Tuesday, January 30, 2007

The Victoria Corridor

Last night, the City Council allowed the one-year moratorium on commercial development along the Victoria Corridor to expire. We voted 6-1 to move the Victoria Avenue Corridor Plan forward to the environmental review stage and 5-2 to draft an urgency ordinance subjecting large retail projects – new and remodeled stores of 50,000 square feet or more – to conditional use permits under the Corridor Plan is adopted. (The draft Corridor Plan can be found at http://www.cityofventura.net/newsmanager/templates/?a=1698&z=43.)

The urgency ordinance will surely ensnare Wal-Mart if they come in for a project on the K-Mart site before the Corridor Plan is adopted. This didn’t make the business community very happy (and it’s why Councilmembers Andrews and Monahan voted against it).

This was a joint meeting with the Planning Commission and it went well. Frankly, I was pretty surprised that we were all so close to being on the same page – and I don’t just mean the City Council but business interests and citizen groups as well. I was prepared for the worst. We’d gotten a lot of emails in advance in response to the story in the Star that focused on the possibility that we might limit through traffic on Victoria to three lanes rather than four. (http://www.venturacountystar.com/vcs/ve/article/0,1375,VCS_251_5311777,00.html)

Also, I knew the anti-Wal-Mart crowd would be out in force (http://www.coastalalliance.com/) and I feared that the Chamber of Commerce would come out and suggest that the proposed plan was wildly unrealistic.

The new plan does call for some significant changes. It has an extensive set of proposed streetscape improvements that would create a more boulevard feel. It would also alter our approach to private building regulation to create a more urban feel, with, among other things, buildings up closer to the street (once Victoria has been “tamed”) and a form-based code. Through traffic would be limited to three lanes, with the fourth lane devoted to a “slip road” serving businesses and buildings along the side. One real estate broker I ran into on the street said she thought everybody at City Hall was smoking crack, and a Victoria Avenue commuter wrote us to tell us that he thought that this was the most idiotic idea he had ever heard.

That’s not what happened at the meeting. The consulting planners gave us three choices for what to emphasize on the corridor in the future – neighborhood infill (mostly housing), town center (heavily retail), and workplace (mostly office). We green-lighted the workplace scenario, as the staff recommended, adding some retail components at least to analyze in the EIR. The idea is to create a Class A office district that can compete for Class A tenants. But we don’t want to just create a bunch of nice office buildings. Along the way we want to create a “place” along the way that has some retail and other services for employees and residents in the area. I personally think that’s the only way you’re going to win the competition for high-end office users and high-wage jobs in the years ahead.

The anti-Wal-Mart folks, while clearly still focused on their goal, have changed their name from “Ventura Stop Wal-Mart Coalition” to “Livable Ventura,” and they are trying to fuse some of our quality of life goals to their social equity agenda about Wal-Mart – but they supported the direction the plan was going in. The Chamber folks – though by no means showering us with universal praise – nevertheless liked the workplace alternative. (They had prepared a stinging white paper criticizing all the ideas contained in the neighborhood infill alternative, only to be deflated by the fact that the staff recommended that it not be adopted.) Chamber Chair-elect Ted Cook was very gracious in suggesting that we have made progress.

There was a lot of skepticism from many quarters, of course, over the idea of redesigning Victoria as a boulevard and limiting it to three through lanes in each direction. Many people want to jump to the conclusion that this will create further bottlenecks on Victoria, especially for commuters who go to the government center from out of town.

I’d rather wait and see what the EIR says. The one thing we know for sure is we can’t keep doing what we’re doing on Victoria. We can’t make it any wider than it already is, so we’re going to have to find a different way to operate it. And it already functions as a kind of 3+1 street already, with the fourth “through” lane serving mostly as a local turn lane. So we’re going to have to do something, and it will likely be something along the lines of what’s being proposed.

Our Public Works Director, Ron Calkins, was asked to make some “on the spot” guesses as to how the more formal 3+1 boulevard approach might affect traffic flow. He said the 3 through lanes would probably flow better, but the 1 local lane probably would flow less efficiently. Overall, he guessed that 2025 Level of Service would drop by one grade from what it otherwise would be – meaning most of Victoria would be a B or a C instead of an A or a B (I think that’s what he said).

Most members of the council said, in one way or another, that they believed the Victoria re-do would have to be accompanied by other traffic relief on parallel corridors. Jim Monahan voted against my motion to move forward with the Corridor Plan because he wanted language saying that we should beat on Caltrans’ door to get them to finally build the 126-101 connector so trucks don’t use Victoria to get from one to the other. (I’m sympathetic but, as a member of the County Transportation Commission, I know that the politics aren’t right for this anytime soon.) Neal Andrews and others talked about the possibility of widening Johnson Drive (requiring the taking of private front yards north of Bristol) or another river crossing at Montgomery or Kimball (this last would require a SOAR override vote).

I suggested that, in planning for the long term, we work with commercial landowners on the west side of Victoria to create a new north-south street from Telephone to Moon. Most other councilmembers liked this idea and the staff agreed to analyze it in the EIR.

Planning Commissioner Martin Johnson made the suggestion that a re-do of Victoria might only be triggered by the creation of an alternate route. I guess my feeling is (1) we’re going to have to do an alternative route no matter what, and (2) I haven’t seen the numbers yet on whether a boulevard approach will really harm the Level of Service on Victoria.

But back to Wal-Mart. (You didn’t think I was avoiding this issue, did you?) Not surprisingly, the Chamber’s Ted Cook said the interim CUP requirement on big retail was essentially extending the moratorium. I don’t agree with that – but I do agree that the biggest question along Victoria, after the road configuration, is how to handle retail. The “workplace” scenario assumed no large-scale retail, but of course there are several large retail sites along Victoria and Wal-Mart has its eye on the Kmart site.

Inevitably, the first – and maybe only – large retail project that will go through the interim CUP process is Wal-Mart. That’ll obviously be fought largely over social issues, with Livable Ventura determined to keep Wal-Mart out and the Chamber determined to bring Wal-Mart in. But the interim CUP requirement will also allow us to take a look at what the effect of a new large-scale retail project will have on the Victoria Corridor and whether we think, on balance, it’s a benefit to the overall Victoria strategy. That’ll inform the whole Corridor Plan and help shape how much retail – versus high-quality office space – will be created in the area.

Yet another plan that will be back to us later in the spring. And of course Wal-Mart might now come along with a proposal that will trigger the CUP. Stay tuned.

More on Midtown

I finally watched the tape of the January 17th council meeting, which I missed because I was traveling on business, and I have also caught up on what people wrote to me and other councilmembers afterward about the proposed Interim Code for Main and Thompson in Midtown. (The staff report and proposed code can be found at http://www.cityofventura.net/newsmanager/templates/?a=1645&z=43. I don't think the streaming video is up yet.)

As Mayor Morehouse said at the meeting, I was proud of everybody for engaging in such civil dialogue. Many good points were made on all sides. I thought Dave Sargent, our Town Architect, did a great job of presenting facts and articulating his views -- and doing it in a matter-of-fact way without being preachy. I also thought Jack Schaffer, the newly appointed chair of our Historic Preservation Committee, did a good job of using visualizations to show what the impact of new development (of all types, not just three stories) might have on hillside views from certain perspectives in Midtown.

The staff and the consulting planners are now going back and taking a more a surgical approach toward the code, examining in a bit more detail where different heights might be appropriate, along with possible changed standards (such as setbacks) that might help out.

Although some folks, including my good friend Camille Harris, continue tohave strong feelings about anything over two stories in the Interim Code, I saw quite a variety of points of view on the tape and, in fact, the communications we received after the meeting were much less harsh and open-minded about possible solutions than the communications we received before the meeting. Which usually means a well-run meeting.

Stay tuned!

Tuesday, January 16, 2007


First, an apology: I won’t be at the meeting on Wednesday. As many of you know, my job requires me to travel frequently. (Being on the city council pays $600 a month plus another $200 for expenses, so I need a job.) I try to schedule my travel later on in the week and especially on weeks the regular council meeting does not occur (which was the case this week). Many months ago, assuming the council would not meet at all this week, I scheduled a course on land-use planning for 40 midcareer professionals at UC Davis Extension in Sacramento for this coming Thursday and Friday. I have to unlock the door to my classroom in Sacramento at 7:45 a.m. on Thursday. Experience has taught me that you can’t attend a night meeting in Ventura and be in Sacramento at 7:45 a.m. the next day.

However, remember that Wednesday’s meeting is just the first airing of the ideas in the Midtown Code Actual approval is months away. l will watch the tape of the meeting and communicate my comments to the staff.

I love Midtown. I live on Anacapa Street near Main and I used to live on Santa Ynez near Thompson, right next door to Camille Harris. There is no question that Midtown has a distinctive character that we all want to maintain, even as we recognize that some new development is going to occur and some change is going to occur.

The city will work with the Midtown community to undertake a Midtown Community Plan in 2008. The proposed code is a stop-gap measure, applying only to Main and Thompson, to get us closer to what we want in the short-term until the Community Plan is adopted. As we learned at 1570 E. Thompson and in some other recent projects, the current code is woefully inadequate in ensuring that we get the kinds of projects that will be a benefit to our neighborhood.

Before I make some specific comments, I want to make one more thing very clear. All too often, planning decisions are reduced to “yes or no” on one idea, or else they become fixated on abstract number – 8 units an acre versus 6, or 2.5 parking spaces per unit versus 2.0. When the discussion is framed this way, it is not surprising that things become confrontational. Developers want the higher number and neighbors want the lower number.

But planning a neighborhood should be about far more than just a high number or a low number. There are so many things that go into making a good neighborhood – architectural design, the scale and massing of buildings, what the streetscape is like, how people get around, how parking is handled in the neighborhood, what kinds of businesses go into the new buildings, how different buildings, parks, schools, etc., are connected to one another. Planning our neighborhoods is a more subtle process that requires a wide-ranging discussion of all these things, rather than just a focus on higher or lower numbers.

This is one of the reasons I pushed for Community Plans in Midtown and elsewhere, and I am looking forward to the Community Plan process. The interim code will get us part of the way there, but not all of the way. It will deal with some issues and not others. It is focused on the short-term, not the long term. Planning a neighborhood is an evolving process.

This is a new kind of code – really the first form-based code that has come before us. It’s very different from the conventional code, which specifies height limits and setbacks and what-have-you, but otherwise focuses on “use” – what goes on in the building.

This form-based code does contain similar broad parameters, such as building height. And it does prohibit some uses in a new and useful way, such as auto repair. But beyond that it focuses on building design and context. There’s a typology of different kinds of buildings, often with pictures, so we can visualize what these buildings might look like.

With that in mind, let me address a few of the specific issues that the

Building Height and Views

I have argued for many years that most additional density in Midtown should be created on the edges of the neighborhood (along Main and Thompson) and not in the middle of the neighborhoods.

The interim code addresses only the commercial strips and not the interior of the residential areas.

I believe residential buildings in the interior of the neighborhoods should be limited to two stories. I live almost catty-corner from the 3-story outbuilding now being constructed at 60 Anacapa. I think this building is extremely well designed for what it is, but I think it would probably be better if we limited heights in the interior of the residential neighborhoods in Midtown to two stories.

The tradeoff for this, however, might be taller buildings on the commercial strips. Current code permits up to 6 stories in many parts of Midtown and up to 3 stories in others. Furthermore, the General Plan anticipates greater densities and mixed uses along the corridors as a critical part of our infill-first strategy, which was created in part in response to the city’s previous actions to protect both farmland and hillsides from development. This approach has the advantage not just of protecting open space but also bringing new investment and new life to these older commercial strips, which are having an increasingly difficult time finding their place in today’s market.

The City Council has green-lighted a number of 3-story projects in Midtown in the last couple of years, including the large project at 1570 E. Thompson and a project at the Café Scoop site across from Ventura High School. Throughout Southern California, the economics of high-density housing and mixed-use have generally required 3-story buildings in recent years. Whether you like it or not, if you want to upgrade the commercial strips and provide new housing in Midtown, it would appear you need 3-story buildings to do it.

The draft interim code calls for a 3-story height limit on both Thompson and Main, with two exceptions. Development would be limited to 2 stories along Thompson and the north side of Main in the westernmost part of Midtown, and 6-story buildings would continue to be permitted around Five Points.

In recent weeks, the Bungalow Neighbors have raised the issue of whether hillside views would be blocked by 3-story buildings, and some people have advocated a ban on 3-story buildings in the interim code as a way of protecting views. I have been thinking a lot about this in recent weeks as I have traveled around Midtown. It’s true that our community is framed by the hillsides, the ocean, and the rivers. The feel in Midtown is especially intimate since the hills are so close. And it’s also true that we have not always done a good job in Ventura of protecting views.

But on the issue of views, where you stand depends on where you sit. In many parts of Midtown, a one-story building will completely block your view of the hills from the commercial corridors – in fact, this is already the case in many places. In other parts of Midtown, a three-story building would not block the view, or at least not obstruct it completely.

In other words, the issue here is not whether we should permit 3-story buildings or not, but how we can best shape the future of Midtown – short-term and long-term – to create the community character that we want to see. There are many aspects to this community character – street frontage and setbacks, architectural design, quality of construction materials, landscaping, and views of the hillsides are well.

As the interim code evolves over the next couple of months, I would suggest that we should frame the issue as how to pursue those values, both in the interim code and in the community plan, rather than a yes-no on whether we should permit 3-story buildings. I am frankly not sure how to do this, especially in the short run. In the last few days, a number of ideas have been kicked around for the interim code – adding a required viewshed analysis for 3-story buildings, creating an overlay where 3 story buildings are only permitted with special approvals, requiring additional setbacks for taller buildings in order to protect views, and other similar ideas. I favor exploring these ideas to see if there is some way to frame the discussion as how to protect important community values, including hillside views, rather than a yes or no on a certain building height.

As for Five Points, I am not sure I favor 6-story buildings. But I do think there is a pretty good argument for taller buildings in some locations in Five Points, for two reasons. One is that the “triangle” is not immediately adjacent to any residential neighborhood. The second is that, on the north side of Main Street, the medical district already features several buildings of 4 stories or more, including Community Memorial Hospital. This is an obvious place to create a stronger commercial center with some additional housing. I am not sure I favor tall buildings on all parcels (for example, I don’t think the Borchard shopping center is a good location because it is adjacent to a one-story neighborhood and I have the same concern about some of the parcels on the north side of Main Street beyond Five Points), but I think selected taller buildings is worth considering – especially if the type of mitigating measures I describe above (additional review, additional setbacks, etc.) are put into place.

Building Setbacks

Building setbacks are just as important to maintaining community character as building heights

Typical of a form-based code, this code creates a building typology and provides different standards, including different street setbacks, for different types of buildings. One type of building, for example, is called “Shopfront,” and would require zero setback from the sidewalk. Other building types are residential in nature and would require varying setbacks. Many building types are required in each zone, although not all building types are required

This is all to the good. But this might require a little tweaking. We have a variety of setback situations along Main and Thompson. Some portions have a more residential character, more a kind of “Main Street” commercial character. It seems to me that, as it is currently written, the draft ordinance might allow different building typologies with different setbacks immediately adjacent to each other.

The planning staff has told me that they are aware of this potential problem and they are going to work on some tweaks, especially in the proposed two-story area around the island streets.

Parking Ratios

Just as important as building height and building setbacks is parking ratios. The assumption behind the code here is that traditional parking ratios are too generous and can be reduced; and, beyond that, that when uses are mixed parking can be shared, so that a business can use parking during the day while residents use the same parking spaces at night.

There is always a lot of pressure from neighbors to provide as much parking as possible. But parking is very, very expensive to provide. Indeed, I would guess one of the main reasons why developers want to build three stories instead of two. A typical infill development model is to build ground-floor parking (underground parking is too expensive) with two levels of dwelling units (either townhomes or condos) above it. Ironically, the more parking a developer is required to provide, the more likely that developer is to want to build a tall building.

The draft interim ordinance calls for a parking ratio of 1.5 parking spaces per unit on the commercial corridors. This is lower than the current parking ratio. (There is a typo on page 19 of the draft code, which says that the ratio is 1.0. It is correct elsewhere.)

I support this change. There is no question that, in the interim, we still need ample parking in Midtown. It is not yet what the planners call a truly “transit-rich” environment. Every adult who has a license will also have a car. I think it is reasonable to assume that new projects in the corridors will be more or less evenly split between households with 1 adult and households with 2.

However, I have generally opposed parking variances in Midtown and elsewhere because I believe developers should be held to code, especially on parking. If we do set the parking ratio on the commercial strips at 1.5 spaces per unit, very likely I will vote against all requests for variances that would permit further reductions.

Of course, merely reducing the parking ratios will not create a permanent parking solution for Midtown. The main reason I pushed for a Community Plan in Midtown is to deal with the parking issue once and for all. My argument was that radically cutting parking ratios without also devising a neighborhood-level overall parking strategy probably would not work. You can cut parking ratios some, but you can’t cut them dramatically without an overall plan for exactly how shared parking and pooled parking at the neighborhood level is going to work. I look forward to this debate in the Community Plan.

Tuesday, January 9, 2007

The Star site on Ralston

Last night I joined the 4-2 council majority in denying a General Plan pre-screen request to change the land use designation on the Ventura County Star site on Ralston from industry to commerce. The vote came on the motion of Councilmember Andrews, who once again eloquently defended the need to reserve as much land as possible in the city for non-residential development.

I can see already that this will be cast by our critics as yet another example of either (1) our anti-development bias, or (2) the mixed messages we sent to developers. In my view, it was neither. Rather, it was a vote in favor of maintaining the integrity of our General Plan, which we passed less than 18 months ago.

In spite of what has been reported in the press and elsewhere, we did not "deny a rezoning" nor did we "turn a project down". Rather, we properly used the General Plan pre-screen process to indicate that we were not favorably disposed to a mostly residential project on this site. The whole idea of the pre-screen is to give early signals to developers as to what kinds of General Plan Amendments we might or might not view favorably.

When we passed the General Plan in 2005, our discussion included several factors relevant here:

1. Based on real estate market research, we concluded that we do not have enough commercial and industrial land in the city to meet future needs; therefore, we made significant statements that we should reserve industrial land in particular for future job growth.

2. We decided to target new infill efforts in specific focus areas -- downtown, for example, and Wells-Saticoy. Ralston was not one of those areas.

I think what happened last night was a majority of the council concluded that there was no reason to back off of either of those General Plan conclusions.

The Star site is 8 acres in between Ralston and the 101 freeway near the police station. It is an extremely underutilized parcel to begin with -- an outmoded 40,000-square-foot building on a 350,000-square-foot site. The Star, which built a new facility in Camarillo some years ago, is vacating the site in March.

The new owners, Sheridan Ebbert Development of Sylmar, came to the city for a pre-application meeting in late 2005 with an idea for a number of small office/industrial buildings. This would have been permitted without a change in the General Plan designation of the parcel. Eventually the owners changed their mind and began to craft a project that would be mostly housing. This required a change in General Plan designation from industry, which permits only live-work units as a second use, to commerce, which permits straight-up residential-commercial mixed-use.

The applicant then used our General Plan pre-screen process to come to the council with a request to change the General Plan designation. This action was initiated by Sheridan Ebbert and it is not without some risk. If we turn a pre-screen down, an applicant can't come before us again for a year. The staff suggested the possibility of changing the General Plan designation of the northern part of the site along Ralson to commerce while leaving the southern part of the site, near the freeway, as industry. However, the staff made no recommendation one way or the other.

It is very tempting to allow the General Plan to be amended whenever a landowner or developer comes along and requests it. But this process undermines the whole idea of a General Plan. This happened repeatedly in Ventura during the 1990s. As a result, the General Plan's credibility was gradually eroded until the ideas in the plan had no meaning to anybody. This lack of credibility was one of the reasons the public could not buy in to that General Plan -- and one of the reasons we saw so many ballot initiatives on land use during that time.

As I said above, in the General Plan we decided to reserve most industrial land for jobs and focus mixed-use and housing in certain centers and corridors elsewhere in the city. Last night, there was no compelling reason to devite from those two policies just because a developer came along and asked us to.

In the material it presented to the Council, Sheridan Ebbert stated that its original office-based development project wouldn't pencil out because costs were too high and rents were too low. In my experience, what this usually means is that the developer paid too much for the land.The Star site is a prime site and over time it will emerge as an excellent location for good jobs.

Sheridan Ebbert did attempt to make the argument that the location would make excellent workforce housing. I don't disagree that the Ralston corridor is a good location for workforce housing. It is adjacent to housing of various densities and it is located in extremely close proximity to lots of jobs and lots of day-to-day retail. But there was no guarantee from this proposal that the people who work in the area would actually live in the housing. If Sheridan Ebbert returned with a large employer like the County in tow, with an iron-clad guarantee of workforce housing, that might create a more compelling argument to deviate from our General Plan policies.