Tuesday, March 20, 2007

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.

No comments:

Post a Comment

Want to comment on my blog? Leave me a message here!