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.

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