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.

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