On Monday, the Ventura City Council is scheduled to begin discussing possible changes to the city’s long-standing "infill first" growth policies. It’s a good time for this discussion.
Our general plan was adopted eight years ago, conditions have changed significantly, the real estate market is beginning to come back, and the city is getting ready to embark on a process to update that general plan.
The one thing that has not changed is Ventura’s commitment to slow, careful growth in an infill context. Dating back to the Seize The Future Community Vision in the late ’90s, the people of Ventura had made it clear:
They don’t want the city to grow outward. Instead, they want high-quality new development in selected locations, especially in the downtown and along commercial corridors, that strengthens both our economy and our quality of life.
So the City Council should approach revisions to the infill first approach carefully, using a scalpel to make revisions rather than a meat ax that will improve the quality of infill development and make it easier for developers to do the right thing.
Here are some things the city council should consider:
1. Consider a "tiered" approach to allowable project size if a developer offers community benefits.
Some communities permit larger projects in exchange for additional community benefits — affordable housing, open space, neighborhood amenities, and the like. Ventura should consider this approach, though the city should proceed carefully to ensure that the community benefit requirements are clear and consistently applied.
2. Conduct pre-screens on large projects but do so selectively.
Pre-screens — the practice of requiring front-loaded review of development concepts by the Planning Commission and the City Council — are politically tempting but burdensome on both developers and the city’s staff.
Ventura should use the pre-screen approach selectively — for example, when a developer is requesting a general plan change, a zone change, a significant variance or a large project in exchange for community benefits. Pre-screen requirements should be made as simple as possible to reduce the burden on developers and staff while at the same time providing the city with the information necessary to make a good decision.
3. Adopt a single parking standard — indeed, a single set of standards — for multifamily housing projects.
Current development standards assume a difference in quality between ownership condominium projects and rental apartment projects. These standards are outdated, because the whole idea that you can dictate whether housing will be rental or ownership is outdated.
All over Ventura, for example, condominiums and single-family homes approved as ownership units are now being rented out. The city should establish one set of development standards for all multifamily projects, regardless of whether they are expected to be owned or rented.
In particular, a single set of parking standards should be adopted that falls somewhere in between the current standard for rental apartments and the current standard for condominiums.
The standard could be different in different parts of the city depending on how much off-site parking is available. For example, the pool of unused parking in the downtown is very large and therefore standards there could be different.
4. Adopt more fine-grained approach to design of projects adjacent to existing single-family neighborhoods.
The controversy over the Island View project in Montalvo has renewed concerns that Ventura’s current codes do not protect single-family homes from large adjacent projects.
Rather than simply cutting densities, the city should adopt a fine-grained design approach in these locations to protect view corridors and privacy.
A good model is the Midtown Corridors Code, adopted in 2007, which requires additional setbacks, varying heights and consideration of view corridors and privacy in approving multistory projects along Main Street and Thompson Boulevard. In the future, Ventura will be faced with increasing challenges as it seeks to improve its economy and provide housing for residents even as it runs out of undeveloped land.
The infill first approach is a vital tool in maintaining this balance in a healthy way. By revising the city’s infill first policies with care, Ventura can ensure a healthy and prosperous future as a community.