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.

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