Tuesday, May 13, 2008

What To Do About North Bank

Tomorrow night (Wednesday, May 14th), the City Council will hold a special meeting for one specific purpose: to discuss how to interpret the “Commerce” land use designation in the North Bank area around the Century 16 theater near the Johnson Drive offramp. I am unable to attend because of a day-job commitment elsewhere, so I want to use the blog to provide my thoughts.

This meeting grew out of a request to consider a General Plan Amendment to change the designation on their property – the vacant lot across Johnson from Motel 6 – from Commercial to Residential. Casdan Properties is a developer of rental residential properties and they want to build what amounts to a big apartment complex on this site, which is on the corner of Johnson and North Bank. We denied the amendment request 4-3 a few weeks ago – which doesn’t necessarily eliminate the possibility of rental apartments on the site – but agreed to take a look at the general issue again.

First, a bit about the land use designations that we included in the 2005 General Plan. They were deliberately more general than the land use designations in the previous general plan; the idea was to provide flexibility in each neighborhood for a very specific zoning code that would allow mixed-use development. So the “Commerce” designation, which was applied to the parcels that used to be designated as “Commercial,” allows the possibility of building housing.

We’ve created the more specific codes in Downtown and the Midtown Corridors, but the more general designation has created confusion in parts of town where we have not adopted a more specific code. In many cases, developers have sought to interpret the Commerce designation broadly, sometimes to mean a project that is mostly residential with only a small bit of retail associated with it.

This is what Casdan Properties tried to do at the Johnson Drive/North Bank site. When Casdan bought the property in 2003, it was zoned for Commercial. Casdan’s goal was clearly to flip the zoning to residential, thereby increasing the value of the property, and then build apartments. It’s a typical tactic among some developers: Buy property zoned for commercial and industrial use cheaply, then get a zone change to residential, and reap the profits.

After the 2005 General Plan passed, Casdan began working on a proposal for an apartment complex with a bit of retail, which they argued was in conformance with the Commerce land use designation. The staff disagreed and encouraged Casdan to go through the General Plan Amendment pre-screen process – which allows the Council to take an “early look” at a project that would require a General Plan Amendment – to test the waters for switching to a Residential land use designation. Casdan went through the pre-screen but didn’t really want to. When this came to us, they actually asked us to turn down the switch to Residential and instead signal to the staff that a mostly residential project would be okay under the Commerce designation.

We turned down the switch to Residential 4-3, but we couldn’t agree on what other guidance we should givef on how to interpret the Commerce designation. Councilmember Andrews said he thought the site was a good location for tall office buildings that might compete with the towers in Oxnard. Mayor Weir favored a residential project because of the proximity to the nearby bike path, the businesses in the North Bank area, and the Santa Clara River. Some folks argued that residential development would allow commuters to live in Ventura but get right on the freeway to go elsewhere.

Much of the discussion revolved around how much retail should be required as part of the project. The staff pushed for a big chunk – essentially all along Johnson and North Bank, perhaps 25%. Casdan said that was too much and they wouldn’t be able to lease up that much retail.

My own view has always been that this is a lousy site for residential development.

Yes, it’s near the Santa Clara River and the bike path – but it’s also right up against the freeway and it’s very noisy. (There’s also a lot of new research suggesting that living near freeways is very harmful to children.)

Yes, it’s close to other residential neighborhoods – but, except for a pre-existing Montalvo neighborhood nearby, there’s no other residential south of the railroad tracks. And it’s right across Johnson Drive from another vacant lot that has one of the largest freeway frontages in the City – clearly, one of our prime sites for large-scale retail.

Yes, it’s close to the North Bank businesses – but those businesses have always struggled and we are likely to see them struggle even more in the future. Mayor Weir liked the proximity to the movie theater, Toys R Us, and the restaurants. So do I – except that this area is increasingly uncompetitive for retail and is likely to go downhill further when River Park opens just across the bridge in Oxnard unless we rethink it. The theater is likely to close or go to second-run movies. Toys R Us will probably close or move as well. The whole area will undergo major change.

And yes, Casdan probably can’t lease up a project that’s mostly a retail or office project. But that’s not because there’s no market in that area. It’s because Casdan is a residential developer. When I asked Casdan at the last meeting why they wanted to build residential in this location, rather than some other kind of development, their answer was that residential development is the business they’re in. That wasn’t a good enough answer for me, especially since they had originally bought the property with the clear intention of turning a quick profit by flipping the zoning from commercial to residential.

I suggested another meeting for the purpose of discussing not just the Casdan Property but all the properties in the North Bank area, because all the properties are clearly going to change – not just Casdan. So here’s how I think the Commerce designation should be interpreted in that vicinity:

-- We should protect the properties along the freeway on the other side of Johnson – the vacant lot by Motel 6 and the Toys R Us site – for large-scale retail. This means not allowing any residential development on these properties, and also planning the properties across Johnson – the Casdan Parcel and the movie theater site – in a way that doesn’t preclude large-scale retail on the other parcels.

-- We should require that the Casdan and movie theater properties be focused mostly on retail serving the neighborhood and the greater East Ventura area. The North Bank shopping centers were hard-hit by bridge construction and they will be hard-hit again by RiverPark because many businesses dependent on lunchers and shoppers from the towers across the river. But those customers are gone and will never come back. However, Johnson is a major commuter route for our own residents who commute between East Ventura and other cities. These folks don’t have enough neighborhood shopping. To buy almost anything, they either have to go over to Victoria or they cross the river to Oxnard.

-- These retail developments should be designed so they are convenient to driving commuters along Johnson and also to pedestrians and bicyclists for adjacent neighborhoods using the bike trail to get there. There may even be some potential for small second-story offices for businesses whose owners live nearby. Second-story offices above retail are not always successful – witness the struggle of such space in the Ralph’s shopping center on Victoria – but there is second-story office space (above more office) just up the street on Johnson (across the tracks). (I don't think Councilmember Andrews' idea of high-rise office makes sense, since we just redid the Victoria code to promote Class A office space over there.)

All this does not preclude some residential units on the movie theater and Casdan sites, especially on the backside along the river. But I think that mostly residential projects on these sites does not make sense. The Casdan property is too close to the freeway. Johnson is a busy street. It’s too close to the large-scale retail sites across the street. And the people in the residential neighborhoods need upgraded neighborhood shopping opportunities – not just a coffee shop in an apartment building.

If this means that we will not allow the project Casdan wants to build, then maybe Casdan is the wrong developer for the site. Our goal should be to figure out how to best use the North Bank properties to benefit the surrounding neighborhoods and Ventura as a whole – not to accommodate a residential developer that purchased the land with the clearly goal of making money by flipping the zoning.

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