yet tackled the Westside.

So, out of the five focus areas, we’ve completed both policy and code in one; we’re working on both policy and code in a second; we’ve put code ahead of policy in a third; and we haven’t tackled the other two yet.

Frankly, I couldn’t figure out what Item f was seeking to accomplish that we weren’t already doing, other than encouraging the staff to move faster. I didn’t sense that anybody on the council, even Councilmember Summers and Brennan, wanted to either write a citywide code or ditch the community plan idea.

The good news is that, even though we split 4-3 on the vote, I think we are mostly in agreement about what to do. Both the council and the staff agreed – as we have before – that future community plan efforts do not have to “reinvent the wheel”. Especially in Midtown and on the Westside, there are many previous planning efforts to draw upon and therefore we can create a more community plan process that is both responsive to the community and yet more time-efficient. I have a feeling that when the staff comes back to us in six weeks with suggestions on how to implement this policy, that’s what they are going to suggest. So I think it will all work out in the end.

Remember what they say about legislation – that, like sausage, you never want to see it made?

Monday, October 8, 2007

Paving Midtown's Island Streets

Finally … finally … finally! … Midtown’s “island tract” streets are going to get paved.

Last Monday, our City Council approved a contract for almost $5 million for the most expensive paving project we’ve ever undertaken – repaving most of the streets between Main and the 101 from Cabrillo Middle School all the way to Five Points. This is typically called the “island tract” because so many of the streets are named for islands off the coast of California.

The paving of the island tract streets is a milestone, because it’s the biggest remaining hurdle to completing the total repaving of the city – an effort that our predecessors on the City Council undertook almost a decade ago. There are many other streets left to pave, but the island tract is “the big one”. It’s 3-4 times larger than the typical city paving project.

That’s because many of the streets are concrete, and they haven’t been paved or otherwise rebuilt in probably a half-century. Whereas many streets in town simply need a new coat of paving, the island tract streets – almost without exception – need to be ground down and rebuilt.

It’ll take the better part of six months, and it’ll take place in two phases. Phase 1 will begin November, when our city crews will conduct prep work on all the streets downtown and then pave all the non-concrete streets (mostly those east of Catalina).

In Phase 2, from March to May, the city will pave all the concrete streets. Most of the concrete streets will receive asphalt paving because the concrete is too deteriorated to restore. But a few streets still have good concrete – and those streets will restored to their former concrete glory. The good concrete streets are:

Chrisman south of Thompson
Catalina south of Thompson
San Nicholas from Anacapa to Coronado
San Clemente from Main to San Nicholas
Coronado from Main to San Nicholas

This project will also include adding 235 handicapped ramps at intersections and installing 137 street trees. This is not as many trees as we would like – but the city engineers say that in many cases the planting strips along the street are too narrow to add more trees.

In our City Council discussion, Councilmember Brennan suggested we should have used this opportunity to rethink the entire stormwater runoff system in Midtown. Although we did not hold up the project to do this, we were generally sympathetic to the idea and asked that the landscaping plan for the paving project be brought back to us so that we can see how the stormwater situation can be improved – and whether we can squeeze a few more trees into the project!

Wednesday, October 3, 2007

Wal-Mart and Victoria Avenue: Let’s Unite Around Shared Goals, Rather Than Divide Over Tactics

One of the things I’ve learned in politics is that there are lots of ways to skin a cat. When you have a goal, you have to focus on getting to the goal itself, rather than getting stuck on any one particular way to get there.

By focusing on the goal rather than the tactics, you won’t get stuck if the tactic you have in mind doesn’t work. (Because there’s always another way to skin that cat.) Just as important, you’re also more likely to create a broad and enduring consensus about what you’re doing, because many different groups will come together to pursue the same goal, instead of fighting each other over which tactic to use. Focusing on tactics rather than goals can be divisive, because it can be harder to discover the things that different elected officials and different constituent groups have in common and how they can work together to get things done.

All this comes to mind because, in recent days, I have received quite a number of emails and phone calls from constituents asking me to immediately introduce a carbon copy of Santa Maria’s anti-big-box ordinance as a way of forestalling a Wal-Mart Supercenter at the Kmart site on Victoria Avenue. After thinking it over, I have decided not to introduce this ordinance immediately. In other words, although I share this goal I have decided pursuing this tactic is not the best way to reach the goal.

Here’s my reasoning: I think it’s better to work a bit more slowly and carefully toward a very broad-based and ensuring community consensus – which is what we’re doing with the Victoria Corridor plan and code right now. This plan and code will encourage the creation of high-quality office space in this area and almost certainly eliminate the possibility of new, extremely large-scale retail stores. To me, there’s not much point in pursuing a particular tactic, especially if it could be divisive in the midst of an election season, when we all have so much invested in a planning process already underway that will likely get us to the goal.

We in Ventura successfully used this approach – creating a broad coalition to achieve a common goal in a way that will endure over time – in passing the Living Wage Ordinance. I think we can do the same on Wal-Mart – if we focus on our shared goal.

Up to now, our local Wal-Mart opponents, such as the group Livable Ventura, have generally been supportive of our planning effort. When they have expressed an opinion about Wal-Mart itself, it has been a general concern – along the lines of, we don’t want Wal-Mart in our town because we don’t like their labor practices, or we fear additional traffic on Victoria Avenue, or we fear the impact of a Wal-Mart on other businesses in town. These are concerns I know many Venturans share and I share them too.

Recently, however, the typical communication from an anti-Wal-Mart constituent has changed. Instead of a generic concern about Wal-Mart, people have been making a very specific request that I introduce Santa Maria’s anti-big-box ordinance immediately. This is at least partly a result of some communications from the Ventura County Work People's Alliance and the Stop Wal-Mart Coalition Action Team, encouraging constituents to contact me and ask me to introduce such an ordinance.

I’ve had a good relationship with labor organizations over the past few years and the City Council has a good record on issues of interest to labor and working families. I was endorsed by the Tri Counties Central Labor Council and the Service Employees International Union in 2003. Since I have been on the Council, we have adopted a Living Wage Ordinance and we have pursued innovative inclusionary and workforce housing programs, which I have described in previous blogs. At both the city and Gold Coast Transit, whose board I sit on, we have re-established trust in negotiations with bargaining units that had long been missing.

This year, however, many labor organizations are intensely focused on Wal-Mart – and especially on Super Centers, which sell groceries. It’s understandable why. Most employees of large supermarket chains are unionized, but Wal-Mart employees aren't. There's a real concern -- a concern I share -- that a Wal-Mart supercenter enters the market, it will undercut existing supermarkets and placed unionized jobs at Vons, Ralphs, and Albertsons at risk. In other words, there's a fear that Wal-Mart will drive down the wages of supermarket workers generally. This kind of thing worries me too -- since I have always said that the gap between the high cost of living and relatively low wages is one of the biggest problems in our city.

A whole ago I had a meeting with Jim Alger of the Ventura County Working People's Alliance, an organization affiliated with the Tri-County Labor Federation, at which he asked me to introduce the Santa Maria ordinance. The Santa Maria ordinance is a typical – and perfectly legal – anti-big-box ordinance, which restricts all large retailers to using no more than 5% of their leasable floor area for the sale of non-taxable merchandise. Since groceries are exempt from taxation, such an ordinance effectively prohibits a Wal-Mart Super Center. These stores – typically 200,000 square feet or more – are a combination of a typical Wal-Mart store and a supermarket.

By the way, the Santa Maria ordinance doesn’t prevent construction of a regular Wal-Mart store (without the Super Center and groceries). In fact, there’s already a Wal-Mart in Santa Maria, which you can see from the freeway.

I told Mr. Alger that I was extremely unlikely to support a Wal-Mart Supercenter on Victoria and that, in the end, I did not think it would pass. But I declined to introduce the Santa Maria ordinance immediately, as he requested.

Over the past two weeks, I have received quite a few phone calls and emails from constituents and others asking me to introduce the Santa Maria ordinance. Many have been from people I don’t know; others have been from old and dear friends. Many have used exactly the same language that Mr. Alger used – that there is no reason not to introduce this particular ordinance if I really agree with their goal.

I always appreciate hearing from constituents, and I appreciate and respect all these communications. However, I would like to turn the “no reason not to” statement around so that we can focus on the goal rather than the tactic.

There is no reason not to vigorously pursue our broadly shared goal – a development strategy on the Victoria Corridor that prevents the construction of very large retail stores – and pursue it in a way that creates a broad consensus with enduring results, just as we did with the Living Wage Ordinance.

However, there are good reasons not to pursue this one particular tactic – immediately introducing a carbon copy of another city’s anti-big-box ordinance in the middle of a campaign season. Doing so would end-run a planning process that has been underway for two years. It may not get passed by the City Council, either before or after the election. And, in my view, all this will make it harder to achieve the goal of preventing large-scale retail development in Victoria Avenue in the future.

The Victoria planning effort began with a one-year moratorium, which has now been replaced with a special conditional use permit required for all new retail buildings in excess of 50,000 square feet, while we debate what the specifics of this corridor plan and the accompanying zoning code. We have not yet adopted the plan and the code, which is why we have put the interim steps in place.

As I noted above, the Wal-Mart opponents have generally been supportive of this process. But not everybody likes it. Those members of the Chamber PAC who think we should just go ahead and approve Wal-Mart clearly believe that the whole Victoria planning effort has been a huge waste of time and money with no benefit for the community.

There’s no question that the Victoria Corridor effort has taken more time and more money than we thought, and that it’s been pretty frustrating at times. But it has been far from useless. After lengthy debate, the Council has reached general agreement that future development along the Victoria Corridor should be focused mostly on office development, with some mixed-use. Our goal is to attract higher-wage office jobs, especially in the professional services sector, that we currently lose to Oxnard. Existing retail could be retained, but greatly expanded retail operations would be prohibited. Maximum store size would be approximately 90,000 square feet, far too small for a Wal-Mart Super Center.

Our staff is currently working on revisions to the proposed code to reflect this carefully crafted consensus. If I were to introduce this Santa Maria anti-big-box ordinance now, I’d be undercutting a lengthy and careful planning process that I have championed from the beginning and that many of my constituents who are wary of Wal-Mart have supported. I’d probably be accused by my colleagues on the council of “grandstanding” during election season – and rightly so. I’d be sending the message that I stand for thoughtful planning processes and careful consensus building – except when I am pressured by a constituent group during an election year.

And frankly, I don’t think that if I introduced the ordinance, the council would pass it – at least not now. Oddly, neither Mr. Alger nor any of the constituents who have asked me to introduce the ordinance have ever asked me if I think it would pass. But to me it’s an important consideration. I have learned from many political mentors – including Assemblymember Pedro Nava, whom I respect a great deal – that you have to pick your spots when introducing legislation. There’s no point in introducing an ordinance if you can’t get it passed.

As I said before, the council has reached consensus that we should limit the size of new retail stores along the Victoria corridor. But the council is also committed to seeing the Victoria planning process through to the end. And the members of our council – like the voters who elected them – are independent, deliberative, and sometimes stubborn. If my colleagues think I am grandstanding or trying to muscle them into adopting this ordinance, they are not likely to go along with me. And if I introduce such an ordinance now and fail – after championing the Victoria planning process all along – it will harm my ability to work successfully with my colleagues in the future on Wal-Mart and many other important issues. It will create unnecessary divisiveness on a good city council.

Which brings me back to my basic point: Let’s focus on the goal and not the tactic. This is the technique that was used successfully in passing a Living Wage Ordinance. This ordinance took a long time to pass but when it did there as an extraordinary consensus.

If we had rushed the Living Wage Ordinance to a vote, it might have failed or passed on a 4-3 vote, which would have given opponents reason to believe they could bring the ordinance back and defeat it. But because the Living Wage Coalition, which included many of the same people and organizations as the coalition opposing Wal-Mart, worked patiently and effectively with the city – simultaneously keeping the political “heat” on us and seeking allies elsewhere in the community, while also cooperating with us – the result was quite different. The council passed the ordinance unanimously, with the support of the Chamber of Commerce – the first time that had ever happened in the United States.

The lesson of the Living Wage Ordinance is that we should strive to create broad consensus around controversial issues, so that when a decision is made, it is strong and enduring. In the end, I believe we will get there on Wal-Mart. We will pass a Victoria Corridor Plan and code that will focus on office and mixed-use development and prevent the addition of very large retail stores. We will also lay the foundation for a discussion about how best to use the Kmart site, since Kmart is likely to close no matter what Wal-Mart does and we do not want a blighted sight along Victoria.

I am well aware that many constituents who are inclined to support me do not agree with me and would rather see the immediate introduction of a stronger ordinance. However, I believe that by working through the planning process that is already underway, we will be able to reach a broad and enduring consensus that we will all be happy with -- and that won't be easily undone by City Councils in the future. I look forward to working with all of you on this in the months ahead.

Tuesday, September 11, 2007

Cleaning Up the Planning Process: October 8th

Back in August, Councilmembers Brennan and Summers introduced a proposed policy to change some of our planning processes. We were scheduled to take this matter up next Monday, September 17th, but because one or two of councilmembers will be out of town, we’re likely to take it up on Monday, October 8th, instead.

Getting the Parks, Getting the Schools

The City Council returned from our summer recess Monday night (9-10), and took one very important action: We increased our city’s standard for the amount of parkland that residential developers must provide. This action will allow the staff to increase the fees charged to developers who don’t provide parks on-site.

And it lays the groundwork for some important decisions in the Saticoy & Wells Community Plan and the several pending specific plans in that area – most specifically, where do we put parks and schools in Saticoy & Wells and how do we pay for them?

For almost 25 years, our park standard has been 3.5 acres per 1,000 residents. On Monday night we increased that standard to 4.78 acres per 1,000 residents – an increase of about a third.

Some developers provide parks onsite, while others – especially those with smaller projects and smaller parcels of land.—often pay a fee instead. The new park standard will allow the staff to increase the fees as well. On single-family subdivisions of 50 units or fewer, our fee has been about $600 per house in most of the city and about $2,200 per house in Montalvo, Thille, and Saticoy & Wells, where park deficiencies have been identified. The new park standard will allow the staff to increase the fee to about $3,050 per house everywhere in the city. This fee is based on the assumption that parkland costs about $250,000 an acre to buy. (The fee for projects of more than 50 units not uniform citywide but, rather, must be based on an appraisal of the particular property in question.)

To give you an idea of what this means: Up to now, a developer of a 50-unit subdivision in most parts of the city was paying $30,000 in park fees (about enough to purchase one 50x100-foot lot), and a similar project in Thille, Montalvo, and Saticoy & Wells was paying $110,000. All such projects will now pay about $150,000.

The idea behind increasing the fees is not just to raise revenue, but also to encourage developers to provide parks on-site rather than just paying money. This is, frankly, a tricky balance. Small developers will usually opt to pay a fee and the city should encourage this, because we often need bigger parks than small developers can provide. Larger developers are more likely to provide land rather than pay a fee, but if the fee is too low they will buy their way out of their obligation, which raises the question of where the park will actually be located. A higher fee will mean developers are more likely to provide land on-site.

Another issue that was raised Monday night was the question of small parks – mini-parks. Increasingly, we are seeing developers propose subdivisions with many small parks, and they are asking that these parks count toward the park acreage requirement. Many small parks can often be a good thing, but you always have to be careful. Developers sometimes will try to have the city classify small bits of leftover land as “parks,” whether or not they can really be used.

The whole park acreage standard – and the park fees – have important implications for the Saticoy & Wells area. This is currently the only part of the city where lots of subdivisions are pending, and we are trying to deal with broader issues in the Wells & Saticoy Community Plan.

On Monday night, Dan Cormode of the East Ventura Community Council quite rightly pointed out that we might wind up with lots of developer fees earmarked to buy land for parks and schools in Saticoy & Wells – but with no land in Saticoy & Wells to buy, because all the developers have chosen to pay the fees rather than contribute land. (Developer fees for schools are set by the state, but the city and the school district can seek additional land and fees for schools by working together – which we are not doing.)

This is one of the main reasons I advocated for the creation of the Saticoy & Wells Community Plan in the first place. We need to make sure that, as the Saticoy & Wells area gets built out, we have decided where parks, schools, and other community facilities are going to be located – and we know how they are going to be paid for.

Does this mean that our East End developers may have to do more than just pay their fees and build their projects? Probably. More than likely, they are going to have to work together with the city, the school district, and each other to make sure that the land is set aside in Saticoy & Wells for schools and parks, and that money is available to build those facilities. Some developers will be able to pay fees. Some will have to contribute land. In some cases, we may see a combination. For example, Developer A may have to cut the number of houses in his plan in order to accommodate parks and schools – but may be compensated by the city or by Developer B (who’s paying money rather than providing land) for the loss.

Are these tough choices? Sure. Do the developers – or even the city or the school district – like to face up to these tough choices? Not always. But when you’re trying to do the best job you can in building out a community like Saticoy & Wells, these are the kinds of tradeoffs and tough choices that you have to deal with in order to succeed. That’s what community planning is all about.

Monday, August 20, 2007

The Field Is Set

The City Council may be “dark” during August, but the political scene is pretty active anyway. Over the past few weeks, a lot of prospective City Council candidates have been out there trying to put campaigns together. Now that the filing deadline is past, the field is set. Nine candidates will be running this year for three seats on the council, including all three incumbents. You can break the field down into four categories: the incumbents; veteran challengers, newcomers, and “the gadfly”.

Overall, I have to say that I’m looking forward to the campaign. I’d say everybody has
something to contribute, and the candidate debates should be both informative and fun. I’ll post the schedule as it evolves.

The Incumbents

All three incumbents – Carl Morehouse, Christy Weir, and I – are running for re-election, and we have all endorsed each other.

It’s unusual for all the incumbents to seek re-election, but Christy and I are only finishing our first term and Carl is finishing his second. Carl is finishing up his two-year term as mayor and Christy is finishing up as deputy mayor. (Mayor and deputy mayor are selected by the council for two-year terms after each election.)

This is only the second time in the last seven elections that all the incumbents have chosen to run. The last time was 2001, when Brian Brennan, Donna DePaola, and Sandy Smith – all finishing their first terms – ran for re-election, along with Jim Monahan, who had already served God-knows-how-many terms.

It’s also unusual for incumbents to lose. The only recent incumbent defeated was Donna D. in 2001. Before that you have to go all the way back to 1993 to find an incumbent who was defeated.

Veteran Challengers

Three veteran candidates are running again – Doug Halter, Jerry Martin, and Brian Lee Rencher.

Doug Halter is a longtime community activist – a guy who’s energetic, passionate, and committed. A lot of people would say Doug is the most viable challenger. He’s run twice before, in 1997 and 1999. He almost won in ’99, when he lost out for the last seat (to Carl Morehouse) by about 500 votes. Since then he’s focused on his businesses and he’s been the chair of the Chamber of Commerce.

Jerry Martin ran a good campaign last time around and wound up as first runner-up, though he was pretty far behind the winners. Jerry’s also a good-hearted guy who has done a lot of positive things for the community. Recently he helped organize a wonderful effort to help out an elderly lady on the Westside whose house needed some renovation. Jerry’s also a favorite of the unions and is likely to get one, maybe two union endorsements.

Brian Lee Rencher has run in every City Council election since 1991. He just barely made the filing deadline this year – he showed up 20 minutes before the deadline, and while he was filing his papers he graciously told me he thought the current council is doing a good job.

A lot of people would put Brian Lee Rencher in the gadfly category, but that would be a mistake. He’s gotten a lot of votes in the last three campaigns, and he runs strong in the western part of the city. (If Ventura stretched only from the Avenue to Seaward, he’d have been elected by now – he always runs in the top three in that part of town.) Brian’s an excellent campaigner and he always raises the level of debate in the campaign. (By the way, most people call him “Brian Lee” but I once asked him what he preferred to be called personally and he said “Brian,” so that’s what I call him.)


This race has attracted two newcomers who seem pretty serious about their campaigns: Lou Cunningham and Mike Gibson.

Lou Cunningham has been around town for a long time. He just retired as a facilities manager from the Oxnard Union High School District, but he’s also been a member of the city’s Mobile Home Rent Review Board (a pretty thankless job) and the county’s Local Agency Formation Commission (which makes decisions about local government boundaries – another thankless job.) He ran for the council in 1991 but got less than 400 voters, finishing second to last (ahead only of Rencher). He’s definitely more serious this time.

Lou seems like a good guy. He’s been sitting through City Council meetings (to the bitter end!) for several months now. I ran into him while he was filing his papers at the City Clerk’s office and he was wearing an American flag tie! Lou appears to be running as a fiscal conservative, but with a “roll up our sleeves” and “common sense’ orientation.

Like Lou, Mike Gibson is a veteran public employee who is running as a fiscal conservative, although his rhetoric is a little more aggressive than Lou’s. I haven’t met Mr. Gibson, who works as the business manager for the Santa Barbara County Parks Department.

He has already written a letter to the editor of the Star criticizing Christy Weir for her supposed opposition to the proposed Wal-Mart on Victoria. (
In his campaign statement (reproduced in Brian Dennert’s blog on the Star web site), Mr. Gibson criticized the current council for supposedly doing nothing on the economic development front to increase city revenues. He states his unequivocal opposition to last year’s Measure P6, which would have increased the sales tax by a quarter-cent to fund public safety. He also says the voters affirmed his view by rejecting Measure P6. I can’t help but note that, although P6 didn’t pass (it required a two-thirds majority), in fact 62% of the voters voted in favor of P6 and only 38% voted against it.

I think the newcomers will contribute a lot to the debate about fiscal and economic issues in the city and that’s part of the reason why I’m looking forward to the campaign.

The Gadfly

Carroll Dean Williams. Need I say more? He also qualified to run for school board. The City Clerk's office told me that if he is elected to both positions, he can actually serve in both capacity. Think that'll happen?

Who Didn’t Run

Mike Tracy, the popular former police chief, flirted with running but decided against it. He definitely would have been a strong candidate if he’s run.

Kimble Ouerbacker, a lawyer who was involved in the Grant Park Cross issue a few years ago, declared his intention to run and raised some money, but then never picked up nominating petitions. Mr. Ouerbacker, whom I’ve never met, is a member of the Ventura County Republican Central Committee. In 2003, he represented the original landowners of the land underneath the Grant Park Cross, who claimed in court (unsuccessfully) that the City had to offer to return the land to them before selling it to a nonprofit conservancy; a few weeks ago, he organized the “Lights on the Cross” event, where many community residents lit up the cross on a Saturday night with their flashlights. Mr. Ouerbacker was the only prospective challenge to file a campaign finance disclosure statement in July. He had raised $2,800, including a transfer from the campaign committee of Paul Kunicki, the conservative member of the county Board of Education from Simi Valley. You can read everybody’s campaign disclosure statements at

And Melody Joy Baker, the deaf, wheelchair-bound homeless vet who ran in 2005, failed to gather enough valid signatures to qualify. (You have to get 20 signatures from registered voters in the City of Ventura to qualify for the ballot.) Melody can be a difficult person and she is sometimes disruptive at public meetings, but I am sorry she didn’t get the signatures. I actually signed her petition because I believe elections are the crux of our democracy and all voices should be heard in our local elections.

Tuesday, August 7, 2007

Connecting The Digital Coast To The Technology Corridor -- In Ventura

A few weeks ago, Dr. Bill Watkins of UC Santa Barbara, our leading local economist, delivered some pretty depressing news at the Chamber of Commerce’s annual breakfast: Our local Ventura economy is not adding any jobs.

In many ways Ventura is a prosperous town. We have a lot of stable, middle-class employers like the County Government and Patagonia. Home prices are high, which may be bad for newcomers but is very good for most of our residents. And we are fortunate to capture more than our share of retail sales and therefore sales tax as well.

But we’re not adding jobs. And although we have more than our share of jobs compared to the rest of the county, we don’t have as many high-tech jobs – nor as many high-wage jobs – as we should.

That’s why I think the Council’s Monday night to move forward with the “Jobs Investment Fund” (JIF) is so important. At first glance it may seem like an unusual or even risky thing to do. But if we’re going to bring good jobs in growth industries to Ventura, this is the direction we have to take.

Here’s the problem: Here in Ventura, we are swimming in a sea of good jobs, particularly those associated with high-tech and biotech startup companies. But we’re drowning – and not getting very many of those jobs. Santa Barbara – the “Digital Coast” – is the 5th or 6th most important high-tech startup location in the nation. The 101 corridor from Camarillo to Calabasas – the “Technology Corridor” – is breeding fabulous new businesses, spinning off of Amgen and sometimes catching high-tech startups when they spin out of Santa Barbara looking for a somewhat cheaper location.

We like to think of Ventura as the place where “the Digital Coast meetings the Technology Corridor”. But the truth is, Ventura is the place where the Digital Coast just barely misses the Technology Corridor.

Which is ironic. Because I know from my day-job work in economic development that what these fast-growing companies want is what Ventura has: A great quality of life with access to both urban amenities (i.e. arts and culture and downtown restaurants) and outdoor recreation; proximity to research institutions where innovation is bred, such as UC Santa Barbara and Amgen; and an educated labor force. Even the cost of housing is not nearly as important as these other factors. The biggest irony here is that a lot of the high-level workers in these companies already live in Ventura. They just commute out, either to Santa Barbara or Thousand Oaks.

Four years ago – right after I was sworn in as a member of the City Council – we voted to set aside $5 million for economic development purposes. This was money the redevelopment agency got from refinancing some bonds. (Another $2.2 million from the refinancing was spent on paving streets and other short-term needs.) Although the formal vote occurred after I was seated, it was really an idea from the previous (Ray Di Guilio-Jim Friedman) council and the Chamber of Commerce supported it.

At first everybody assumed that this money would be spent either on infrastructure needed for companies (whether that’s new roads, parking garages, land, whatever) or loans to businesses already located in the city. But as the council worked through its economic development priorities, the ideas began to evolve. Both the General Plan and the Economic Development Strategy placed high priority on “high-value, high-wage jobs”. The council appointed an ad-hoc Economic Development Committee – including Ed Summers, Neal Andrews, and myself. We kicked this idea around and even began to hear from local businesses – and nonprofits – that wanted a piece of the money. Over time, we began to explore different options that we thought would help us grab some of those good jobs in growth industries that we seem to be missing out on. Eventually we hit on the idea of the “Jobs Investment Fund” – that is, using the $5 million to actually try to encourage – and possibly invest in – up-and-coming local companies.

Here’s how it would work: We’ll partner with a venture capital investment fund in Santa Barbara named DFJ Frontier. This fund and its manager, David Cremins, are among the most respected in the business. Their mission is to capitalize startup companies in California outside of Silicon Valley. Their main investor is the California Public Employment Retirement System – the world’s biggest pension fund. Cremins teaches in the Technology Management Program at UC Santa Barbara, and he’s really committed to growing tech companies in the Ventura-Santa Barbara area.

The city would invest part of the $5 million in one of Cremins’ funds, DFJ Frontier II, which will have about $60 million in capital altogether. The fund will invest in many start-ups in California. As is typical in venture capital, most of them will probably fail but a few of them will probably hit it big. There’s no iron-clad guarantee that the money we place in this fund will be invested in companies locating in Ventura, but Cremins is working with a lot of start-ups working on new products emerging from the UC Santa Barbara engineering program. They are looking for places to locate, and Ventura is half the cost of Santa Barbara. It’s got many of the same lifestyle amenities and as I said before a good chunk of the skilled labor force that these companies need lives in Ventura anyway. DFJ Frontier will promise to make their “best efforts” to place companies in Ventura – and they can make an iron-clad promise to organize workshops and networking sessions with local companies and entrepreneurs looking for capital.

To sweeten the pot, the city would invest the remainder of the $5 million in a new fund that Cremins would create, known as the Jobs Co-Investment Fund, which could be used only for companies locating in Ventura. Cremins and his investors would be expected to match our investment; and the money in the Co-Investment Fund could be used as an inducement: We’ll capitalize you to a certain extent if you’re a start-up, but we’ll capitalize you even more if you locate in Ventura.

In theory, there’s a risk here. Our investment in the DFJ Frontier investment fund, in theory, might not produce any jobs in Ventura. Our investment in the Co-Investment Fund may never be used. Our funds will certainly assist some businesses that will fail. And, in theory, we might not get a good return on our investment.

None of these things are likely. By establishing a strong relationship with DFJ Frontier, we will make inroads into the world of venture capitalists who typically overlook Ventura as a location – which is exactly our goal here. We will be partnering with an investment fund – and an investment fund manager – committed to this region and excited about our city. We will likely bring far more than $5 million in high-tech and biotech investment into the city, because DFJ will bring other investors to the table, including CalPERS. We will almost certainly get a fabulous return on our investment – though it will take a long time to cash in on this (as is typical of venture capital funds) and a return on investment is not the main goal here. (Plus, we’re not betting the farm here – the city still has $147 million in very safe investments earning 4% interest.)

As our City Manager, Rick Cole, pointed out on Monday night, simply partnering with an outstanding venture capital firm won’t magically bring good jobs to Ventura. We in Ventura – the city, the Chamber, and other civic leaders – will have to sell the city to investors. We’ll have to make sure that these businesses have the offices and buildings they need. And we will have to work with our colleges to make sure the labor force is ready.

We talked about the Jobs Investment Fund for an hour and a half Monday night – and rightly so, because this is a new idea and a big step forward. Several members of the council expressed concern about the level of risk associated with this partnership – the lack of an iron-clad guarantee that the jobs will be in Ventura, along with the possibility (certain) that we will back some firms that will fail and also the possibility (very remote) that we could lose some money.

In end, we got a 5-2 vote to begin negotiating with DFJ Frontier. (The final deal will come back to us again.) Deputy Mayor Christy Weir expressed concern that the Chamber of Commerce and local business interests had not been consulted sufficiently, and this is a fair concern. Councilmember Jim Monahan said that the city should not be risking the taxpayers’ money and we should use this money to pay for police officers, pave the streets, and so forth. He said that the role of government should be to “get out of the way”. This is a legitimate position which I respect, although it’s worth noting that Mr. Monahan voted in favor of setting aside the $5 million for economic development purposes and he has since voted in favor of every step along the way, including the General Plan and the city’s Economic Development Strategy.

My personal opinion is that if we’re getting whipped at economic development by ultra-liberal Santa Barbara, then there’s probably something more to success than simply us “getting out of the way”. As I said before, this kind of economic development is mostly about proximity to university research centers, having a high quality of life, and having a local labor force.

But one thing is for sure: If we don’t do something like this, we won’t get the companies and jobs we want; and if we don’t get the companies and jobs we want, we won’t create the long-term prosperity we need to provide opportunity for our residents and create the tax base we need to sustain street paving, police and fire services, and all the rest over the next several decades.

We could do other things with this money, even to promote economic development. We could pay for new roads, new business parks, and other things that such businesses need – but we are going to do that anyway. We could loan money to individual companies – a typical economic development strategy – but this is very risky. We are certain to suffer some losses and they may not be counterbalanced by big successes. Or we could “throw the bomb” and use all the money to back some big idea – as Oxnard is currently doing with “Big League Dreams”. But as somebody who has written and consulted on economic development for more than 20 years, I have to say the throwing the bomb usually fails. It’s very risky.

Instead, we’re going to partner with a very solid and well-respected investment fund manager that has not only our money, but tens of millions of dollars from the world’s largest pension fund; as well as a mission that conforms to our goals and true passion for our area. We’ve been harmed by a lot of economic bad news since I moved to Ventura 20 years ago – the loss of the oil industry, the loss of Cal State, the loss of Kinko’s. That’s why I think we have to focus on long-term, sustainable prosperity for our community.

The Jobs Investment Fund will prove that we are serious about jobs and strengthen our connections to start-up companies, capital markets, and research centers at UCSB. It may be unusual – it may seem risky – but it’s exactly the kind of thing we need to do.

Thursday, August 2, 2007

What It's Like To Run For Office

In the next week or so, the City Council campaign will begin in earnest. On Saturday, I’ll be in the Fair Parade. On Sunday, I’m having a kickoff campaign event at Architexture (25 S. Ventura Ave.). The filing deadline is next Friday, so within a week we’ll know who’s running and who’s not.

There are three incumbents up for re-election – Carl Morehouse, Christy Weir, and me – and we’re all running. There are quite a few other folks running as well; I won’t list them here because the group isn’t set yet.

Fortunately, Ventura’s campaigns are not big-money affairs. Generally speaking, there are no campaign consultants and (with at least one exception, which I’ll mention below) no polls. There are no television ads and usually few radio and newspaper ads. We spend most of our time talking in people’s living rooms, seeking endorsements from local constituent groups, and debating each other in candidate forums. It’s pretty grass-rootsy, and I like that.

It costs somewhere around $20,000 to run a good City Council campaign. The vast majority of this money goes to design, print, and mail those four-color mailers you get right before the election.

But raising the money requires a lot of effort. Some years ago, Ventura’s voters passed a ballot measure on campaign finance. This ordinance places strict limits on how much money people can give to our campaigns, and in some cases it limits how much money we can spend. The idea is to limit the role of money in the council campaign – and, in particular, to ensure that one business or wealthy individual can’t bankroll a candidate, as often happened in the past.

The ordinance gives candidates a choice: We can either limit our contributions to $275 per person and limit our overall spending to $26,000; or we can limit our contribution to $175 per person and raise as much money as we want. (The City Clerk sets the amounts before each election according to a formula contained in the ordinance.)

Almost everybody chooses the first option, and you can see why: If you know 40 or 50 couples who are fairly affluent and strongly support you, you just get each one to give you $550 ($275 for each spouse) and you’re done with fundraising. But, in my opinion, even this isn’t really a grassroots effort. So I do it differently.

I choose the other option – a $175 limit on contributions, no limit on expenditures. I do this for a couple of reasons. For one thing, some candidate have gotten into trouble in the past because they’ve run up against the expenditure limit, and I’d just as soon have one less compliance issue to worry about. More important, though, is the fact that it forces me to run a grassroots campaign.

Last time out, the average donor gave me about $75 – that’s way lower than any other candidate. Lots of people wrote me a check for $25. Some people sent $5 or $10 bills to me as contributions. But I also raised more money than anybody else -- $30,000 – which I spent mostly on doing extra campaign mailings right before the election. (I was a challenger then so I was trying to get known, and it was right after the gubernatorial recall so it was hard to get voters interested in the race.) This also means I had more donors than anyone else, about 400.

I like this approach because it requires real grassroots campaigning – buttonholing people I know, going around to people’s living rooms to talk to neighbors, and having “addressing parties,” where my campaign volunteers and I address envelopes and lick stamps. (I sign every one of my fundraising letters myself, and I try to write a personal note if I can.) This year, almost 100 people have already donated to my campaign, and the average donation is once again well under $100.

What’s great about this level is that there’s really no difference between fundraising and campaigning. You’re looking people in the eye and asking them both for a check and for their vote.

That’s one of the many reasons that I like running for the Ventura City Council. It’s so much more satisfying than running for, say, the Assembly or Congress – or even for County Supervisor – where there’s a lot more fundraising and a lot less direct contact with voters.

Let me know if you’d like to contribute to my campaign – even if it’s only $5 or $10. Campaigning in Ventura is so grassroots that I’m not even set up to accept online donations! So I’ll send you a contribution envelope, either via email or snailmail.

And also please let me know if you would like to host a house party. This is usually a neighborhood event where you invite your friends and neighbors, provide a few refreshments, and we chat in your living room or backyard about the issues that really matter to you. It’s my favorite part of campaigning.

Tuesday, July 31, 2007

Unblending The Retirees

Last night, the Council decided to provide one more transition year to the City’s 140 retirees who purchase medical insurance from the City. It’ll cost us $220,000 – but it will provide a softer landing for the retirees who have traditionally counted on favorable City medical insurance rates, and it will save us a lot of money in the long run.

This story is a good example of the financial pressures the City faces, and the hard decisions that we on the Council have to make as those financial pressures grow. It’s also a good story about collaboration and about innovative solutions within government.

Many city employees retire before the age of 65, meaning they are not yet eligible for Medicare. Faced with the question of what to do about medical insurance in the meantime, about 140 of these younger retirees currently buy it through the City’s program. Traditionally, the retirees and the current employees were put into the same pool and purchased insurance at the same rate – a rate that was lower for the retirees than they otherwise would pay (because their medical costs generally are higher) but higher for the employees than they would otherwise pay (because they were subsidizing the retirees). The City is not required to provide retirees with medical insurance at the same rate as current employees, but it was longstanding practice and most of our younger retirees had come to depend on it.

In the last few years, of course, the price that everyone pays has gone way up. And, more recently, the Government Accounting Standards Board (GASB) has changed its practices and will soon require that the City (and all other government agencies) calculate the cost of all retiree medical benefits as a liability on our books. A quick calculation by the city’s staff concluded that this figure would currently be $5 million. In the years ahead, as more and more people retire, it would grow to $24 million. This liability would harm the city’s overall balance sheet and could hurt our credit rating. And, of course, it would mean the rates for our current employees would just keep going up and up.

This is kind of like Social Security. The more retirees there are, the harder it for those still working to pay the bill.

So last fall, we voted to “unblend” the rate, meaning current employees paid a rate based on their own actuarial and risk factors and retirees paid a separate rate based on their factors. We did it, frankly, without a whole lot of discussion. The result was a big hit for some of our younger retirees. The typical individual saw his or her rate double, from about $500 to $1,000 per month, under Blue Shield. (Kaiser, which had just taken over Buenaventura Medical Group, had not yet unblended the rates and so their rates were still low.)

Not surprisingly, this caused a backlash. In November, Councilmembers Neal Andrews and Jim Monahan proposed reconsidering this action – and more than 100 out of the 140 retirees packed the council chamber in support. We agreed to subsidize 50% of the increased rates for one year (calendar year 2007) – a hit of about $400,000 on the General Fund. We also agreed to create a task force, including Councilmembers Andrews and Ed Summers, to work out a longer-term solution.

And we did. The proposal that came before us last night was a pretty good solution, and included a tolerable increase for most people. Kaiser has now unblended the rate and so the typical individual will now pay $500 a month, up from $300 a month last year. (It’s more than $1,000 a month for two or more people.)

But the task force also found another solution to the high Blue Shield costs. Riverside County has negotiated low rates with Blue Shield and has now offered this program – known as Exclusive Care Select – to other government agencies as well. Ventura County is likely to join, as are Orange and San Bernardino Counties. By joining this program – essentially, contracting with Riverside County to join their program – it looks like we’ll be able to soften the blow, and bring the retiree premiums to around $530 a month for an individual and $1,000 for a couple.

This is a pretty good application of a theory floating around in public administration circles these days. The theory suggests that government agencies should not try to do everything. Rather, they should specialize in what they are good at, and then contract with each other for the good stuff. For example, if the County’s better at 911 than we are, let’s contract with them. Our deal with Exclusive Care Select is a good example. Riverside County is good at this stuff. So we’re going to contract with them to help provide more affordable health insurance for our younger retirees.

And we’re giving the retirees a bit of a soft landing besides. We agreed to subsidize their transition for one more year – at half the previous level, or $220,000. That works out, on average, to about $130 per month per retiree. (We rejected another alternative, which was to phase the subsidy out over four years, at a cost of almost $1 million.)

Our subsidies are real money, of course; this is money we will have to come up with in the short run from existing sources of funds. And we weren’t contractually obligated to provide this transition period.

But our own employees clearly believed we had a moral obligation to them. We did not want to risk our long-term credit rating. And by working together with the retirees, we found an innovative solution that, we hope, will maintain affordable medical insurance premiums for them in the long run. Who says government can’t be innovative?

Wednesday, July 25, 2007

Why I Backed Off On Reconfiguring Victoria

One of the things I hate about politicians is that when they run into political resistance, they often change course and don’t admit it. They make it look as though the changed course is a perfectly logical result of a thoughtful process, not the result of political pressure. So let me make something very clear: I backed off of the idea of reconfiguring the lanes on Victoria because most everybody in town seemed to think it was a bad idea.

On Monday night, the City Council voted 6-1 to move forward with the a new development code for Victoria Avenue – which requires an environmental impact report and other process considerations – but scrapped the “streetscape” part of the Victoria plan. This was the controversial idea of reconfiguring the traffic lanes in Victoria so that only six would be through-traffic lanes, while the other two would be local traffic and turning lanes. I voted to scrap the reconfiguration.

A politician has to admit when he’s not on the same page as his constituents. I’ve never had so much negative comment on any position that I’ve taken in four years on the council. Though a few people came to our defense, most constituents who expressed an opinion did so in very strong terms – calling us idiots or morons. Frankly, I got tired of defensively explaining that I wasn’t advocating eliminating any lanes, just using them in a different way. And I was waiting to see what our traffic planners told us about how this would affect traffic flow.

But when an idea doesn’t get traction, it’s okay to move on. So we’re moving forward with what we agree on rather than dwell on what we disagree on. And what we agree on is this: Victoria should strengthen its position as an important business district, especially for professional services firms. It will continue to have important retail, restaurant, and residential components, of course – the Victoria corridor really is a truly “mixed use” area, with everything you need in one place. But given its proximity to the Ventura County Government Center, it only makes sense to try to strengthen the office base in the area. By changing the code to encourage more office uses -- without eliminating any existing retail or other businesses – we can make a long-term commitment to prosperity.

Not only have I never gotten so much negative comment on an issue, I’ve never seen an issue that had so many dimensions. They’re endless.

Jim Monahan quite rightly pointed out that part of the traffic problem is the fact that Victoria serves as the southbound connector between 126 and 101. On Monday night, I reiterated my promise to Jim that I would talk with my fellow transportation commissioners and Caltrans about moving the 126-101 connector project up the list (it’s currently last).

All of our planning efforts in East Ventura have led me to believe, even more than before, that we have to do something to move traffic north and south. Mills Road by the mall is very busy, as is Victoria at rush hour. Wells Road south of Highway 126 has gotten very crowded, especially in the morning rush. We could try to push Johnson Drive across the 126 freeway or Kimball Road down across the Santa Clara River. But both these efforts would require building a bridge and winning a SOAR vote. To do Johnson we’d have to widen the street between Ralston and Bristol, where people live in single-family houses close to the right-of-way; and to do Kimball we’d have to work with Oxnard, which may or may not be receptive.

Then there are all the large employers who rely on the Victoria corridor, especially the county, the school district (which has five schools in the vicinity of Victoria and Telegraph), and the college, whose staff and students come up Victoria and turn left on Telegraph. I still hope we can have a dialogue with all these employers and institutions to discuss whether we can alleviate rush-hour congestion by staggering everyone’s schedule.

Finally, of course, there’s Wal-Mart, which is preparing an application to build a store where the Kmart is currently located adjacent to Trader Joe’s. A lot of folks around town want us to keep Wal-Mart out, while a lot of other folks think we’re dragging our feet and foregoing lots of needed sales tax revenue by not falling all over ourselves to welcome them.

The truth is it’s very difficult to keep any individual company from doing business in our city . Constitutionally, our planning policies cannot distinguish between Wal-Mart and, say, Kmart or Target . Wal-Mart has already taken down a 20-year lease on the Kmart site and there would be nothing to prevent them from simply moving into that building (which is about 100,000 square feet).

But that’s not what it appears they are planning to do. In May, when they showed the city staff a new design (which apparently looked good in urban design and “green building” terms), they also hiked the size of the building from what they had previously discussed. It’s now apparently a 150,000-square-foot supercenter, complete with groceries. .

Some of the folks opposed to Wal-Mart have been encouraging us to pass an “anti-big-box” ordinance. But, as our Community Development Director Nelson Hernandez pointed out the other night, we already have mechanisms in place to deal with very large stores. Any retail store over 50,000 feet in the Victoria Corridor now has to go to the Planning Commission for a special permit, and under the proposed Victoria code it would be very, very difficult – if not impossible – to approve a store of more than 90,000 square feet.

All of which means that Wal-Mart might have to bag the groceries and settle for a smaller store, more the size of Kmart. But remember: Groceries are exempt from sales tax. So there wouldn’t be much hit on the city treasury.

Wednesday, June 27, 2007

The Not-So-Silent Second

Remember when the rule of thumb was your house should cost three times your annual income? In Ventura today, the average house costs ten times the average household income. If you already own a house, you’re probably okay. But if you’re a young family – or you live somewhere else and you get a job here – it’s almost impossible to buy a house.

This is not only a problem for families – it’s also a problem for businesses. If the people who work for you can’t afford to buy a house in the community where you’re located, they’ll probably leave. At best, they’ll commute long distances, creating traffic congestion and environmental damage.

It’s a problem for small businesses like the one I run, which has seven employees. It’s also a problem for big organizations that employ hundreds of people, like the City of Ventura. The truth of the matter is that our community isn’t going to be competitive – and organizations large and small can’t do their job well – if people can’t afford to live in Ventura.

Last Monday night, the City Council unanimously approved one of the most important new initiatives to come forth since I was elected almost four years ago: the Employee Housing Assistance Program. It’s a simple, low-risk, and inexpensive way for the city to help city employees buy houses here in Ventura – an important element in “recruiting and retaining” good city employees. Just as important, it lays the foundation for a communitywide effort that would allow all employers – large and small – to do the same thing. Already, our city’s Housing Authority and Community Memorial Hospital have expressed interest in joining the program.

The concept is deceptively simple. You might call it a “not so silent” second mortgage. An employee qualifies for a mortgage. The employer puts up the collateral for an interest-only second mortgage and then pays the interest. The bottom line: The homebuyer’s monthly payment on a $450,000 mortgage debt is cut from $3,000 to $2,000 a month.

Too good to be true? Not really. Here are a few more details:

-- The employer isn’t really out the cost of the mortgage. It’s only collateral. The employer pays the interest on the second mortgage, but that cost is defrayed by the fact that the employer can still invest the cash. When the house is sold or refinanced, the employer gets the money back – with the interest.

On Monday night, the City Council approved $2 million for the program. But that’s not tax money the city is spending. That’s money the city already has in its investment portfolio that has simply been pledged against the employee’s mortgage. The $2 million will still be in the city’s investment portfolio, accumulating interest. The net annual cost to an employer like the city is estimated to be $3,000.

The program can provide a lot of help even for people who don’t make a lot of money. Virtually all full-time employees at the city are eligible for a second mortgage of $150,000.

At the city government, the lowest-paid full-time employees make about $13 to $14 an hour. You may think somebody making that kind of money would never be able to afford a house. But if two working adults make that amount, their household income is somewhere around $55,000 – enough to qualify for a mortgage of around $275,000-$300,000. Add the $150,000 second, and even people with modest incomes are back in the housing market.

And best of all: This program doesn’t have to be limited only to city employees. It can be opened up to anybody whose employer is willing to participate in the program. Right now the program will be run by the city, but as more and more employers join, it will probably be spun off into a separate entity.

The city has been in discussions with many large employers about participating – not just Community Memorial and the Housing Authority but also the county, Ventura College (which spoke in favor of the idea Monday night), Patagonia, and the school district. We’ve also been working with the Chamber of Commerce on ways to bring this program to small employers as well.

That’s good news for small business owners, like me. In my day job, I am fortunate to attract some of the most talented and promising young people in the country to work for me. But they almost always leave, usually because of housing price. I’d like to find ways to keep them in Ventura long-term, and as an employer I look forward to working with the Chamber on being a small-business participant in this program.

Thanks to Mayor Morehouse and especially Councilmember Neal Andrews for promoting and crafting the program as members of the Workforce Housing Ad Hoc committee. This is the most important step we’ve ever taken to “recruit and retain” good employees – not just at City Hall, but everywhere in our city.

Monday, June 11, 2007

A Neighborhood For The Future

On Saturday I went to the grand opening of Citrus Walk, the new subdivision located off Henderson Road along Highway 126 in East Ventura. It was a good place to see the future, and how all the Monday-night brawls over real estate development projects can help to shape that future.

This project was built by The Olson Co. on the Hailes Ranch, a 40-acre site formerly owned by the school district. When it’s completed, the project will consist of 232 dwelling units on about 40 acres, ranging from 1,300-square-foot triplexes (on the market at $450,000) to 3,000-square-foot single-family homes (clocking in at around $800,000).

There was a pretty fair brawl over the project itself and the site plan. Olson proposed a mostly single-family project with some multi-family, while many neighbors wanted entirely detachd single-family homes. After Olson and the neighbors reached an agreement, the city staff and eventually the City Council called for a different site plan – one that created more of a mix of dwellings, along with more usable open space including a one-acre park that many of the dwellings overlook. We also created larger one-story ranch-style homes on larger lots along the perimeter of the project adjacent to existing neighborhoods. For all these reasons, Citrus Walk will be one of the few neighborhoods in Ventura where you can “move up” without “moving out”.

On Saturday, I saw the payoff. Ventura is a city that is rapidly aging and we always hear that young families and the middle class are getting priced out. Yet on Saturday I saw all kinds of people. Lots of young families of all races and ethnicities – some couples with children and some where the wives were very pregnant. But also lots of empty nesters.

Not all these folks will buy in Citrus Walk, of course. A lot of the people I talked to are also looking RiverPark in Oxnard. But many of these folks, especially the young families, will buy. And that means many people who work in Ventura, who are raising families, and want to make a life here will have a place to live – some in larger houses they can “move up” to, others in starter dwellings that are a little less expensive. And those in the starter dwellings will be able to move up as their incomes grow while still living in a neighborhood – with a park – that they will probably come to think of as home.

We often kick around what we mean by “smart growth.” Mostly what I mean is building neighborhoods that make sense for families to live in given both the financial and social demands we face today. In Citrus Walk, we’ll see lots of different types of people living in the same neighborhood. We’ll see young families finding a place to live in Ventura with the ability to move up in the same neighborhood. All these things are to the good. And they wouldn’t not be possible if we were still pursuing conventional suburban development.

Score one for smart growth.