Thursday, May 31, 2007

I'm Running

  • I’m running.

    I can’t believe it’s been four years – almost to the day – since I first announced my candidacy for the Ventura City Council. Four years is an eternity in politics. But it’s not a very long time when you’re trying to assist your community to become a better place. That’s why I’ve decided to seek re-election this fall.

    We’ve accomplished a lot, but there is a great deal more to do. We have begun to “raise the bar” in every area of life in Ventura – but we are not done.

    It’s been my great privilege to serve all of you as a member of the City Council since you first elected me in 2003. I ran because I felt City Hall was out of touch with our community and I thought I could help restore a bond of trust between the community and our city government. I also thought I could help “raise the bar” on a variety of issues, especially planning and development.

    I’ve tried very hard to be responsive to every constituent and thoughtful about every issue. This isn’t always easy. As a member of the City Council, I have 106,000 constituents. And my colleagues and I get flooded with different issues concerning our city every Monday night – not just planning but budgeting, litigation, public works projects, union contracts, partnerships with nonprofit organizations, environmental issues, and on and on. I’m amazed at how much there is to do.

    I’m very proud of what we’ve accomplished in the last four years. Our community is a different place today than it was in 2003. Here are some examples:

    Four years ago, our city had a $9 million budget deficit. Today our budget is balanced. As the City Council’s liaison to the Ventura Auto Center, I am proud that we have increased dealerships, sales, and tax revenue in the last four years so that we are running even with our counterparts in Oxnard.

    Four years ago, our hillsides were still at risk for major development. Today they are designated as open space in our General Plan and we have a robust local organization, the Ventura Hillsides Conservancy, working to protect the hillsides forever.

    Four years ago, our community’s trust in City Hall was at an all-time low. Today, more than 80% of Ventura residents say they trust the city government and like what we’re doing.

    Four years ago, our community was riven – as it had been for decades – over divisive questions about growth and development. Today, thanks to our all-infill General Plan, we are largely in agreement about how and where to grow.

    Four years ago, we weren’t even addressing the pressing questions concerning public safety in our community. Today, we are about to add police officers and firefighters to our city force for the first time in almost two decades.

    These are significant accomplishments. But there is more to do. If you choose to re-elect me to the City Council, I will devote the next four years to finishing the job I’ve started, so that Ventura will continue to be a great place to life in the future.

    With that in mind, here are my priorities for the next four years heading into this election:

    1. Finish the job on prosperity and public safety

    When I ran in 2003, I said that prosperity and public safety are intertwined. You can’t have a prosperous community if it is not safe; and you can’t afford the cost of public safety if your community is not prosperous. Over the next four years, I will work to increase our city’s tax revenues by encouraging appropriate new business, and I will work to use those increased tax revenues to further expand our public safety force.

    2. Finish the job of requiring high-quality new development and historic preservation

    We have made great strides in the last four years on the issue of growth and development. We have committed ourselves to land preservation and focusing on infill development. But we still have not completed the job of requiring high-quality development 100% of the time, so that everyone will benefit from the new growth that we do approve. I am committed to “raising the bar” even more on new development. This means not only requiring high-quality new development, but improving our sensitivity to existing neighborhood conditions and historic preservation.

    3. Finish the job of protecting the hillsides

    Our 2005 General Plan removed the Ventura Hillsides from the path of growth by re-designating the hillside area as open space rather than residential. But virtually all of the hillside land is still in the hands of private landowners. Over the next four years I will work with the city, the Ventura Hillsides Conservancy, the Trust for Public Lands, and other conservation organizations to purchase the hillsides so they can be restored ecologically and opened for recreational use.

    4. Finish the job of “greening” Ventura

    Ventura is already one of the most environmentally progressive cities in California. But there is so much more to do to make our community truly “green” – increasing recycling, restoring our barrancas, improving our stormwater runoff so our ocean is always clean, leading the way on conservation so that we simply don’t use as much electricity or gasoline or water as we do today. I am committed to working with my colleagues to make Ventura even greener than it already is.

    5. Finish the job of providing workforce housing

    Housing is so expensive in Ventura that many of the people who work here cannot afford to live here. This leads to commuting, overcrowding, and the loss of a “sense of community”. The city has been working with developers and other large employers to provide more workforce housing – housing available to the people who work in our community rather than commuters. I will continue to work with my colleagues and other organizations in Ventura to expand workforce housing opportunities in Ventura.

    6. Finish the job of engaging our neighborhoods in our governance

    Four years ago I promised that I would work with Ventura’s neighborhoods to find new and important ways for them to be involved in the governance of their communities and our city overall. I am sorry to say that we have not made as much progress on this front as I would like. While the city now does a better job of reaching out to community groups, we still have not found a strong and consistent way to engage our neighborhoods in the governance of our community. Over the next four years, I will work to find innovative and important ways to strengthen the bond between the city government and the neighborhoods so that everyone is involved in governing our town.

    List of Endorsements

    I’m very grateful for the broad and deep support within the community. Here is a list of community leaders who have already agreed to endorse me. We’ll keep adding to this list as the campaign goes on. Titles are for identification purposes only and do not suggest support from the organizations identified.

    Ventura Citizens for Hillside Preservation

    Brian Brennan, former mayor of Ventura
    Greg Carson, former mayor of Ventura
    Ivor Davis, president of the Ventura Music Festival, and Sally Ogle Davis
    Jill Bangser Fioravanti, Midtown resident and Housing Authority Commissioner
    Lauri Flack, founder of the Westside Community Council
    Dan Frederickson, Downtown resident and investor
    Jim Friedman, former mayor of Ventura
    Debbie Golden, Ventura Unified School District Trustee
    Mary Haffner, Ventura Unified School District Trustee
    Erika Harding, musician and small business owner
    Mark Hartley, Pierpont resident and Downtown investor
    Bill and Rose Hayden Smith, Midtown residents
    John Hecht, Ventura Planning Commissioner
    John Keats, M.D.
    Ed and Susan Lacy, community activists
    Marie Lakin, parent and community activist
    Dan Long, Midtown resident
    Carl Morehouse, Mayor of Ventura
    Pedro Nava, California State Assemblymember
    Hugh Oliver, Midtown resident and hillside activist
    M.L. Peterson, Ventura County School Board Member
    Steve Schafer, Midtown resident and historic preservation activist
    Roy Schneider, M.D.
    Mel Sheeler, former chair, Greater V entura chamber of Commerce
    Sandy Smith, former mayor of Ventura
    Ed Summers, Ventura City Councilmember
    Nan Waltman, Livable Ventura
    Chuck Watson, former director, Interface Family Services
    Christy Weir, Deputy Mayor of Ventura

Wednesday, May 23, 2007

Playing the Retail Game

I’m all retailed out.

For the past three days I have spent almost all of my time at on the floor of the Las Vegas Convention Center, talking to retailers, brokers, real estate developers, and lots of other folks who are engaged in the business of figuring out where retail stores will be located and how shopping centers will look in the future.

The convention I'm attending on behalf of the city – the 50th annual convention of the International Congress of Shopping Centers (ICSC) -- is huge. Think three or four Pacific View Malls, swarming with half the population of Ventura. It’s so big that the convention center has streets with names – 20th Avenue, D Street – and the biggest retailers and developers have special business cards made up with their Convention Center address on them. Constantly walking from one end of the convention to the other is kind of like – well, kind of like going to the mall.

The main purpose of the convention is for shopping center owners and retail stores to “do deals” with each other on shopping center leases. It’s said that billions of dollars changes hands every year at ICSC. Increasingly, however, cities like Ventura participate too. Last year was the first year we came to ICSC; this year was the first year we had a booth. Deputy Mayor Christy Weir has been here with me, as has Sid White, the city’s Economic Development Manager. City Manager Rick Cole was here on Monday.

Why do we bother? Suffice is to say that as an elected official, you can’t do your job well if you don’t understand retail trends and how they affect your town and your finances.

Sales tax is very important to our city budget, and retail stores are very important to our economic development strategy all over town, from downtown to the auto centers.. Hotels are important to our city and our budget as well – we are a tourist town, after all, and hotel developers and operators also participate in ICSC. This year, Jim Luttjohann, the head of our visitor and convention bureau, came with us and he’s been great at dealing with the hotel people.

In 3½ years in office, I’ve learned that you can’t sit back and wait for retailers to come to you – but by the same token you can’t simply give them everything they ask for, either. You have to know what you want and be aggressive in finding the developers and retailers who can help you meet your goals (and also be aggressive in deciding what retailers and what business deals you don't want). But you also have to know the market and the trends, because your goals have to be realistic. In other words, you have to be very, very savvy about what’s going on. And because retailing is so faddish, you have to work constantly to stay current.

So we’ve spent a lot of time talking to shopping center developers and owners. For example, ICSC is the best time to talk to higher-ups at MaceRich, which owns Pacific View Mall. The convention is a good place to target retailers and hotels that we think we might want in Ventura and understand how they do business. We’ve talked to a lot of people, for example, about the retail opportunities that exist on the vacant land at the Ventura Auto Center. (Representatives of the Auto Center’s landowners, Hofer Enterprises, have also been here this week.)

Most of all, we’ve soaked up knowledge just by being around. There’s a lot of talk about mixed use. It has become a popular topic here at ICSC in the last couple of years, and we’ve had a fair amount of traffic at our booth from people who are interested in it. And even though most of the retailers represented here are national chains, there’s more and more talk about local businesses that can complement the chains in downtowns, at malls, and even at strip shopping centers.

Unlike the retailers and the shopping center owners, we at the city don’t come home with “deals in the bag”. But we do come home with leads, insight, and a stronger sense of the kinds of strategic decisions we have to make to stay competitive and use retailing to create a better community. And retailers and developers all over the country go home with a better sense of what kind of a community Ventura is and how to provide us with the retail and mixed-use developments we want.

Wednesday, May 9, 2007

Cleaning Up The Planning Process

We’re approving projects too fast.
We’re not approving them fast enough.
They’re too dense.
They’re not dense enough.
We’re wasting too much money on planning studies.
We’re not doing enough planning studies.

In the typical week, I hear all these complaints – and many more, equally contradictory – about how our planning process works. And they’re all true.

That is to say, they’re all true sometimes.

The City Council and the staff have spent a lot of time lately trying to sort out what’s going on with our planning and development review processes and how to improve them. After 3½ years on the Council, I wish I could say that we have it all figured it out. We don’t. But – I always seem to say this – we’re trying, and we’re making progress. Let me talk first about the meeting last Monday, where we looked at the planning process, and then the meeting a week ago Monday, where we again talked about Saticoy & Wells.

Last Monday night (May 7), our planning staff presented us with an update on how our planning processes are doing and where the bottlenecks appear to be. I have to say that this was one of the best-thought-out presentations I’ve seen since I’ve been on the Council. I came away it realizing that the problem is not that our planning processes are too long or too short – have too many steps or too few. Rather, the problem, all too often, is that we don’t quite know what we want, and we don’t discipline ourselves up-front to clarify (1) what we want, and (2) whether the project in front of us is giving us what we want.

The basis of the report was a pretty intimidating-looking flow chart that tracked absolutely everything we do in planning – from Advance Planning, where our staff draws up plans; to Current Planning, where we process development projects; to Land Engineering, where final plans are approved after the project itself has been OK’d. Even though the flow chart is complicated, just working it through made me see the process much better.

For example, most projects go to the Design Review Committee for conceptual review and then, later, for detailed design review. This makes sense – except it happens before the project goes to the Planning Commission. So if the Planning Commission raises a significant issue about the size or scale of a project, they are accused of holding up the process, because the applicant has spent a lot of time and money getting to that point. This creates a kind of juggernaut effect for a project – by the time it gets to decision-makers, it’s hard to stop or change significantly. An exception here is the Housing Approval Program, where projects get a combined DRC/Planning Commission pre-screen before detailed design.

Similarly, the flow chart made it clear that there are at least three different points at which historic preservation issues could be considered – at an early conceptual review by the Historic Preservation Committee, during the CEQA process, and at the more typical hearing in front of the HPC late in the process. When I asked the staff how we decide whether and when to use any of these opportunities, they made it clear that they are confused and they want direction from us. OK, message received – thanks to clear presentation.

Even so, I have to say that things in Current Planning have been moving well in recent months. Week after week, it has seemed, some developer has come before either the Planning Commission and the City Council complaining that their project has been in process for three years or five years or something. My point in response is that these projects are now coming forward because the logjam has been broken.

It’s no accident that these projects are coming forward after being delayed. We have better staff leadership determined to move them forward. We are more clear in our direction and projects are closer to what we want and we are approving them. Even developers have a hard time grasping this – listen to us, do what we say, and your project will get approved..

The most recent example was Aldea Hermosa, which I wrote about a few weeks ago. There was a stutter-step in front of the Council, but the Council made its direction clear: Redesign the project so that no lots were less than 40 feet wide. The vote on this was 5-1. This required a redesign that cost the developer 3 houses. The developer tried to meet with each councilmember in an attempt to bring back their previous design – essentially, to get the council to overturn its decision. This didn’t work. When the redesigned project came back five weeks later, and the Council’s concerns had been addressed, the project was approved 7-0 with no discussion. See? Follow our direction and we can move forward.

A week ago Monday (April 30), we had another workshop (jointly with the Planning Commission) on the Saticoy & Wells Community Plan. The intent here was to have a more in-depth discussion about three items that we had flagged a few months before – parks, agricultural buffers, and retail. After talking with the school district, the staff added a fourth topic to the workshop – schools. This whole discussion was a good example of how difficult it can be to draft a good plan up-front – and how important it is to do so.

We’re doing a Community Plan for Saticoy & Wells because there are currently four large projects on the books that would essentially build out the area by adding another 2,000 or so housing units. Each developer was moving forward individually and we wanted them to work together, so that, for example, their neighborhoods could be interconnected. (The “go it alone” mentality of our local developers in, in my opinion, a legacy of our Residential Growth Management Program, which pitted developers against each other for allocations, rather than encouraging them to work together to create better neighborhoods.)

To me, another important reason to do Community Plans is to make sure that we can work together with the developers to make sure that we get the infrastructure and community facilities we need to serve the community – streets, schools, parks, libraries, etc. In the case of Saticoy & Wells, the city had had some discussions about parks with the developers – individually and collectively – but we had not looked at the “big picture” of what the parks system in the area would look like. We concluded that, generally, the parks as proposed met the standard for park space in our General Plan, but we referred some specific issues about parks policy in the Community Plan to the Parks & Recreation Commission, which took these matters up on tonight (Wednesday, May 9th.)

At the same time, the staff met with the school district and came forward with some concerns about schools. To wit: The buildout of Saticoy & Wells would likely generate more than 900 students. The school district says it needs an elementary school and probably also a contribution to a middle school – the closest middle school is Balboa, near the Government Center. And so far, the 4 large development proposals don’t address schools at all.

After the schools issue was brought up, some of the developers complained about a “late hit” – shocked that this issue would be brought up so late in the process. But if schools aren’t deal with pro-actively now, they’ll have to be dealt with in an even more desperate way later. The school district will eventually collect school impact fees, but these won’t be enough to cover the cost of the schools, and the Environmental Impact Report will identify a school deficit. Then the school district and the city will be scrambling to try to make the best of the situation, and the developers will be even further down the line.

So we referred the school issue to the city-school liaison committee – a group consisting of two councilmembers and two school board members – so that the city and the school district can talk with the developers about how best to resolve the issue and provide us with policy recommendations for the Community Plan. The liaison committee is a “Brown Act” committee whose meetings are public and noticed in advance, so any member of the community should be able to attend these meetings.

If this sounds like doing planning inside out, upside down, and backwards, it is. When I took office in late 2003, the four developers will already under way with their plans and had strong expectations of being able to move through the process independent of one another. Yet these major issues – and many others -- had not been addressed.

As a council, we faced three choices. We could have allowed all the projects to go forward separately, which means we never would have gotten the public infrastructure and community facilities we need. We could have put all the developers on hold while we did the plan, which would have sent the message, once again, that we are totally anti-development. Or we could have tried to craft the overall policies for the area that the developers needed to adhere to while at the same time moving the projects forward as best we can. This is what we have done.

The Community Plan process has not been perfect. We’ve had a number of excellent workshops, and both staff and consultants have done excellent work. But in the draft plan up to this point, we haven’t dealt with a lot of core issues – infrastructure and facilities. I think this is partly because, as I said before, we’re “out of practice” with community planning because of the RGMP. (And even when we try to address the issues, we’re not always clear; some council members, our senior staff, and Parks & Rec Commissioners spent a good deal of time early this week trying to interpret exactly what we asked Parks & Rec to do.) On Saticoy & Wells, there’s a certain amount of “muddling through” we are going to have to do to wind up with not only a good set of projects but also a fine community as well. It won’t always be pretty, but we will do it in the end.

But I have to say that I think both the council and the staff is learning. At last Monday’s council meeting, Nelson Hernandez, our Community Development Director, said that in future community plans – beginning with the North Avenue plan, which is next – the staff will prepare a list of all possible aspects of the plan (and their cost) and discuss with the council what the scope should be.

When I ran in 2003, I said over and over again that mistakes were inevitable and instead of being afraid to admit them (as was the case at City Hall at the time, at least in my estimation), we had to be able to acknowledge them and learn from them. We’re doing that now, and the planning and development process is getting better as a result.