Tuesday, March 27, 2007

Weaving The New and The Old Together

Last night the City Council gave final approval to two downtown condo projects – the 16-unit project at Palm & Poli, up the hill from the 71 Palm Restaurant, and the 15-unit project that will be built as part of the Elks Club renovation. The Elks Club was unanimous; the Palm & Poli project passed 6-1, with Councilmember Andrews expressing ongoing concern about how traffic on Poli and Palm will work with the new project.

I was pleased to see both these projects go forward. Both projects show that we are making progress in weaving the new and the old together downtown. What a difference this is from the situation in 2004, when we all watched the Mayfair Theater be demolished and felt that there wasn’t much we could do about it.

The Elks Club project has the potential to be terrific. You may recall that the Elks Club sold the building to a group of investors a couple of years ago and it has been vacant since then. This project has two parts. The first is the 16 condos, which will be constructed in the current parking lot (without losing any parking – they’re going underground on the parking). The second is renovation and reopening of the Elks Club building itself (with its fabulous dance floor, which takes up almost the entire third floor) as a venue for events and probably some office space as well.

The Elks Club is one of our architectural treasures, built in 1928. The renovation has the potential to be spectacular. Further, in this case the developers dumped their original design for the condos, which was a pretty bulky 3- and 4-story project along Main Street that clearly compromised the integrity of the Elks Club building. The new design is much lower scale along Main Street and puts the taller floors toward the back of the lot, away from Main Street. In this way, the new condo building is more compatible with surrounding buildings on Main Street and still allows the Elks Club to stand out – as it should!

The Palm & Poli project is a little more complicated but still represents progress.You may recall that last fall this project came to us for final approval and we kicked it back, primarily because we felt that the question of the compatability between the new building and adjacent historic buildings had not been adequately analyzed.

This site contains the Hartman House, an historic landmark, and is adjacent to 71 Palm (the Norton Ranch House), which is another historic landmark. The original plan – years ago – was to move the Hartman House altogether. The more recent plan was a definite improvement but I personally felt we had not addressed the question of “adjacency” – the setbacks, for example, between the Hartman House and the new condo building -- adequately in the environmental review.

Subsequent to our council discussion last fall, the staff did a more detailed review of the compatability of new and old buildings. This led to some minor changes in the project, including greater setbacks between the two buildings and the retention of an addition to the Hartman House which had been slated for demolition under the previous plan. There are also a few other new protections in place, and the “Historic Protection Plan” for the Hartman House will now include the Norton Ranch House as well. It was great to see Didier and Nancy Poirier, owners of 71 Palm, reach agreement on all issues with the developers at last – and Nancy, in particular, gave kudos to our City Manager Rick Cole and his current special assistant Rick Raives (on assignment from public works) for sitting down and helping to work those issues through. (The two property owners reached a separate agreement not involving the city on some issues.)

The Palm and Poli project may not be perfect, but it’s very good – and noticeably better than it was last fall. We’re definitely getting better at this stuff.

Victoria Avenue Urgency Ordinance Extended

Last night, the City Council extended our urgency ordinance regarding large retailers on Victoria for 10 months, until the end of January 2008. The ordinance requires retail stores of 50,000 square feet or more to obtain a use permit from the Planning Commission. Because this is an urgency ordinance, it required 6 votes – which we got, but not without some very public horsetrading between Councilmember Monahan and myself.

You may recall that, at the end of January, we lifted the moratorium on commercial development along Victoria even though our Corridor Plan was not complete. Anticipating the possibility of Wal-Mart or some other large retail store proposing a project on the Kmart site, we created the use permit requirement in an urgency ordinance.

Under state law, however, this urgency ordinance could only be in effect for 45 days. That’s why we had to vote on it again last night. An urgency ordinance requires a 4/5ths vote – which means 6 out of 7 votes. By law, we can have an urgency ordinance in place for up to two years – and the staff recommended an extension of 22 months and 15 days (two years minus 45 days).

As the discussion unfolded it became clear that both Neal Andrews and Jim Monahan were opposed to such a lengthy extension. Neal seemed opposed on principle, but Jim seemed willing to extend the ordinance for some period of time – just not 22 months. First he proposed another 45 days, then he agreed to 8 months. The planning staff, however, said an 8-month extension might require us to put Victoria ahead of some other planning efforts such as Saticoy & Wells and Midtown.

Councilmember Ed Summers proposed a 10-month extension, to the end of January 2008. Jim was not receptive to that, but he did once again express concern that part of the Victoria effort ought to be to renew discussions with Caltrans about whether and when to build a southbound connector between the 126 and 101 freeways. (That traffic currently must go down Victoria).

Finally I promised Jim that if he supported a 10-month extension on the use permit ordinance, I would take up the 126-101 extension question with Caltrans and with Assemblymember Pedro Nava, chair of Assembly Transportation Committee, this summer. (By then the draft EIR on Victoria will be out and we will have an estimate of how much traffic on Victoria is due to the freeways.) He agreed and the urgency ordinance passed.

I didn’t mind doing this – I think we should revisit the 126-101 connector question too – but it was a reminder that you should never underestimate Mr. Monahan’s political skill!

Sunday, March 25, 2007

What It’s Like To Be A City Councilmember 24/7

So yesterday (Saturday), I was pulling out of a parking lot onto Santa Clara Street after going to the Farmer’s Market downtown when another driver – another Prius driver -- jammed me by entering from Santa Clara via the “Exit” driveway that I was using. He was talking on his cell phone at the time.

For one moment, I dropped the public face of an elected official and turned into an Average Joe. Annoyed, I rolled my window down and said, “This is an exit. OK? This is an exit!”

“OK, Councilman,” the driver responded curtly.


I have to admit that I drove away thinking, “Well, there’s one voter I’ve lost.” But then I couldn’t help but wonder what that really means. If you’re elected to the City Council, do you forfeit your right to get irritated or annoyed or express other natural human emotions in public – no matter what anybody else says or does? After all, the guy cut me off by turning into a clearly marked Exit driveway.

My answer to this question, in a word, is: Yes. As representatives elected by our constituents, we have an obligation to do our best to be courteous to everybody in public all the time. We also have a responsibility to be respectful of everybody’s point of view and, if we disagree with them, be thoughtful and patient in discussion with them. This can be pretty confining at times, and nobody – least of all me – can be successful in doing this every single time. But when we run for office, we have to accept the fact that we have a different relationship to other people in town because we not just their friends and neighbors but their elected representatives.

So, I’m sorry that I was short-tempered on Saturday. No matter whether I think the guy cut me off or not, dressing him down probably didn’t do anybody any good.

Monday Night: Downtown Historic Buildings , Victoria Avenue, and Midtown Street Paving

On Monday night, we will consider a number of important issues and projects. These include the following:

• We’re scheduled to pass the Capital Improvement Program for 2007-2012. This program includes the long-awaited repaving of the “Island Streets” in Midtown, which is currently in design. Since I live on an Island Street (Anacapa), I will be conflicted from voting on that portion of the CIP.

• We will be considering tract map approvals for two downtown projects involving historic buildings – the Palm & Poli project, which we sent back last fall for the historic analysis to be redone, and the Elks Club property at Main and Ash, which will include renovation of the old Elks building and construction of condos adjacent.

• We will consider the Victoria Avenue urgency ordinances, which calls for a use permit for all retail projects of 50,000 square feet or more. This requires a 6-1 vote.

We’ll be dark on Monday, April 2, but in the coming weeks we will consider a number of other important items.

On April 9, we are scheduled to hear an update on the Surfers Point project and the Downtown retail plan.

On April 23, we’ll get our first look at the staff’s proposed 2007-08 budget.

On April 30, we’ll have another joint workshop with the Planning Commission on the Saticoy & Wells community Plan.

Tuesday, March 20, 2007

Whither Trader Joe's?

Trader Joe’s has decided not to open a store at the old American Legion building across from the Farmers Market site in Downtown Ventura, but it still seems likely that TJ’s will try to build a store somewhere Downtown or in Midtown..

Property owner Jim DeArkland made TJ’s decision public at Monday night’s council meeting. In his comments, DeArkland said TJ’s did not find the city’s commitment to providing parking for the site binding enough. (The city had written a letter committing to keeping the parking on the Arts Village site next door at least until replacement parking was provided in the immediate vicinity.)

Our city manager, Rick Cole, took issue with DeArkland’s characterization, saying there was more to it. While being very respectful to DeArkland and his role in trying to bring TJ’s downtown, he said that the costs associated with the site were also a factor. Rick said the city is still talking to TJ’s about where to locate in Downtown or Midtown.

I have not been involved in these negotiations and honestly don’t know anything more about it that what I heard in public on Monday.

However, this really is all part of the complicated chess game of downtown parking. I’ve included a little more about that in the blog below on the Downtown Specific Plan.

Downtown Specific Plan

Last night the City Council approved the revised Downtown Specific Plan – including a form-based code for downtown -- by a 6-1 vote. It was a pretty straightforward discussion, though somewhat long, and it contained a few interesting wrinkles.

You can read the Downtown Specific Plan at http://www.cityofventura.net/depts/comm_dev/downtownplan/index.asp, though there were a number of amendments in the last few weeks that you’ll have to go to the March 19 council meeting agenda to find. (http://www.cityofventura.net/newsmanager/templates/?a=1813&z=43)

Overall, this plan is an update of the landmark 1993 Downtown Specific Plan, which set the stage for the revitalization downtown saw in the last 10 years by, among other things, targeting the west part of downtown for housing and waiving parking requirements in the area along Main Street in the “core” of downtown.

The new Downtown Specific Plan has lots of things the old one didn’t have – most importantly, a form-based code for downtown. This is a development code that focuses on more on the scale and massing of buildings and less on specific uses. You’ll see there is a great deal of attention paid to different building types and the standards that are required of developers who construct those buildings types.

To make things even more confusing, the Downtown Specific Plan still must be approved by the Coastal Commission, a process that will take a while. So in the meantime, the form-based code will replace our Downtown Compatability Guidelines as the “guidance” yardstick against which we measure downtown projects. Until the Coastal Commission ok’s the plan, we will still have to use findings and variances to get what we want.

Overall, I like the plan a lot. It’s not perfect but it’s very good. I’ll describe what happened and where we are in three sections – how we voted; parking management; and other pending issues.


After hearing from 15 or 20 speakers we all asked some questions and made some comments. Recognizing that there would probably be some amendments, I then made a motion to accept the staff recommendation, which included adopting the Downtown Specific Plan and a lot of associated actions. A few hot-button issues were still floating around and so a variety of amendments were offered. Here’s how it went:

PARKING FOR MAIN STREET PROPERTIES: Deputy Mayor Christy Weir offered an amendment to remove the longstanding provision that exempted properties along Main Street from Figueroa to around Ash from all parking requirements on new development. This was originally put into place to encourage development. I accepted the amendment. (It doesn’t affect existing buildings and businesses, which are in fact exempt.)

PARKING FOR AFFORDABLE HOUSING. Councilmember Neal Andrews offered an amendment to remove the provision that would have exempted affordable housing units from all parking requirements. This has the effect of causing affordable housing units to be subject to the standard downtown requirement of 1 space for every 1,500 square feet of living space. I accepted this amendment too.

INTERIOR LIVING SPACES: Councilmember Andrews also offered an amendment deleting all references in the Downtown Specific Plan to standards for interior living spaces. (Assistant Community Development Director explained, somewhat belatedly, that the intent here was to codify the existing practice of the Design Review Committee, which is to ensure that interior living spaces are organized to maximize privacy and minimize noise for residences in a busy and noisy area.) Neal’s premise seemed to be that the government shouldn’t be dictating how interior living spaces are arranged. I declined to accept this amendment because the DRC reviews these matters anyway and so I thought explicit direction in the plan was better. Neal introduced a motion to amend my motion and he won – I believe it was 4-3.

So, in the end, we voted on this motion – the staff recommendation with these three amendments – and it passed 6-1. After winning two amendments that he suggested, Councilmember Andrews than voted against the final motion, saying he didn’t like the parking management policies that call for parking meters.


The Downtown Specific Plan that we approved contained a variety of parking management policies. We then moved on to an item to appropriate money to implement the parking management policies – by hiring a parking consultant to implement the new pricing system (which will have an integrated pricing system for onstreet parking and public garages and surface lots) and by taking the initial steps to pursue another downtown parking garage.

Given the news on Trader Joe’s the question of parking management was on everybody’s mind. A number of downtown property owners active in the Downtown Ventura Organization (Dan Fredericksen called them “My Brothers In Parking”) expressed support for the idea that additional public parking should be distributed among several properties throughout the downtown rather than concentrated in one big city-owned parking garage. This view has emerged partly in response to the semi-stalemate I described in my Arts Village blog – the city was assuming a new parking garage would go on the Farmer’s Market site but the Smith family, which owns most of the site, wants some development there as well and so one big garage is unlikely. Anyway, melding some public parking into several private development projects is what these landowners mean when they call for “public-private partnerships”.

I actually think this is not a bad idea so long as the public interest is protected in two ways. We have to make sure that the public part of the parking is really available to the public – not subordinated to dedicated parking for the new development projects. And we have to make sure that we don’t foreclose opportunities to provide retail and service businesses that would otherwise be priced out of downtown. Many other cities use their parking garages to provide low-cost space for everyday services like dry cleaners and pharmacies that otherwise can’t afford to stay.

Anyway, Councilmembers Andrews made a motion to pursue the additional parking garage but left the management strategy out of his motion because he didn’t support it (for the same reasons as above). Councilmember Ed Summers put in a substitute motion to include the parking management strategy. When we voted on whether to insert the substitute motion, that passed 5-2, with Neal and Jim Monahan (who has long opposed paid parking downtown) voting against. But we when came back and actually voted on the new motion, that passed 7-0.


Several other issues about downtown were raised and discussed but not included in the motion that we adopted.

One was parks. Parks & Rec Commissioner Brooke Ashworth in particular said the parks analysis and the parks strategy in the Downtown plan was inadequate. There is little provision for neighborhood parks (as opposed to big parks like Grant Park, the Community Park, and even the beach, if you want to call that a park.) I agreed that it was pretty sketchy and almost put something about it in my motion but I didn’t. The staff is working on an overall parks strategy – and committed to including more detailed analysis of the parks question in that strategy. I think we can amend the Downtown plan later to accommodate these comcerns.

A second was the question of density bonuses. State law requires us to offer developers density bonuses in exchange for affordable housing. But density is usually expressed in terms of units per acre, and our form-based code does not specify units per acre. So how do you know how much bonus a project is eligible for? The staff said they would assess on a case-by-case basis. I encouraged the staff to work aggressively with our state housing department (headed by our former Planning Commission chair Lynn Jacobs) to help reconcile this seeming disconnect in our future policies and our revised Housing Element, which we must start working on soon. Again I thought about putting this in the motion but didn’t. We can once again include any changes in a future batch of Downtown Specific Plan amendments.

A third was the question of whether we should permit residences in the central “entertainment zone” of downtown along Main Street. This had not come up before but Councilmemember Brennan spoke eloquently about it – do we really want to put neighbors right in the middle of a noisy, late-night zone – and Deputy Mayor Weir agreed with him. There’s an argument either way here. On the one hand, why put new residences in the line of fire (rather than a half-block away where it’ll be quieter). On the other hand, isn’t it part of the fun of living downtown to be in the middle of it all? We didn’t do anything with this but that doesn’t mean we won’t visit it in the future. I think the only project that this could affect is Jimmy Mesa’s proposed condos on the Top Hat site.

Sunday, March 18, 2007

Life's Not So Different in Charleston

I’m back from my long business trip to South Carolina. I spent eight days working with the Citistates Group (www.citistates.com) in researching and analyzing growth patterns in metropolitan Charleston and what could be done about them.

At first Charleston seemed so different – so historic and Southern. But guess what?

* Home prices are going up faster than people’s incomes because of an influx of affluent outsiders.

* Sprawl is rampant.

* Some local governments are trying to build infill projects to combat sprawl but get resistance from people who live nearby.

* Neighbors say the local governments don’t listen to what they want, and developers claim the permit approval process is a nightmare.

It wasn’t long before I felt right at home.

Post-Mortem on Aldea Hermosa

Obviously, I was unable to attend last Monday’s council meeting, but I did watch the re-run of the council meeting on TV on Sunday, especially the now-famous debate over the Aldea Hermosa project.

This is the 50-unit project in the Wells-Saticoy that came before the council after lengthy review and recommended approval by the Design Review Committee and the Planning Commission. The council debated the project at length, but council approval of the project broke down over issues that usually wouldn’t take up the council’s time on an individual project – most specifically, how many houses would be one story instead of two, and whether the smallest lots should be 40 feet wide instead of 35.

The council continued the item for five weeks in order to allow a revision the project of the project that would change the lot size (a proposal to limit some units to one story failed). The developer went into a pretty severe tirade and threatened to pull his investments out of Ventura. (http://www.venturacountystar.com/vcs/ve/article/0,1375,VCS_251_5416560,00.html)

Since I wasn’t at the meeting, I’ll not comment on the merits of the project, but let me talk a bit about the process.

Should the City Council be “designing from the dais” on Monday nights? Should we be devoting a lot of time on a Monday night to questions like, whether the width of lots in a 50-unit project is 35 feet or 40 feet?

Of course not. This is what we have a Planning Commission and a Design Review Committee for. However, this kind of “micro” discussion is an almost inevitable result of the current transitional period we find ourselves in.

We approved a new General Plan in 2005 – and it was very general, containing relatively few specifics about what our development standards should be. We are working on Community Plans (including in Wells-Saticoy) and new Codes with more specific detail as quickly as we can, but in the meantime a number of projects are moving forward through the approval process. In the case of Aldea Hermosa, the developer received 64 RGMP allocations in 2002.

So, to some extent, we are all engaged in an ad-hoc effort to move projects forward while we revise and clarify our development standards. This is understandably a tricky process.

On the one hand, under our system we delegate most of the detailed review and discussion of the specifics of project design to the Design Review Committee and the Planning Commission. If we are necessarily engaged in some ad-hoc decisionmaking in the short run, then we are going to have to trust the DRC and the Planning Commission sometimes. (Believe it or not, most of the time we don’t overturn the DRC and the Planning Commission.)

On the other hand, there may well be important issues that emerge in these projects that we have not debated at the council level – because we are not done with the Community Plans and the codes. For example, when Deputy Mayor Christy Weir tried to get the council to reduce the heights of some houses on the perimeter from two stories to one story, she noted that we had taken similar steps on Citrus Walk (the Hailes Ranch project near the Community Park). Had we done it just that once to allay neighborhood concern? Or had we set a precedent we expected future projects to follow, whether neighbors care or not? Hard to say. But, unfortunately, in guiding applicants, the staff, the DRC, and the Planning Commission must read these tea leaves from us.

Much of the discussion Monday night was, in fact, a really clunky way to have a policy debate about clustering housing in traditional-style neighborhoods. Some of the lot sizes in the Aldea Hermosa project are very small – a tradeoff for a small park inside the tract, among other things. The tradeoffs associated with clustering are a pretty common source of controversy in the world of planning (yes, I saw this same debate going on in Charleston last week!).

In the case of Aldea Hermosa, the staff, the DRC, and the Planning Commission all came to the conclusion that we at the council had already had that policy debate and we had concluded that clustering is a desirable approach. Given the language in the General Plan and our approach in some previous East Ventura projects – including Hailes Ranch and the Hertel-Cabrillo project, which we approved a month ago – I can’t say as I blame them.

In this kind of a transitional environment, I think the best we can hope for is “learning by doing”.

Our staff, our applicants, the Planning Commissioners and the members of the DRC all would do well to watch which the seemingly “micro” issues that we debate to understand what the council consensus is on policy issues that may still be pending. These, then, can be worked into future policy recommendations and project designs.

But we have an obligation as well – to the staff, the applicants, our appointees on the Planning Commission and the DRC, and other neighbors and citizens as well. That obligation is to do more than just “design from the dais” on Monday nights.

If we stumble into a discussion about house heights or lot sizes, we have an obligation to step back and think about whether we’re really debating an unresolved policy issue or just expressing our personal preferences. If it turns out we are debating a policy issue, we have an obligation to frame it that way and send a very clear message – a consensus of the council – as to what the policy should be. And if we do send a message, we also have an obligation to be consistent – and not change our mind next Monday night.

Sunday, March 4, 2007

Travelin' Times

I just wanted to take this opportunity to let everybody know that I will be out of town on business for my day job for a long time in March -- from Tuesday, March 6th, through Thursday, March 15th. I'll miss the meeting of March 12th.

I always struggle with how much to travel for my day job as an urban planning consultant and writer. On the one hand, every day out of town is a day I don't have with my constituents experiencing Ventura. On the other hand, traveling gives me a broader perspective on how communities work and how they deal with different issues.

Most of this trip will be spent in Charleston, South Carolina, where I will be working with my colleagues Neal Peirce and Curtis Johnson of The Citistates Group
(www.citistates.com). We will be researching a major report on the status of the Charleston region that will be published later this year in the Charleston newspaper. I'll let you know if I come up with anything interesting.

Of course, the internet in particular makes is pretty easy to stay plugged in to what's going on in Ventura. I'll be available by email and phone; I'll read the Star ... and I may even post a blog or two.