Monday, April 21, 2008

How Do We Avoid Becoming a Commuter town?

Last week my friend Camille Harris delivered another negative broadside in the Star, attacking the City on a wide range of issues. I thought the article was both inaccurate and unfair, and so I have submitted this letter to the editor to the Star.

To the Editor,

Once again, Camille Harris has written an op/ed piece that relies mostly on hyperbole -- and, in some cases, erroneous information -- to make a case against the City of Ventura's economic development and planning policies. ("New urbanists trying to wall city in gray," April 18).

That's too bad, because the goals Camille seeks to promote in her article -- especially her goal of a town with fewer commuters -- are goals shared by the City Council. And the very policies she harshly criticizes are, in fact, designed to promote the goal she professes to support. I hope that Camille and everyone else in Ventura can unite around these common goals and work together to achieve them, rather than focusing on negative rhetoric.

First, a little fact-checking is in order.

Camille claims that Ventura is mostly a commuter town and the end result of our planning efforts will be to build more housing for commuters. These statements are not true.

By any standard, Ventura is job rich, with more than 50,000 jobs -- including many good-paying jobs at the County Government center and elsewhere.

Also, about 50% of the people who work in Ventura also live in Ventura. This is a far better situation than in any other city in Ventura County. In most of the other cities, only about 25% of workers live in town and 75% commute. So we are far more in balance -- and have fewer commuters relative to the size of our city -- than Oxnard, Thousand Oaks, Santa Paula, or any other city nearby.

To me, this is the single most wonderful and precious aspect of living in Ventura. Because so many people who live in town don't have to commute somewhere else, they have more time, energy, and money to devote to life in our community -- as neighborhood activists, soccer coaches, PTO presidents, and so forth.

But this wonderful balance of living and working in Ventura is also fragile. The percentage of people who both live here and work here is going down. This is especially true in the western part of our city, such as the Midtown neighborhood where Camille lives, because Santa Barbara folks can afford to outbid local residents for beautiful old houses. That is why I believe that all of us in Ventura -- the city government, businesess, environmentalists, and neighborhood activists -- must work together to ensure that our beautiful city remains a city where people can both live and work.

In fact, both of the city policies that Camille criticized so harshly in her op/ed piece -- our infill development policy and our economic development policy -- have been put in place for the purpose of maintaining the fragile jobs-housing balance that all of us, including both Camille and myself, value so highly.

If we had continued our housing sprawl policy of past years, the result would be the construction of many more large single-family homes on large lots, which would be affordable only to Santa Barbara commuters and L.A. refugees with lots of home equity. In addition to discouraging that type of development, the City Council has also strongly resisted attempts by developers to take land reserved for jobs and convert it to housing. We've been heavily criticized by the business community for being anti-business in these situations -- especially when we refused to allow this switcheroo to happen with the Star's former headquarters on Ralston. But for most of us on the council, it wasn't clear to us why being "pro-business" required us to create more housing for commuters -- and take needed land away from office and industrial developments to do it.

By contrast, our infill development policy instead encourages developers to build a greater variety of housing -- including two- and three-bedroom townhomes and condominiums -- that will be less attractive to commuters and more affordable to the hard-working people who already live and work here in town. These folks will then have the time and energy to serve as soccer coaches and PTO presidents.

On economic development, Camille is quite right that we have not done a very good job over the last decade of fostering positive economic growth -- and especially bringing good jobs to town. That is why we partnered with a venture capital firm to encourage the creation and expansion of high-tech and biotech companies here in Ventura. These companies are well established in both Santa Barbara and the Camarillo-Thousand Oaks area -- but many of the people who work at those companies commute out to those locations. With the help of our venture capital partners, we will be able to nurture companies here in town where these folks will be able to work. This will allow them to stop commuting, work in town, and -- again -- allow them to conserve their time and energy to benefit our community.

It is always tempting to believe, as Camille often suggests, that we on the City Council have the power to stop the world from changing or to protect our beautiful town from anything bad that might happen. I wish we had this power, but of course we don't. The world -- and our community -- will change whether we like it or not. I believe our job on the City Council is to work hard to make sure that we can manage the change so that it makes our community better rather than worse.

I agree with Camille that our goal should be a community where as many people as possible can both live and work in town. But this won't happen if all we do is pine for bygone days. To succeed, we all have to work together to recognize what is going on in the world around us and find ways to work aggressively to achieve the goals we all share.

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