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.

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