Wednesday, February 28, 2007

Is Hertel-Cabrillo Smart Growth?

In today's Star, Camille Harris poses three very good questions about whether the Hertel-Cabrillo project represents smart growth. (,1375,VCS_125_5382526,00.html) These questions deserve thoughtful answers. Here goes.

1. Did this project conform with Ventura's avowed philosophy of smart growth? One of the principles of smart growth is that residents be able to walk to whatever they need, in the interest of keeping cars off the crowded roads as much as possible. It did not appear that these residents can get so much as a quart of milk without driving for it.

Rather than focusing on putting retail into every single residential project that's built, no matter how large or small (which can be a business failure), i think it makes more sense to strengthen our neighborhoods ,especially by creating connections to nearby locations with retail and community amenities.

The Hertel-Cabrillo project is located much closer to stores than most other tracts in East Ventura. It is less than a quarter-mile from the retail center at Citrus and Wells -- well within walking distance. You have to walk down Citrus past the apartments and the vacant lots. This may not be a pleasant walk yet, but as the neighborhood changes over the years it will get better -- especially if the vacant lots are eventually developed for more retail (as, I believe, is called for in the draft Saticoy & Wells Community Plan).

In addition, the Community Plan calls for a pedestrian overpass almost immediately adjacent to the Hertel-Cabrillo project that would connect this project to more retail and more community amenities (including, possibly, a library) to be built on the south side of the freeway. Eventually, residents of this neighborhood will have better pedestrian and bike access to retail and other community amenities than almost anybody else in East Ventura.

2. Did this project conform with the city's avowed support for "inclusive" affordable housing? Lumping underprivileged children together into projects can have a stigmatizing and marginalizing effect, and it prevents their being included in activities seemingly reserved for the economically advantaged. Could Ventura's inclusive affordable housing requirement be stronger?

Actually, this project envisions families of different incomes living together in a much more holistic and inclusive way than any other project we have ever seen in this city. About one-third of new the housing units will be single-family homes available to the general public -- and most of these people will have to have six-figure incomes to qualify for a mortgage. About a third are townhomes that will be sold to middle-income working families -- probably people who make between $50,000 and $70,000 per year. And about a third will be rental apartments made available to people whose jobs pay them less than $50,000, meaning they are pretty much priced out of the ownership market. All these folks will live in the same small neighborhood, which -- as I said before -- will be linked to a larger community that includes folks of all incomes. So I think the Hertel-Cabrillo project actually comes closer to dealing with these issues than the typical housing development.

3. Did the $3 million subsidy the city awarded to the developer on the very next agenda item practically empty the affordable-housing money pot and hand it over to just one developer for one project? Could this possibly be characterized as cronyism?

In this particular case, the city is getting 60 desperately needed affordable rental units at a cost of $50,000 apiece. This is just about the lowest subsidy imaginable for this kind of housing, so from the city's point of view it is a great value. As for the allegation that we are engaging in cronyism by investing this money in one project, let me just say that for several years we have been subject to the opposite criticism -- that we are sitting on the money and refusing to give it out because we don't want affordable housing. What I'm in favor of is investing the city's affordable housing money in projects that will actually be built and make a difference in people's lives.

Tuesday, February 27, 2007

Chamber Still Swinging At Victoria

I don't know about you, but I was a little surprised and disappointed with the way Chamber of Commerce CEO Zoe Taylor framed her arguments in Sunday's Star against possible changes to Victoria Avenue. Remember that blog I wrote back on Jan. 30 reporting that we all seemed to be headed in the same direction on Victoria even though there will still some big differences? Zoe didn't sound like she was on the same page -- emphasizing the negative rather than the positive.

The Star ran a kind of pro-con on Sunday, including one article by me and another by Zoe, along with three letters (one for, two against). You can access the whole thing at,1375,VCS_126_5377266,00.html. This is the link to my story, but it's got links to Zoe's story and letters to the editor as well. (Be sure to read the comments from readers -- especially the ones from Bill Winfield, who was active in the No on P6 Campaign. Is it an election year already?)

In the story Zoe takes a pretty hard swing at the whole Victoria effort, hammering especially on the Wal-Mart question and possible changes to Victoria's traffic flow. You have to read the fine print in Zoe's article to discover that, at the Jan 29th meeting, the City Council actually voted in favor of the Chamber's most important suggestion on Victoria, which was to favor the "workplace" development scenario over an "infill housing" scenario.

The irony is that Zoe's Star article is drawn almost entirely from the Chamber's "white paper" on Victoria -- and the "white paper" is focused mostly on opposing the "infill housing" scenario. Hey, Zoe, we're with you on that one.

To be fair, I called Zoe today to discuss this. She said that the article was reflecting the viewpoint of her board and members, many of whom are opposed to the Victoria reconfiguration on its face. We had a good conversation and we agreed that critical components here are (1) estimating how much traffic really is freeway-to-freeway traffic (anecdotal evidence being that it's not much, and (2) working with the "Big 3" employers (county, school district, college) to manage start times and therefore peak-hour traffic.

My original complaint stands, however. Zoe could have written an article saying, It's great that we agree on the workplace strategy, but we're still concerned about the street configuration. Instead, her article said, This street configuration idea is terrible and we're opposed to it and, by the way, we're happy that you green-lighted the workplace strategy. The overall message this send is negative rather than suggesting we are working toward consensus (which we are).

I've been thinking a lot about why the Chamber so often seems to be in opposition to the city's efforts and I'll blog more about that in the future.

Meanwhile, Monday night the City Council approved an ordinance subjecting large-scale retail projects on Victoria (meaning Wal-Mart) to a use permit until the new code is complete. (,1375,VCS_251_5381398,00.html) The anti-Wal-Mart activists seemed to think this move would prohibit big box retail along Victoria. For that matter, the pro-Wal-Mart folks seem to think so too. I hope they both realize that while the ordinance creates another layer of Planning Commission review -- tied to the design goals in the General Plan -- it doesn't prohibit anything.

Wednesday, February 21, 2007

Downtown's Arts Village -- and Parking

For starters, an apology and explanation: As I have said before, I travel a lot for my day job and I try to organize that travel so I am always available for Monday night City Council meetings. This means I often travel on Wednesdays and Thursdays. So Wednesday night meetings are sometimes hard for me to make. Such is the case tonight – I am traveling in Northern California for business and can’t attend the Wednesday night meeting, which is, essentially, a regular council meeting with regular business.

The biggest item on the agenda tonight is the update from the San Buenaventura Foundation for the Arts. More than two years ago, the City Council agreed to reserve significant city-owned land downtown – between Main, the Figueroa paseo, Santa Clara, and Palm – for the Arts Foundation’s “Arts Village,” a cluster of theaters, art education spaces, and other arts-related uses that would anchor an arts district downtown in what we frequently nowadays call “California’s New Art City.” At first we reserved the land for three years and later extended that to June 2008. Tonight’s meeting is a scheduled “check-in,” but this check-in does raise quite a number of issues. These issues include:

* Fundraising
* Building Program
* Parking

At this point I’m just raising questions. I have no answers.


When the Arts Village was first proposed, the estimated pricetag was $26 million – a figure that will surely go up over time.

The current agreement between the city and the Arts Foundation sets a deadline of June 2008 – that’s 16 months from now – for the Arts Foundation to “secure sufficient funds to construct the cultural center according to development plan.” There was also an interim goal of last September to launch a capital campaign with a timeline to raise $10 million.

So far, the Arts Foundation has raised $3 million in a “quiet” campaign, presumably from local activists and board members such as Jordan and Sandra Laby, the main benefactors of the Arts Foundation. This is a great start, but far, far from the goal. The Foundation has also fallen behind in launching a public fundraising campaign and hiring a fundraiser. The Arts Foundation is now asking for a schedule that calls for raising another $1 million this June, an additional $2 million by June 2008 – that’s $6 million total – and the other $4 million later.

So the question for the City Council is, is this much slower fundraising schedule acceptable, considering we originally set a deadline of June 2008 to raise all the money and begin construction?

Building Program

Last fall the Arts Foundation hired MainStreet Architects to do a conceptual land use plan. The result so far has promise – but it’s also different than the plan we saw in 2005, when we agreed to extend our land agreement to 2008. They are proposing as well to build in phases, which was not previously anticipated.

The Arts Foundation would like to build a “Phase 1” in the area immediately behind Jonathan’s and the other Main Street businesses beginning in the fall of 2008. These buildings, which would run from Figueroa all the way over to Palm, would include arts education classrooms, offices, and possibly some artists housing and retail as well. The Foundation would like the city’s permission to move forward with this phase once the $6 million has been raised.

But the Foundation’s proposal would also bump important and expensive pieces of the Arts Village – most particularly the proposed 300-500-seat theater – into Phase 2, which obviously may not be constructed for a long time. (The theater would be located on the southern part of the property facing Santa Clara.) Part of the argument is that other venues will soon become available, including the Bell Arts Factory, the Knights of Columbus Hall (which could become part of the Arts Village project), and the Working Artists Ventura project.

So the questions for the City Council include:
Is it okay to “phase” the Arts Village project
Is it okay to bump the theater into Phase 2, which will be built at an undetermined point in the future?

Implicit in these questions is another significant set of the questions. These are:
* How long do we allow the Arts Foundation to tie up the Phase 2 property before we demand they surrender it?
* What if Phase 2 is never built?

When we first agreed to reserve the property for three years, it was a challenge to the Arts Foundation to raise all the money needed to build the project. If we let them build Phase 1, we will have to give them more time to raise the money for Phase 2. But how much more time? One year? Five? Ten? How long does the city sit on this valuable asset waiting for $20 million or so to be raised?

This, of course, raises the possibility that Phase 2 will never be built and that, eventually, the city will use the land for something else. Can Phase 1 stand on its own as an asset to our community – even if it is not what we envisioned when we set aside the land in the first place? If it’s Phase 1 and nothing more, should we devote this valuable and well-located piece of land to it?

An alternative, of course, would be to conceptualize the downtown art and culture scene in a different way with many dispersed venues (which is sort of what it is now). Part of the point of the Arts Village -- a commendable one -- is to concentrate all these activities in one small space. This is the approach the City Council endorsed when we set aside the land for three years.

Another idea that has been kicked around for some time is to use existing or emerging venues all over downtown -- the Ventura Theater (if a new owner could acquire it), the Elks Club (undergoing renovation), perhaps even the Packard Garage on Chestnut Street. The punting of the Arts Village theater into Phase 2 is partly rationalized by this very idea, including Bell Arts. If the parking and fundraising issues (see below) become too tough, it will be very tempting to ditch Phase 2 and move to this alternate approach of dispersal. This might have pluses (more venues, more activity throughout downtown) and minuses (Phase 1 would be stranded in the exact location, near the Museum, where we have said we want the locus of cultural activity to be. This option is, at this point, a remote possibility. The City Council has made a clear policy commitment to the Arts Village and in order to adopt dispersed approach we would have to official back off that policy, probably if and went the Arts Foundation can't meet a milestone we have laid out.


The city has always assumed that we will have to build lots more parking in the vicinity of the Arts Village – the western part of downtown. Many of us have often spoken vaguely of “a second parking garage,” without providing or demanding much detail as to where it would be or how it would be paid for. But one thing is for sure: When we made the decision to reserve the biggest city-owned property for the Arts Village, we were also making the decision not to building a city parking garage on that site. Inevitably, we were deciding to go into partnership with nearby private property owners on how to deal with the parking.

There are two pieces of land in the immediate vicinity that are significant in this regard. This first is the old American Legion Hall on the corner of Santa Clara and Palm, immediately adjacent to the Arts Village parcel. The second is the Farmers Market location across the street. This is currently a city parking lot, but only part of it is owned by the city. The remainder is owned by the Smith-Hobson family, landowners of longstanding in Ventura.

It is no secret that the owner of the American Legion Hall property is negotiating with Trader Joe’s for a market on that site. This is a fabulous idea. But Trader Joe’s needs parking, preferably adjacent to its building. This is not a problem – at least not unless or until Phase 2 of the Arts Village is built. So long as Phase 2 remains unbuilt, the city parking lot on the Phase 2 portion of the parcel will remain available. Once Phase 2 is built, that parking would, presumably, “go away”.

For a long time, many of us at City Hall have simply assumed that, when the time came, the Smiths would sell their parcel to the city so we could combine it with our parcel and build a parking garage. This would seem to solve all problems – providing long-term parking Trader Joe’s, the Arts Village, and other activities in that part of downtown. I want to emphasize that this was a kind of unspoken assumption – it wasn’t written down in any document – and not everybody held this view. I didn’t really think about it all that much.

The Smiths, however, understandably have a different idea. Not long ago at a meeting of the Downtown Ventura Organization, Greg Smith said his family does not intend to sell the property to the city for a parking garage but, rather, might pursue their own development project, possibly in collaboration with the city. This development might provide some extra parking (or it might not) but it certainly won’t provide enough to solve all the parking issues in that neighborhood.

It’s not written in stone, of course, that the only way to solve the parking issues is to build a parking garage on the Smith property. There are many ways to skin this cat. We could, for example, provide smaller amounts of parking on many different parcels. But that would require private property owners downtown to “play ball” and participate in an overall strategy – rather than building their own projects with their own parking.

A while ago, some parking experts did a parking management study of downtown – the guts of which are being incorporated into the Downtown Specific Plan, which is scheduled to come to us in March. It is this parking management study that identified the need to change the way we handle parking downtown – for example, charging for onstreet and offstreet parking and working all city-controlled parking into one pricing system.

The draft of the Downtown Specific Plan does contain a section on parking management, but it’s currently somewhat sketchy. It calls for:

· An analysis over the next year of how much new parking is needed and where it should be built.

· Between 2008 and 2011, the creation of a downtown parking district and the implementation of a paid parking program

· In 2011 and beyond, the construction of additional parking

There’s little doubt that the city will require new developments, such as the Smith project, to at least replace the parking that currently exists in the form of a surface lot. (At least for new private developments. At present we’re not requiring that of the Arts Village.) And the city staff has at least informally committed that Phase 2 of the Arts Village won’t be built until parking has been created to replace the surface parking on the Arts Village property.

Still, it’s not clear that the timing lines up – at least at this point. A lot depends, of course, on when Phase 2 of the Arts Village is built, especially in relation to any project that might be built on the Smith property.

So the questions for the Council include:

· How do we ensure that enough parking is available at the right time for new projects that might come on line, including Trader Joe’s, the Arts Village, and a project on the Smith property?

· How do we make sure that the Smiths and other downtown property owners participate in our overall downtown parking management strategy, rather than simply going their own way with their project and their parking supply?

· Should we require that the Arts Village property accommodate some parking as well?

Like I said, I don’t have answers at this point. Only questions. And tonight won’t be the end of it. We’ll get the Downtown Specific Plan in March and another report on the Arts Village in June. Stay tuned.

Friday, February 16, 2007

Thursday at 7 pm instead of Monday at 2 am

I’m writing this Thursday at around 7 pm. Way back on Monday at 2 am, this is about the time that I suggested the City Council should discuss the Hertel-Cabrillo project – or at least tell people why we voted the way we did. Since this probably won’t happen at a council meeting, let me take a few minutes to explain my thinking.

The Hertel-Cabrillo project is a mixed-income project – as approved, it’s 59 market-rate single-family homes, 60 affordable condominiums and 60 low-income rental apartments (18 for farmworkers) on a 24-acre site just east of Wells Road and just north of Highway 126 in the Wells-Saticoy area. It also has a 2½ acre park and a community park right next to the freeway. Though it’s hard up against the growth boundary, it’s surrounded on two sides by pretty intense development – an apartment complex lies to the west – and on the south by the freeway. Though there’s been lots of quibbling over whether it’s more or less dense than it should be, it’s around 7.5 units per acre and this isn’t very different from elsewhere in the vicinity. Among other things, the project required a parking variance to waive a requirement for 45 guest parking spaces. (All units have two off-street spaces.)

On Monday, the council approved this project 7-0, at 2 a.m., with no discussion. In a separate action, also 7-0, the council agreed to provide the project with $3 million in affordable housing funds over five years.

On Monday night between 11:30 p.m. and 1:30 a.m, we heard about 30 different speakers who had an opinion on this project. Many were residents of adjoining tracts – including one affordable ownership neighborhood – who stated their concerns mostly in terms of traffic and parking. Some also expressed concern that the configuration of the project – which included many alleys – would cause an increase of crime. A few questioned the location of the park, noting that it’s up against the freeway; it’s located far distant from surrounding neighborhoods; and part of it is really a detention basin. Many of these folks also claimed the Planning Commission had approved the project because it had been kicking around the approval process so long that the whole thing had gotten kind of embarrassing.

There was also a lot of confusion at the Design Review Committee and the Planning Commission over which version of the site plan was being discussed and voted on. At the City Council level, we were presented with two versions – a 184-unit project approved by the Planning Commission and a 179-unit project put forth by the applicant (though clearly discussed with our city staff in advance). We approved the latter project, which knocked out five single-family homes, created a few houses with larger lots, and removed alleys around the perimeter of the project.

Those who supported the project – and there were many of them – said it was an exemplary mixed-income project that provided needed affordable and workforce housing.

The 7-0 vote on both the project and the financing package suggests that we agreed with the proponents. But I don’t want to diminish the concerns of the neighbors. Here’s what I would have said if it hadn’t been 2 am.

There are a lot of things about this project I like. We are clearly going to have to build more mixed-income projects and this is a pretty good start. The site plan cleverly places the low-income rentals in the interior of the project, surrounded by other houses, and places the market-rate single-family units on the outside, adjacent to the surrounding neighborhoods. I thought that the somewhat larger lot sizes in the revised version – along with the removal of alleys around the perimeter of the project – made the project better.

It’s consistent with what we did on the Citrus Walk project, now under construction a along Henderson near the Community Park. There were no affordable units in that project, but relatively low-cost triplexes (meaning around $460,000) were placed in the middle of the project, while single-story houses on large lots were placed on the perimeter, adjacent to existing ranch-style neighborhoods.

On the other hand, I thought the park still looked like a kind of afterthought. It wasn’t in the center of the neighborhood, meaning it was, indeed, far distant from surrounding tracts. And it’s also right next to the freeway – but would it have been better to put houses there instead? I’m no expert on site planning, so I generally leave this stuff to the staff, the DRC, and the Planning Commission.

The question that most engaged me – and that I would have most liked to discuss – was parking. Because there were both pros and cons about parking on this project worth discussing.

The neighbors did an excellent job of highlighting some of the existing parking problems in the neighborhood, which derive largely from the apartment complex just to the west on Citrus Drive. They showed photos of how even the undeveloped part of Citrus Drive – where the project will be built – already has many parked cars. This was an argument against the parking variance.

On the other hand, the way the site plan was designed created an unusually large amount of on-street parking, and this is due in large part to the alley configuration. In the typical subdivision, the only access to off-street parking is from the street, and a typical driveway is as wide as at least two cars. This means that there’s relatively little onstreet parking in a typical subdivision (compared to, say, my street in Midtown, where driveways are narrow and some houses don’t even have driveways). So it’s understandable that most people would think that you shouldn’t count onstreet parking toward a neighborhood’s parking requirement.

But in the case of the Hertel-Cabrillo project, it’s the alley configuration that makes the parking work. Because garages are accessed through alleys, there are no curb cuts on the actual streets. That means there are literally hundreds of parking spaces on the street in the neighborhood. The staff said 200-some; the developer said 300-some. (One of my pet peeves in the last three years is that we need to do a better job of documenting on-street parking resources and then showing how they are going to be used to provide necessary parking.)

Either way, this is a lot of parking. It’s certainly more than would have been produced by a conventional subdivision without a variance, and probably enough to accommodate the parking overflow from the apartment complex. (Again, I would have liked to see a more systematic analysis about all this – I think we need to get more rigorous.)

Even with the onstreet parking, the neighbors had two concerns worth dealing with. The first is the possibility of crime in the alleys. And the second is the possibility that many of these households, no matter what their income, will have 5, 6, 7, 8 cars – meaning that any supply of parking will be inadequate. I think some people would suggest that these are veiled concerns about the affordable and low-income units – the Star story certainly suggested this was the neighbors’ main concern – but I will take the neighbors at their word that it is crime and parking, not the income of their future neighbors, that concern them. (The comments from readers on the Star web site were quite derogatory and racist, but these weren’t from neighbors.)

Alleys have been the subject of great debate in American city planning for 200 years. Staunch supporters say they are a better use of public space and also say that they open up the possibility of carriage-house type units that will make the neighborhood safer and more affordable. Opponents say they breed crime and decay. I think it depends. Eyes on the street definitely help. When I lived downtown on Main Street, the Hemlock Place alley was behind my house – but there were literally dozens of units that faced the alley, including one inhabited by a muscular guy who regularly used his alley patio for topless kickboxing sessions. So it was safe.

There are no carriage houses in the Hertel-Cabrillo project, so we’ll have to rely on the residents and on Cabrillo’s property management skill (more on that below) to deal with that problem. That’s part of the reason why I think eliminating the alleys along the perimeter was a good idea – otherwise those areas could have been orphaned areas claimed by no one.

As far as an excessive number of cars go, we heard many references Monday night to the parking problems in the nearby North Bank Greens neighborhood, where neighbors with two cars have been doing battle with neighbors who have eight cars. Many neighbors to Hertel-Cabrillo expressed an understandable fear that the same thing would occur in the new neighborhood.

Here my fears are partly alleviated by the involvement of Cabrillo Economic Development Corp. Cabrillo has a reputation for being pretty slick on the political front (in his last blast at the council Monday night, at 2 am, Brian Lee Rencher claimed that “the fix was in” for Cabrillo on this project). But Cabrillo also has a good reputation as a property manager, and I believe their management practices will reduce the possibility of alley crime and parking problems.

Cabrillo’s Karen Flock stated Monday night that the company wouldn’t permit tenants with more than two cars into the rental units. That’s a pretty significant contrast to North Bank Greens, an affordable ownership neighborhood with no property manager and no homeowner association. In that sense, North Bank Greens is less like the Hertel-Cabrillo project and more like the adjoining tract (an affordable ownership neighborhood) that is home to many of the concerned citizens we saw Monday night.

So that’s how I view things. We need all kinds of housing for all kinds of people in Ventura, and this project provides that. The site plan isn’t perfect but it has some excellent aspects to it, especially the onstreet parking. The city’s subsidy is $50,000 a unit – an excellent buy. And I have confidence in the property managers.

One final note: I just wanted to thank everybody involved in the public debate over this project for their courtesy and civility. In particular, neighborhood leader Bryce Johnson and developer Ron Hertel had nothing but good words to say about each other in public. I’ve noticed that we’ve become much more civil in our public discourse in Ventura in recent months. I give a lot of credit to Mayor Morehouse, who never fails to remind people to speak kindly and calmly – and also never fails to thank our citizens for maintaining a high tone in public. I look forward to more of the same in the future.

Tuesday, February 13, 2007

Making Public Policy At 2:15 A.M.

Okay, so it's not easy to sit up there for 7 or 8 hours.

Last night was one of those nights -- we get them around once a year or so.

We convened at 6 pm in closed session to discuss how negotiations are going on a couple of real estate transactions.

Then we convened at 7 pm in the Council chamber. It was "First Monday" -- when we invite anybody who wants to to address the City Council at the beginning of the meeting on whatever we want. We were inundated by parents and teachers who asked us to restore the School Resource Officers (either through a re-run of P6 or some other means). [ See the Star's account at,1375,VCS_226_5348444,00.html.]

Then we blew through the consent calendar (items that we don't plan to discuss individually) and dealt with Councilmember Brennan's request that we support legislation that would make it more difficult for mobile home park owners to subdivide their parks into condos, which has the effect of eliminating rent control protections. (Agenda items for the meeting can be found at ... and by the way, today the Board of Supervisors failed to get the requisite four-fifths vote for a more aggressive measure placing a moratorium on mobile home condo converssions [,1375,VCS_121_5349321,00.html].

By this time it was well after 9. And we still had two long items left. The first was a neighbor's appeal of a proposed lot split on the cul-de-sac at the end of Mound Avenue -- not a huge issue citywide, but very important to this street. By a unanimous vote, we overturned the Planning Commission and upheld the appeal, turning down the lot split. (In 2005, at a meeting where I was absent, we had turned down a split from one to three lots; this time, we turned down a split from one to two.)

Now we were ready to take on what was clearly the most important item of the evening -- the appeal of the Planning Commission's approval of the so-called "Hertel-Cabrillo" project east of Wells Road just north of Highway 126.

This is a complicated project with a long history. After several failed attempts, it had obtained allocations under the old RGMP process in 2005. A combined effort of Hertel Development and Cabrillo Economic Development Corp., the project calls for about 180 units -- 60 single-family, 60 affordable townhomes for sale, and 60 low-cost apartments for low-income families (including 18 for farmworker families). The debate below, especially at the Planning Commission, had been a confusing blur of different proposals and site plans. People were confused and some were not happy. We had close to 40 speakers lined up. And because it was an appeal, both the developer and the appellant (a group of neighbors represented by the articulate Bryce Johnson) had 10 minutes at the beginning and a 5 minute rebuttal.

Many neighbors came forward to express concern about traffic and overcrowding. When it got to be about 10 after 1 in the morning, I asked Mayor Morehouse how many speakers we had left. The answer? 14 to go.

I suggested we continue the whole thing till Thursday night. Others, especially Councilmember Andrews, expressed the strong view that we should sit tight and, at least, hear public comment. I agreed -- though I was not sure I would absorb any of it. Mayor Morehouse asked the remaining speakers -- all supporters of the project -- to limit their remarks to one minute. Some did and some didn't but anyway they were all done by about 1:35 a.m. At that point I moved that we continue the item to Thursday. The city attorney understandably said we should hear the rebuttals and close the public hearing. We heard the rebuttals -- Bryce Johnson jokingly yielded his time to developer Ron Hertel in an effort to go home sooner -- and then we voted on my motion. I lost 4-3. We then voted on the project. It passed 7-0. with absolutely no discussion. (See the Star article at,1375,VCS_121_5349027,00.html and especially read the comments from readers -- many of them derogatory to farmworkers but one accusing us of deliberately stacking the agenda so this came up late at night.)

But we weren't done. We still had to act on a request by Cabrillo to have the city provide $3 million in low-interest loans for the project. This was a no-brainer for me -- $50,000 a unit subsidy for low-income units, a very small number. However, it was a Redevelopment Agency item, which meant that speakers technically had five additional minutes of comment. We had several speakers, including Chamber of Commerce chair Stephanie Becerra and all-around good guy activist Jim White. We also heard from perennial candidate Brian Lee Rencher for the full five minutes, lambasting us for tying up so much of our affordable housing funds on one project in the far East End. (Who knew campaign season had already started?) At about quarter after two we voted on the financing package -- also 7-0 with no discussion. Brian Lee Rencher took advantage of his last few seconds of public comment by lambasting us again, and understandably given the hour he and Mayor Morehouse exchanged a few cross words.

Jim Monahan, who is always adjourning the meeting in memory of some beloved Venturan who has recently died, jokingly suggested that we adjourn the meeting in my memory because clearly I was dying up there.

Why do City Council meetings last until the bars close? Because Council agendas are put together in a kind of mysterious and decentralized way -- the city manager, the city attorney, and each of us all have the power to put things on the agenda. And because we aren't always the best judges of how things are going to go down. In retrospect, it was obvious that this meeting was destined to go to 2 a.m. It was "First Monday" -- and we rarely get to the meat of the agenda before 9 p.m. because so many citizens want to come and talk to us. And each of the two major items -- the lot split and Hertel-Cabrillo -- were sure to take at least 2 hours. (Actually, they each took about 2 1/2 hours.) We probably should have spaced things out over more meetings. But sometimes the crush of work is just so great we want to get through it, even if it takes all night, so we can move on to another crisis the following week, when we hope we can get out of there by midnight. At the end, even the neighbors who didn't like the project just wanted us to vote on it and get out of there. They too wanted to move on.

Actually, by the time Jim Monahan made his joke, I had a second wind. But the question really wasn't whether I had enough stamina to make it through the meeting. (I cancelled my morning appointments and slept till 10 today.) The question was whether we do a disservice to the public by voting without comment on a major and somewhat controversial project at 2 a.m.

I think we do. Dozens of people waited 4, 5, 6 hours to be able to give us their opinion on the Hertel-Cabrillo project. My colleagues believed that we had an obligation to hear them then and there, rather than make them come back, and I see that point. And it's true that there was never a whole lot of doubt as to whether we were going to approve the project. We green-lighted the idea two years ago.

Nevertheless, I think we had an obligation to all those people -- to tell them what we thought about what we said, why we disagreed with them, and why we voted in favor of the project. At a time when we could articulate our thoughts coherently, and at a time when they could hear them coherently. Rather than approve the project without comment at 2:15 a.m.

So I'll try to take the time to do that myself -- probably Thursday at around 7 p.m., which is when I think we should have, so to speak, put this thing to bed.

Thursday, February 8, 2007

The Evolving Saticoy & Wells Community Plan

Last Tuesday night -- February 6th -- the City Council and the Planning Commission held a special meeting on the first complete public draft of the Saticoy & Wells Community Plan. (This draft can be found at
The meeting lasted five hours -- from 7 pm to Midnight. It was the latest in a series of special meetings in January and February on planning issues. It was the longest of these meetings so far and in some ways the rockiest. But we are making progress.

In the end, we ratified the general direction of the plan, but we also asked the staff to return within 60 days so we can clarify our position on a few specific issues, including parks in Saticoy & Wells and what scale of retail we should permit around the Wells-Highway 126 interchange. The Council also backed off of the staff's recommendation to specifically call for placement of a new youth center and library in Old Town Saticoy, as well as specific placement of possible middle and elementary schools in specific locations.

Next Monday night, we will inevitably revisit some of these issues when we hear the neighborhood's appeal of the Hertel-Cabrillo housing project, which is located east of Wells Road just north of Highway 126. (For more details, see

At the beginning of Tuesday's meeting, Rick Cole, our City Manager, called the whole Saticoy & Wells Community Plan an "awkward straddle". By this he meant the challenge of trying to create a Community Plan for the buildout of Saticoy & Wells at the same time that we are allowing four large development projects to move forward as Specific Plans in the area.

Saticoy & Wells is the focus of a major planning effort for one very simple reason: Most of the remaining undeveloped non-SOAR land in the city is located there. There are about five or six major undeveloped parcels, including the proposed Parklands project and the UC Hansen Trust property, which are located west of Wells between Highway 126 and Telegraph, and three significant parcels in a partially built-out area south of Highway 126 and east of Wells.

One of our neighborhood speakers Tuesday night asked when we decided to "pave over" the Saticoy & Wells area. The answer is that this area was slated for development in the 1989 Comprehensive Plan, and this was ratified in 1995 when the voters approved the SOAR initiative, which specifically permitted development on these parcels (some of which are still in agriculture at this time but not covered by SOAR). The 2005 General Plan calls for the construction of as many as 2,000 houses (out of 8,300 citywide) in this area; pending development proposals would add about 1,000.

A Community Plan is a component of the General Plan that lays out policies for a specific area (in fact, the Saticoy & Wells Community Plan will officially be Chapter 11 of the city's General Plan). A Specific Plan is a more detailed document that includes policies, a development code, and usually specific infrastructure requirements for a specific area as well. A better model -- used in many parts of California -- would have been require all of the landowners out there to participate in a Specific Plan process for Saticoy & Wells, which would have allocated development among the different properties and also specifically identified, sited, and allocated the cost of infrastructure and community facilities.

But developers in Ventura are not accustomed to working together even when their properties are adjacent to one another. This is part of the legacy of the old Residential Growth Management Program, which pitted developers in competition with one another rather than encouraging them to work together. At the time of the last RGMP round in 2005, some of these properties had housing allocations and some did not. When we exempted Specific Plans from the RGMP in late 2005 (before replacing the RGMP with a new system in 2006), all of the Saticoy & Wells developers, quite predictably, submitted their proposals in the form of Specific Plans.

The result of this imperfect process is that we have a bunch of individual Specific Plans rather than one big Specific Plan for the whole area. Instead we have a Community Plan that seeks to set policies that will knit the area together; and we have stuck to our promise to try to devise the Community Plan and process the Specific Plans at the same time, on the assumption that we can measure the Specific Plans against the probable policies in the Community Plan.

Are you confused yet? Me too.

The bulk of the Community Plan puts forth policies that the Specific Plans can be measured against. These policies cover all topics, from land use to transportation to infrastructure. My biggest concern is that these policies are not specific enough. I believe the Community Plan should -- as much as possible -- identify the infrastructure and community facilities we need in Saticoy & Wells, so we can do what a communitywide Specific Plan would have done -- allocate the location and costs of those facilities among the different property owners. At present, we have different developers offering up different things -- open space here, a library there, additional money for whatever community facilities we want -- but we can't see what it all adds up to or what each developer's "fair share" ought to be. There's a difference between having policies that the city can use to determine whether a development project is consistent with (which is what we have now) and having a plan that lays out precisely what should happen so that we can make sure the development projects implement that plan, which is what we should have.

Hence the awkward straddle.

During the five-hour meeting, we debated lots of things. In a moment I'll go back to the one that I think is most illustrative of the pending issues -- parks -- but first let me run through a few other things.

* We debate the planning staff's general recommendation that we make Wells (as well as Telegraph) more pedestrian-oriented. There is a lot of skepticism about whether this is really possible, especially given the truck traffic on Wells, but I think we can probably find some kind of hybrid. (I didn't mention this the other night, but for those portions of Wells that are controlled by Caltrans, we could try to get Caltrans to do what is called a "context-sensitive design" effort, which essentially tries to fit a state highway into a community context.)

* We came down pretty strongly in favor of the idea of creating Los Angeles Avenue all the way to Darling as a truly pedestrian-oriented Main Street alternative to Wells for local traffic. This had a lot of support on the council and is consistent with our idea on Victoria -- that we should create a similar street west of Victoria as the area redevelops.

* We debated a lot about the relationship to Old Town Saticoy. Old Town is the historic core of Saticoy and it is connected to the parcels that we will be processing but it is currently in the county. We as a city seem to be taking a greater sense of responsibility here, which is good; though we have yet to agree on exactly how that sense of responsibility will play out. The staff suggested that both a new library and a youth center be located in Old Town Saticoy, though a majority of the council (with me dissenting, at least on the library) backed off of that as an iron-clad idea. There's also language in the draft plan to work with the county and property owners to pursue annexation, which I favor. But there is some bumpiness to the interim steps. One Old Town property owner asked us to change our policy on water hookups to Old Town so he could develop an infill project under county jurisdictions. We currently require annexation in these situations, though we provided water to the new county yard in Saticoy without demanding annexation. We did not move in toward loosening our water-annexation direction, partly because our view is that if we are going to provide water to infill development, we also want to be able to control the development standards. We are definitely moving toward forcing the annexation issue.

* We generally supported (or at least did not squawk about) the idea of two pedestrian overpasses over 126, one on either side of Wells -- including that would essentially extend Los Avenue. The East Ventura Community Council's comments criticized this idea, calling the ped bridges an unwanted intrusion into neighborhoods, but I was pleased to see that two neighborhood residents spoke in favor of the ped bridges on Tuesday night. One resident said he lives south of the freeway and has to drive his kids to his mother's mobile home north of the freeway.

* We debated but did not resolve the question of the scale of retail on the parcels south of the freeway and east of Wells. In the past, big box ideas such as Wal-Mart and Target have been thrown around for these sites, not least because it is accessible to shoppers from Santa Paula. But we seemed to favor limiting the retail to community-level retail -- i.e., perhaps a supermarket shopping center. The closest supermarkets now are Albertsons
(a new store) at Kimball and Telegraph and Ralphs (an old, small store) at Telephone and Petit.

Now back to parks -- because this is the issue that best exemplifies the awkward straddle.

We have long-established parks standards -- so many acres of parkland per thousand residents, with requirements for smaller neighborhood parks and larger community parks. It's not hard to calculate these standards out for the whole Saticoy & Wells area, but this calculation is not contained or illustrated in the Community Plan. There is a proposed, general open space map in the Community Plan -- basically, depicting what all the different developers have proposed in the way of open space and parks -- and it has a big caveat that it's only illustrative and that the final parks and open space system may be different. This is the difference between a Community Plan and a Specific Plan.

(One big issue is that the Community Plan currently calls for the eventual conversion of the Saticoy Regional Golf Course adjacent to Huntsinger Park -- located in the city but owned by the county -- into some other kind of community-oriented park space. I personally think this is highly unlikely and would hate to assume it for the purposes of calculating park space.)

The actual calculations of the park space and measurement against the standard will take place as part of the Community Plan Environmental Impact Report -- not likely to come to us till the fall. But the Parklands project -- which will almost certainly be the first Specific Plan to come before us, sometime this spring -- calls for a series of small park spaces throughout the project, consistent with New Urbanist philosophy. (You can see the plan for Parklands on the Moule & Polyzoides web site at Just click on Parklands and then on Plan.) Some folks say that these spaces shouldn't count toward meeting the parks standard.

You can see where this is going. What if we approve the Parklands project with its current parks configuration, as we will be under tremendous pressure to do this spring; only to learn later on, in the EIR, that the overall parks standard will not be met by the assumed development in the Community Plan (including Parklands)? This would mean that we will have to load the parks burden onto the other developments, mostly probably the adjacent Hansen Trust property, because Parklands is already out of the gate. Or else back off of our standards at least insofar as Saticoy & Wells is concerned and wrap our policies not around what we need, but around what these developers are offering us.

Principal Planner Dave Ward said the staff's initial assessment is that these spaces should count, and that based on this Parklands will likely meet the standard. This is fair enough, but it depends on a particular interpretation of the parks standard that the Planning Commission and the City Council may or may not agree with.

You could apply this same reasoning to any other public facilities -- libraries, community centers, roads, even the ped bridges. What I suggested -- and the council agreed with this -- was to address this question head-on. We directed the staff to come back to us within two months with a policy discussion on the question of how to count and distribute parks in the Saticoy & Wells area. Better to address this one at the Community Plan level than back ourselves into a corner in the individual project reviews.

There is no perfect way out of the awkward straddle, but this is a step forward. I only wish we could do this with all the infrastructure and public facility issues, but that's not likely given our previous direction to move forward on the Specific Plans (which we reaffirmed Tuesday night). The staff will come back with the parks issues, the retail question, and one or two other issues no later than April -- ahead of the Parklands Specific Plan, which should come to the Planning Commission in May.

The 126/101 Connector

After I posted my Victoria Corridor blog last week, many people asked me just exactly why I thought the long-delayed 126-101 connector was off the table politically.

Most major transportation investments in these parts are controlled by the Ventura County Transportation Commission. That's a countywide entity created by the state to guide how transportation money in our county is spent. VCTC has 17 members -- all five county supervisors, one elected representative from each of the 10 cities, and two public members. Mayor Morehouse appointed me to be Ventura's representative in 2006. In addition there are two other Ventura residents among the 17 commissioners -- Supervisor Bennett and Keith Turner, our former county planning director, who is one of the two public members.

VCTC maintains a priority list of major transportation projects, and those projects get built as funding becomes available. This funding is typically from the state or federal governments; because we failed to pass Proposition B in 2004, we are the only large county in the state without a major local source of transportation funding, which means we must wait longer and lobby Sacramento and Washington harder to get transportation projects built.

The126/101 connector, which would take freeway-to-freeway traffic off of Victoria, is currently at the bottom on this list and there is no realistic possibility that it will be built in the foreseeable future unless something changes -- either we move it up the list and/or we pass a countywide transportation sales tax.

The politics of VCTC follows geographical lines. There is the West County, including Ventura and Oxnard; and the East County (Thousand Oaks, Simi Valley, Moorpark), and the Santa Clara Valley (Fillmore/Santa Paula). East County reps typically push hard for road projects and with considerable success. The Highway 23 widening in Thousand Oaks is a good example -- it was high on the list to begin with, and Congressman Gallegly, who's from Simi Valley, delivered a lot of additional federal money to make the project happen. It's now under construction. Another good example is the Lewis Road expansion in Camarillo -- supported by VCTC as a very high priority because it connects Highway 101 to the CSUCI campus.

In my view, West County concerns are often overlooked or outvoted at VCTC. This is not always true, but often it feels that way. So the politics of VCTC are stacked against the 126/101 connector. Countywide it is not viewed as a high priority.

Nevertheless, I do think it is probably worth revisiting this issue with our friends in Santa Paula and Fillmore and with Supervisors Bennett and Long (all of whose constituents must use Victoria) to see if we can lay the foundation to move the connector up the list in the future. But this is a long-term effort.