As rain pelted streets outside, Brian Briggs looked out the window from his booth in Alyson’s Café on Telegraph Road in Ventura. He could see several languishing lots filling with puddles and a few sagging storefronts surrounding the Pacific View Mall shopping center.

"I think it’s got to happen," said the 29-year-old Ojai resident. "I’m a builder and I think we’re going to have to build up, or else people are going to stop coming here."

"Well that’s OK if they do," chimed in Briggs’ 21-year-old sister, Amber Brandstrom, a Ventura resident on her lunch break from her job as a medical records manager at Loma Vista Family Practice. From her seat, opposite Briggs, she could see the Ventura hillsides, the lush chaparral landscape that wraps around the city.

"I spend a lot of time here, that’s for sure," Brandstrom added. "I don’t really like the idea of having a lot of tall buildings or development in Midtown."

Brandstrom and Briggs are just a few of the many local residents who are beginning to take a hard look at the future of Midtown Ventura, the area roughly encompassed by the hillsides to the north, the Pacific View Mall to the east, the railroad tracks to the south and Cemetery Park to the west.

People are beginning to ask: What is sustainable building in Midtown?

Some say it’s building higher and denser in already developed areas to resist encroaching on farmlands and to allow people to live near where they work.

Others argue it’s limiting tall buildings and mass development, especially in historic areas, to preserve city character and views.

The debate over building height limits and new development is dividing city leaders, environmental activists and, in Brandstrom and Briggs’ case, local families.

The Ventura City Council members wrestled with the issue at their Jan. 14 meeting, when they discussed putting a View Preservation Ordinance on an upcoming city ballot, as a group called Ventura Citizens Organization for Responsible Development requested.

Last year the Council voted 6-1 against enacting a moratorium that would limit development until an ordinance could be crafted and go before voters. Councilman Jim Monahan cast the dissenting vote.
VCORD members took matters into their own hands and collected 10,662 signatures in an attempt to get the item on the June ballot. After an initial sampling of 500 signatures, the Ventura County Registrar of Voters said there were enough signatures of Ventura register voters to qualify the measure for an upcoming election, but not enough for a special election, which VCORD had hoped for.

After researching the method the county used to count the signatures, VCORD member Camille Harris submitted a letter asking the city to do a complete count of all the signatures, because she believes there are enough to qualify for a special election.

The city has agreed to pay the county about $20,000 to recount the signatures. If there are signatures from 15 percent of register voters, enough to qualify the measure for a special election, the View Preservation Ordinance will go before voters in June or November, City Clerk Mabi Plisky said. If the number of signatures still fails to qualify the item for a special election, it will likely appear on the Nov. 2009 ballot, Plisky added.

"Our purpose is to supervise and facilitate the election process," Plisky said. "If it’s approved to be on the ballot and we can make the June ballot, that’s what our goal will be."

If the county can count and verify the signatures before mid-February, the city would have time to put the item on the June ballot, she added.

The ballot item would call for a two-year moratorium on building above 26-feet in Midtown Ventura while a committee, selected by VCORD, writes a View Preservation Ordinance designed allow for moderate growth and development.

"We don’t want it to be overly dense," Harris explained. "We’re moderates, we want development, but we want it to fit-in with the other existing buildings. We don’t want our sweeping east-west-views to become little peepholes. We have to get a view ordinance or we’ll be driving through concrete canyons."

Main Street Concept

One of the opponents of the ordinance, Nicolas Deitch, architect with Main Street Architects, said VCORD has been ignoring the necessity for denser housing along primary Midtown streets that would contribute to the city’s sustainability.

"What do they think responsible development is?" Deitch said. "Responsible development to me is providing people with affordable options where they don’t have to have cars and building on existing property with already existing infrastructure so we don’t have to encroach into more orchards."

Harris, however, said developers have talked about putting in luxury commuter condos in Midtown, not affordable housing.

"We’re not talking about less units in the town and we’re not talking about you can’t go up," she said. "They just don’t want to do the critical thinking and take the time to make it truly sustainable. They’re building commuter condos and calling that sustainable. We have common sense and we know that’s a fallacy they are using to promote unsustainable development.

"They’re sprawling up."

Again, the questions: If Ventura has to grow, is sprawling up better than sprawling out? Or can the city avoid urban sprawl altogether?

Mayor Christie Weir said she believes it’s possible to grow while promoting sustainability.

"I think we can do both and that’s our job," she said. "It’s a challenge to do both, and it takes being really, really careful with what you build and where you build. We have to make development possible. We have to take the property sitting vacant and unattractive and under-utilized, and encourage people to do something with it."

Councilman Jim Monahan said he opposes tall buildings in some areas of Midtown, but that five- or six-story buildings might be appropriate in some parts, including the five-points area.

"It’s always been my feeling as long as I’ve been on the council that we need to protect the agricultural land, and not sprawl into those areas," Monahan said.

"I’m not in favor of tall buildings if they take away from the view, but I think there are places for tall buildings. Some places such as Oxnard have tall buildings and they look wonderful."

Because the View Preservation Ordinance must go before voters, and be approved, before the building policies in the ordinance are clearly defined, Councilman Bill Fulton said he didn’t know whether the ordinance would contribute to the sustainability of the city.

"It’s hard for me to assess what the impact of this initiative might have, because what it sets in motion is a process," Fulton said. "It doesn’t have specific policies in it, other than the two-year moratorium on buildings above 26-feet."

He said the ordinance, along with all city policies, would have to follow the General Plan, which calls for environmental sustainability and the protection of views.

"Really the question here is: how do we interpret that portion of the General Plan? We should have infill development and taller buildings in the Main and Thompson corridor," Fulton said. "The question is, how big and how high?"

The answer to those questions may, as with Brandstrom and Briggs, depend on the respondent.

"People aren’t going to stop coming here and we’re going to have to keep building in Ventura," Briggs said. "Now

I don’t live down here, so it doesn’t bother me …"

"Exactly," Brandstrom said.

"But I used to live here and I work down here every day," Briggs said. "I guess if I had a house in the hills with a view, then I might be a little pissed off if there was a lot of building going on. Still, building helps the economy. It provides jobs."

The brother and sister duo did, eventually, find a point to agree on.

"I think it’s either build up or take all the farmlands, which I don’t want to see happen," said Briggs.

"I definitely agree with that about not taking the farmlands," said Brandstrom. "Whatever farmland there is does need to be preserved."