Saturday, November 17, 2007

The Midtown Corridors Code

On Monday, at long last, the City Council – together in a workshop with the Planning Commission – will consider the proposed Midtown Corridors Development Code.

The Midtown code is one of many steps our community is taking to implement the 2005 General Plan. As I have said before, our General Plan is very general, and especially in those parts of town that we have designated for infill development, we must draft very specific codes and policies to implement the General Plan.

I believe that the code can still be improved, and on Monday night I will work with my fellow councilmembers to make it better, especially in the dealing with views and the relationship between the projects on the corridors and the existing neighborhoods adjacent to them. But it is important to adopt this code very soon – if not Monday night, then as soon as the staff can return to us with the final changes. That’s because this code is a vast improvement over the code that is currently in place, for two reasons.

First, despite the rhetoric we have heard from some residents, this code represents a very significant downzoning along most of the Main and Thompson corridors from what is currently allowed. The current code permits six-story (75-foot) buildings in significant portions of the Midtown corridors now. The proposed code reduces the maximum height to two or three stories (between 35 and 45 feet) everywhere except at the Five Points area. Enacting this downzoning is long overdue.

Second, the code provides much more detailed direction to developers on setbacks, the mass and scale of buildings, and general design (as opposed to architectural style). This is a vast improvement over the current code, which is either too vague or too permissive on most of these points. This lack of specificity is part of the reason why recent projects have drawn a lot of fire.

For this reason I favor the quick adoption of the code, subject to additional changes we may direct Monday night. It may not be perfect, but it’s way better than what we have now. As the saying goes, we should now allow the perfect to become the enemy of the good. We should get this thing as far as long as we possibly can on Monday night and pass it as soon as we can.

Implementing the General Plan

As I said before, there are a number of policies and action steps in the 2005 General Plan that lead the City toward a new code for the Midtown corridors. Chapter 3 of the General Plan calls for an “infill first” approach to development and identifies the Midtown corridors as one of the focus areas for infill development. Specific actions called for in the General Plan include:

* Action 3.9, which directs us to adopt code provisions that designate mixed-use areas.
* Action 3.14, which directs us to utilize infill development to accommodate needed housing as identified in the Housing Element.
* Action 3.15, which directs us to adopt new codes to comply with the Housing Element.

In the Housing Element, which is also part of the General Plan, there is a specific policy (Policy 3.9), which directs the city to “promote higher density housing as part of mixed-use developments along parts of Thompson Boulevard and Main Street in Midtown Ventura.”

In passing the General Plan two years ago, we adopted all these policies and action ste[s and we reaffirmed adoption of the Housing Element, which was originally adopted in 2004.

The General Plan also contains a policy (Policy 3A) that we maintain our “cherished community characteristics,” and there is an action item under that policy (Action 3.3) that we “require preservation of public view sheds and solar access”. I do not believe the code currently implements this policy effectively and I will work with my colleagues Monday night to make changes to address this problem.

Possible Changes to the Code

Over the past few weeks I have read the code in detail and consulted with a wide variety of people on the staff and in the community about the proposed Midtown Code. For example, I met with Camille Harris, Diane Underhill, and Claudia Armann, all of whom are involved in Bungalow Neighbors and VCORD, to discuss the proposed code in detail. I also reviewed Diane’s very detailed suggestions. I met with Scott Boydstun, an architect who is a member of both our Planning Commission and our Design Review Committee. Under the Brown Act I am permitted to speak with two other members of the City Council before the meeting, and I chose to chat with Christy Weir and Ed Summers, hoping to find a lot of common ground – which I did.

I also talked to a lot of people in the neighborhood when I walked precincts during the recent campaign. In general, I found the neighbors to be most concerned about what I call “adjacency” – they wanted to make sure that the adjacent neighborhood is not overwhelmed by the size and scale of the new development. Many were concerned about views; and others said that they did not like the current blighted properties near their houses.

All that said, here are some areas of concern and some thoughts about how the City Council might tweak the proposed code on Monday night:


While the code has been pending, there has been a lot of debate over how to protect views of the hillsides from the flats of Midtown as infill development along the corridors takes place. The General Plan calls for preservation of public viewsheds and solar access, but it doesn’t define public viewsheds. (For the record, the pending VCORD initiative calls for the preservation of the ”existing City views of the hillsides and coast”– it doesn’t use the word “public” – but the initiative doesn’t provide a specific definition of viewsheds either.) Clearly, to truly implement the General Plan policy, the Midtown code must provide more specific guidance on public viewsheds in Midtown.

This is a somewhat tricky issue, because the height of the hillsides varies dramatically from block to block in Midtown. In many locations, even existing one-story buildings block hillside views from nearby public vantage points, while in other locations a three- or four-story building would not block the views. So on the question of views, where you stand really does depend on where you sit.

The most important public viewsheds in Midtown are the hillside-to-ocean view corridors that run along the north-south streets. It’s important to keep these view corridors clear, so that you can see the ocean from up on the hill and from the flats you can see the hillsides.

But there are two types of north-south streets in Midtown: through streets and terminating streets. Catalina or Seaward would be a through street, which goes up into the hillsides or ends in a place where there are no buildings. Santa Rosa or Pacific would be a terminating street – a street that terminates at Main Street and would therefore have a building on the north side, potentially blocking views. (The “terminated vistas” are identified with stars on the Regulating Plan between pages 20 and 21 of the code.)

Through Streets: “Daylight Plane”

The code currently proposes a five-foot sideyard setback on properties at the intersection of a north-south street and one of the two corridors. This is a good attempt at maintaining the view corridors catching hillside views to the north, but the setback standard on through streets such as Seaward should be more stringent.

There’s a concept in architectural regulation known as the “daylight plane” – a kind of a geometrical standard that requires buildings to step back, wedding cake style, from the street according to a specific angle – say, 45% -- as they get taller. A building located on the corner of a corridor and a through street should be subject to a daylight plane requirement for the sideyard setback – call it a “sideyard plane”. That way, view corridors will remain open – and the higher up you go on the building, the wider the view corridor will be.

This same rule should be applied to intersection parcels on Thompson, where virtually all the streets in Midtown are “through” streets – that is, they continue north at least to Main.

Terminating Streets: Third-Story Setback

Terminating streets represent a different problem, because a building on the north side of Main Street holds the potential to completely block hillside views from terminating street
that faces the building. However, this potential problem can be solved by adopting one simple rule: If a building on the north side of a terminating street is three stories high, the third story should be set back from the street sufficiently so that the ridgeline of the hillside is visible from 200 feet south on the terminating street at a height of 5 feet. The code should allow thin or narrow architectural features (such as a steeple) to protrude higher so long as the view is not obstructed. This is easily included in the code because there is already a Terminating Vista Overlay District proposed (page 28).

Not all views from every point on Main Street would be protected by this rule – but not all views from every point on Main Street would be protected even if buildings were limited to two stories. A distance of 200 feet is about a third of the way from Main to San Nicholas, meaning that the hillsides would become more prominent as you move farther south. They would be readily visible from San Nicholas and certainly from Thompson. Combined with the application of the “sideyard plane” rule on intersection lots on Thompson, this rule would maintain excellent north-south viewsheds along Thompson.

View From Along the Corridors Themselves

It is impossible to maintain every public view of the hillsides from every vantage point on both corridors. Existing buildings – even one-story buildings -- already obstruct some views completely. However, the combination of the sideyard plane rule (applied at through cross-streets at both Seaward and Thompson) and the third-story setback rule (applied on terminating streets) will maintain varying building heights throughout Midtown. The hillsides will remain visible from most locations along the corridors.


The most frequent concern I have heard from Midtown residents about infill development along the corridors is that new buildings will tower over adjacent residential neighborhoods. The new code represents a significant improvement over the current code but I think a couple of tweaks would make it better.

The current code permits a three-story building to back up to a residential neighborhood with a 20-foot setback. As it is currently written, the new code increases this setback to 30 feet, while retaining the 20-foot setback for two-story buildings. I think the practical effect of this change will be that most developers will create “wedding cake” buildings that will step down to two stories toward the rear property line.

However, the proposed code should be changed so that landscaped screening is required at the rear property line between a corridor parcel and an adjacent residential parcel. This can be easily achieved by simply expanding the “Landscape” section associated with each building type.

Having a one-story difference between the corridor building and residential building behind it is good policy. But I am hesitant to require the step-down in all circumstances – that is, create a complete prohibition on three-story buildings adjacent to one-story houses – for one simple reason: Every homeowner backing up to the corridor has the right under our zoning code to add a second story. Therefore, as it currently stands, the theoretical maximum height for a commercial parcel is one story taller than the theoretical maximum height for a residential parcel. If we ever create, for example, an historic district somewhere in Midtown that removes the possibility of homeowners adding a second story, then I would favor eliminating the step-down option and requiring that adjacent buildings on the corridors be only two stories.

Building Height Definitions

The current code defines allowable development mostly in terms of stories, rather than feet; though it does use feet in at least one instance (the T4.5 zone on page 22). The staff report does include a chart translating stories into feet.

The code should include both stories and feet in every reference to avoid confusion.

There has also been some concern that the allowable building heights on the corridor parcels are higher than one might expect – for example, 45 feet, rather than 35 feet, for a three-story building. This is mostly because the ground floor of a commercial building is typically 15 feet high with at least a two-foot space above it for mechanical installations. In fact, as proposed, the code requires a 15-foot minimum ground-floor height. Most of the three-story buildings that have been proposed along the corridors so far have come in at about 40-42 feet high.

Part of the purpose of the code is to encourage retail and live-work on the ground floor with residences above, so therefore I think a height limit in the 42-45-foot range is appropriate. However, we should also define the maximum height of each floor (15 feet for the ground floor, 10-12 feet for the floors above) to ensure that no project can actually have four floors.

Building Types

The list of allowed buildings types include two types – “gallery” (page 46) and “arcade” (page 47) – that permit the buildings to encroach onto the sidewalk space if the sidewalk space is provided beneath the second-floor building (arcade) or balcony (gallery). The intent is to provide a “walkway” effect like The Arcade in Ojai, but with living space jutting out into the public right of way above.

These building types do not currently exist in Midtown – or, so far as I know, anywhere in Ventura. Furthermore, because of noise concerns applicants seem to be pushing upstairs residential units away from the street rather than pulling the building toward the street.

Therefore, these two building types should not be permitted under the code.

Diane Underhill has suggested that two of the larger building types that would be permitted – “stack dwelling” (page 72) and “commercial block” (page 74) – should be prohibited on lots shallower than 150 feet. I frankly think it is unlikely anybody will try to build these building types on shallow lots, but I appreciate the point. It is possible that some developers will assemble two or three fairly shallow lots (say, 100 feet deep) along one of the corridors and seek to build one of these two building types.

Some residents may fear lot assembly because they think it will result in a monolithic project, but I have a different view. I’m more concerned about applicants trying to stuff big projects on narrow lots rather than shallow lots. The worst projects I have seen are the ones on the 50-foot lots. So I think that assembling lots gives the city far more ability to force the applicant to design a good project. And remember that the 20- and 30-foot setbacks would still apply. If we prohibit these building types, I’d suggest we prohibit them on narrow lots rather than shallow lots.


On some portions of Main and Thompson, the residential character of the area remains, and the code respects this character by requiring the buildings to be set back from the street according to the predominant existing setback on the block. A block where buildings currently come all the way to the sidewalk will require no setback; a block where buildings are set back residential style will require a similar setback for new buildings.

However, in both T5.2 and T4.5, a variety of front-yard encroachments are permitted to allow for porches, stoops, and the like. This might make sense in a brand-new development where it is also possible to design streets to be narrow with slow-moving traffic. But it does not make sense along Main and Thompson. These encroachments should be eliminated.

Five Points South of Thompson

The proposed code would designate the Five Points area as T5.2, which is the only place where the current six-story zoning would be retained. Taller buildings make sense at Five Points, especially near Community Memorial Hospital and on the triangle of Five Points, which is not adjacent to any residential areas. However, tall buildings don’t make sense south of Thompson along Borchard, which is adjacent to a residential neighborhood. As it is currently written, the code retains the T5.2 zoning south of Borchard but places an overlay (“Residential Overlay Two”) on the areas adjacent to residential to limit them to three stories. The entire area below Borchard ought to be rezoned to T4.5.

Three-Story Moratorium and the Pending VCORD Initiative

Diane Underhill of VCORD has asked that we include in this code a moratorium on all buildings over 26 feet in the Midtown corridors because of the VCORD initiative, which is currently pending at the county while the signatures are verified. I see why VCORD would be interested is taking this course of action. But I do not believe we should allow the pending initiative to stand in the way of taking steps to protect views in Midtown now.

Essentially, what VCORD is asking is that we place a moratorium on buildings over 26 feet tall along the Midtown corridors while we wait to see whether an initiative has qualified for the ballot which, if it qualifies and if it passes and if it is legally valid, would place an moratorium on buildings over 26 feet fall for up to two years while a committee is appointed to draft an ordinance to protect views.

My opinion is, Hey, let’s take concrete steps Monday night in the Midtown code to protect Midtown views now.

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