It’s the first day of Fall. Waiting for my appointment to arrive, I sit on a comfortable couch in a spacious photo studio on East Main Street in Ventura. Gazing out the broad windows I spy unseasonable storm clouds boiling over the roofs of buildings that have stood across the street for decades. Between some power lines I can see the tip of barren hilltops that already seem refreshed by the morning’s thirst-quenching downfall.
“I think there’s a lot of potential here,” Stephen Schafer (Schaf to most) says half an hour later during our interview. The “here” Schaf refers to is Midtown Ventura, a 30,000-resident-strong district located roughly between the city\\’s historic Downtown and Mills Road and bounded by those hillsides and the 101 Freeway to the south. A local photographer heavily involved in historic preservation, Schaf lives and works in Midtown after growing up near Ventura College.
“I think there’s history here that isn’t as obvious as the history in Downtown,” he says. “So if it’s left to just sort of hang around on its own as a big vacant storefront it starts to deteriorate, people start to lose interest and it goes away. Then 20 years down the road people start to say ‘God, we should have kept that.’”
Schaf’s studio sits near the focal point for one of Ventura’s most vitriolic battles over urban redevelopment in a neighborhood full of quietly decaying mid-century buildings. Despite nearly a decade of discussions about Midtown’s future, few significant new projects have gotten off the ground. Fear among neighbors that the area will lose its character and views of the nearby hillsides have intensified, even as developers gripe that a web of murky planning rules makes it nearly impossible to build in the area.
After three sets of community workshops — 1998’s Midtown Vision, 2001’s Midtown by Design and the 2005 Midtown Charrette — envisioned a Midtown renaissance characterized by new neighborhood centers and tree-lined avenues, the neighborhood remains a hodge-podge of car lots and vacancy signs sprinkled with pockets of emerging and long-standing small businesses. Indeed, although a general plan including some of the Charette’s results was adopted in 2005, it hasn’t yet been fully implemented.
“Our 2005 general plan laid out a holistic strategy,” City Manager Rick Cole says during an interview in an air-conditioned office overlooking Downtown Ventura. “Then, the council decided to sequentially prioritize Downtown, Wells-Saticoy, Westside and Midtown. The goal was to move that through rather quickly so they’d all be done by now.”
But, Cole acknowledges, the city is behind schedule. To date, the only priority that has been addressed is Downtown, where a specific plan was adopted in March. With planning only partially completed for the Wells-Saticoy area at the city\\’s eastern limits, it could be quite some time before the city can turn its focus to a permanent plan for Midtown.
Bernie Ayling, an insurance agent and the chair of the Midtown Ventura Community Council, says the delays have kept the district stagnant.
“Midtown has been pushed further and further on the back burner since the Charrette,” Ayling says. “They started at the city center and the Downtown area. To me the next logical place to renovate and to present a more beautiful place to the world of Ventura would be, basically, the next neighborhood over, which would be Midtown. I think that’s very important but the city obviously doesn’t have the same view.”
Although there are eight major housing and mixed-use projects on the drawing board for the area, only one has been built in recent years: a small mixed-use building on the corner of Main St. and Lincoln Dr. at Midtown’s northwest edge.
With a Midtown Specific Plan so far behind, the city is now pursuing an interim code for Main Street and Thompson Boulevard., Midtown’s two major arteries, so development can begin sooner. At its Sept. 10 meeting the city council was set to discuss a study of the potential environmental impact of the interim code, but that discussion has been postponed until October at the earliest.
Currently, no consistent guidelines are in place, meaning any project launched before a permanent plan takes effect has its own requirements and builders and residents alike have no idea what parameters those projects will have to meet.
“Right now the [current] code allows all kinds of things we would usually hate,” Cole said. “The whole goal of this code is no mixed messages. You should know that going in. It shouldn’t be, ‘Lets see what the neighbors think, what the planning commission thinks’ and — if you go to the city council — ‘what the council thinks.’ Let’s decide now at the plan level rather than at each project. I think that removes an enormous and onerous burden on both the neighbors and the developers. On the developers’ side you buy a piece of property and have no idea what you will get out of it. On the neighbors’ side they have to drag themselves out project by project by project to battle over each one and that’s just not fair.”
On being reasonable
Some neighbors, however, don’t feel that the proposed interim code gives them enough say and that current official visions for the Main and Thompson corridors have left them wanting.
At a Downtown Ventura smoothie shop I chat with Camille Harris, for the moment removed from the battleground her neighborhood has become.
Far from her Midtown home, Harris sips her latte and I enjoy my smoothie. It seems more like Portland, Ore. than the Tri-Counties. Damp post-rainstorm air bounces off the stone floors as we discuss urban development, and Harris celebrates the grassroots activism of the Ventura Citizens Organization for Community Responsibility, or VCORD, an organization she helped found.
As reported in the May 10, 2007 edition of the Reporter, Harris and her allies prefer a two-year moratorium on building anything over 26 feet throughout the city (commercial, industrial and hospital zones and Downtown Ventura are exempted) until the general plan can be amended to protect “viewsheds” in the city. The moratorium would be part of an ordinance that would set up a 23-member community board. That board would define rules intended to protect views of scenic areas throughout the city from being obstructed by new development. VCORD is gathering signatures to bring the ordinance before voters, and Harris said her organization has already gathered “thousands” of signatures.
But Harris insists her group is not anti-development.
“We are in favor of development,” she said. “All we want is them to be reasonable. In a half a day they could do a digital modeling of this city with the technology that is available. They could find places where seven stories could be possible, like the [Ventura] TowneHouse. They can find places where they can sell transfer rights. There’s all kinds of things they can do to revitalize that part of the city, but [Midtown is] the heart of the city and it has the biggest views.”
Harris said that approvals granted by Ventura’s planning commission and design review committee for some of the proposed projects caused a “revolt” among Midtown residents. She said they aren’t accountable to Ventura residents and are approving projects that are incompatible with the neighborhoods surrounding them.
“They create walls and divisions between our neighborhoods,” Harris said. “They separate us from the hills just as the freeway separates us from the ocean. These are freeways in the sky that will separate us from the hillsides, each other, and the ocean. They could have done the code that said, first of all, let’s identify where the major views are.”
She said a proper interim code would be a moratorium.
“In an interim coding you keep it small, then you decide where you can go up without destroying the views,” Harris said. “It’s just common sense.”
Bidlow\\’s High Bid
Leon Bidlow isn\\’t unfamiliar with Harris’s ire.
An expert in masonry who speaks wistfully of grand buildings lost to earthquakes past, Bidlow is the vice president and director of development operations at V2 Ventures, a Los Angeles-based acquisition and development company with more than $100 million invested in Ventura. Most of the company\\’s local projects are in Downtown, but its plans for Paseo Mariposas, a mixed-use project on Thompson Boulevard, helped spark the formation of Bungalow Neighbors, the organization from which VCORD sprung. V2 Ventures also has proposed another large project for the corner of San Jon Road and Thompson on the site of what is now a used car lot. That proposal has been criticized from VCORD members who say it will obstruct views.
Bidlow said his company participated in the Midtown Charrette and reached out to the community when it was seeking entitlements for Paseo Mariposas.
“It’s very difficult to get things processed here, but that’s typical of a lot of cities by the sea here in California,” Bidlow said. “We have an entire city block in Pismo, but we haven’t had nearly the obstacles there that we’ve had here. This particular project had 15 public hearings associated with it. Each one of those was a process unto itself.”
Each project V2 Ventures has proposed in Ventura is unique, Bidlow said. He said that he sees changes in the city and that the process is becoming more defined.
“Contrary to what you may hear, I think a majority of us are on the same page as far as our intentions and our love for this city,” he said. “We’re just trying to build a nice project. If you look at the specifics of the project not everyone can agree on the exact particulars of it but when does anyone agree on anything?”
It’s not reasonable to expect that there won’t be growth in Ventura over the next century, Bidlow said. Although he agreed that those who oppose his company’s projects probably love the city, he didn’t agree that restricting all buildings to two stories would secure its visual beauty.
“Is the difference made between a one- or two- story dilapidated building with used cars on it or a three-story building with beautiful architectural details?” he said. “To say that anything three stories is wrong, that’s wrong. I think that a city is defined by its natural resources as well as its urbanscapes. A beautiful building in a town is something that I don’t think takes away from any of the visual resources of that town.”
Current softening of the housing market and dire news about the real estate business doesn’t scare Bidlow.
“Property values have increased and I think what we’re experiencing now is more of a reality of the industry,” he said. “For us it’s business as usual and we will build it as fast as we are able to. I know that there are people in this town that have entitled projects that are not going to be openly marketed but are available.”
If they come, you can build it
Midtown’s future, though, might not lie in new construction. Vacancy signs abound in the neighborhood. Where retail space can cost as much as $2.50 per square foot Downtown, commercial rents in Midtown range between $1 and $1.50.
“I think it’s the next Downtown,” Schaf said. “I am not sure why the antique stores haven’t embraced it en masse. It think if they did you could get enough synergy to make this a nice little antique area and that would bring residents.”
Schaf said that he understands Harris’s fear that allowing every development could go horribly wrong for Midtown, but, so far, the city has barely addressed the area.
“There’s this fear of Midtown going the wrong way but I don’t know that the city has the power to do much as far as making it the next hub of creativity or the next district of merit or whatever they want to call it,” he said. “They’ve successfully done it in Downtown, but then you have to ask yourself how much of that was done by the city?”
Grand plans for green space and parks and sidewalk repairs mean nothing, he said, if businesses don’t open in Midtown that will draw visitors from outside the area.
“I think our current planning commission and design review are pretty clued in right now,” he said. “Maybe I’m an optimist. They’re not willing to say no to three stories because there are good three stories. I drop down and see an ugly gas station across from Ventura High School in the middle of an empty lot with weeds, I’d rather have a nice development, not an award-winning one, but a nice one.”
Dan Long seems to have a similar position. Long was the first chair of the Midtown Ventura Community Council. A painter by trade, Long is also in his first year as a member of Ventura’s planning commission. But during an interview frequently interrupted by his curious Maine Coon cat, he shares his perspective as a 35-year resident of Midtown.
“We haven\\’t seen in Midtown any nice-looking project coming on so people can say ‘Maybe this is okay,’” Long says, referring to a site across the street from Ventura High School that once held Café Scoop and could house a mixed-use development. “Instead there\\’s still this fear out there about too-high density. It\\’s just a fear that people have with any kind of change.”
Without development, the neighborhood may not escape social problems it is notorious for.
“We have a real problem with prostitution and shady characters all along Thompson and Main,” he says. “Unless we have a little turnover and some higher-end stuff come in it\\’s going to be that way. So no change, for me, is kinda the death knell. I don\\’t think that\\’s going to be the case. I think things are going to happen a little more slowly.”
Meanwhile Ayling, the community council chair, said Midtown residents are trying to step in to pick up the slack while the city remains focused on other neighborhoods. Ayling said that although the community council brings Midtown residents together, its issues aren’t out of line with the interests of other parts of Ventura.
“We’re about the betterment of the whole town,” he said. “Of course we want to see our neighborhood improve a little because as anybody who drives through there or walks through there knows, it needs attention.”
But Harris insists that VCORD is also devoted to the entire city. That’s why it grew out of the Midtown-specific Bungalow Neighbors, an organization at odds with a community council its members felt was influenced more by developers than Midtown residents.
“The way the citizens are being treated here in Midtown is the way they are going to be treated everywhere else,” she said. “That is my main gripe, the lack of democracy.”
Harris says that developers might have a better relationship with the community if they were allowed to negotiate directly with neighbors of their projects. Residents don’t disagree that improvements are needed in Midtown, she said, but that the area would benefit more from the results of the earlier Midtown by Design, not the 2005 Charrette, which she says was orchestrated by architects who would profit from its outcome.
“What they’re talking about is putting an upside down freeway between us,” she said. “We want [Midtown] developed. How many times do we have to say that? We just want to identify the viewsheds, that’s all. There are very simple things that should be done. We should have setbacks on the corners. God forbid there should be a little green on Thompson.”