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.

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