Proposal would transform half of the public site into private event venue

by Michael Sullivan

Plaza Park in Downtown Ventura has garnered a reputation for two things: 1. serving as a venue for small events occasionally throughout the year and 2. being a hotbed of all things seedy, with over 400 calls for service in the last year to address the criminal element, according to Ventura Police Cmdr. Ryan Weeks. While families may use the playground during the day, it seems as though most people just avoid it altogether. But that may change if Ventura city officials sign off on a public-private partnership proposal to create a year-round entertainment venue at the site.

On Wednesday, March 16, the “Play Ground” proposal went before the Ventura Parks and Recreation Commission, with the commission deciding if the project should be up for further consideration or not. Staff, including Elena Brokaw, director of the Parks/Recreation and Community Partnerships Department, has recommended that it, at the very least, should get past this first hurdle in the planning process. (The VCReporter goes to press on Wednesday mornings; this story will be updated online.)

Vincenzo Giammanco, the man behind the project as well as the founder of the California Beer Festival, wants to reinvigorate the 3.7-acre park by transforming half of it into a private event center for festivals, concerts, fundraisers, corporate events and more. The other half of the park will remain open to the public. Instead of conventional brick-and-mortar buildings or pop-up tents, Giammanco wants to reuse cargo containers, noting that San Diego created in 2014 its own similar kind of park, the Quartyard.

“We want to take back that park and give it for use in downtown,” he said. “It is completely underutilized. Events, festivals, activities are lacking in downtown.”

Giammanco estimated that when the Play Ground has reached its potential, it could bring in 10,000 visitors to the district per month. The proposal also includes an outdoor dog park, a second children’s playground, a music stage and bocce ball courts; the total investment will be approximately $1 million. In exchange for a nominal leasing fee, which could be $1 per year — Brokaw said that price is not unheard-of in such public-private ventures — the park will have 24/7 security, the public restrooms will be upgraded and privately maintained, and Giammanco would host up to five fundraising events annually to support city activities, plus the economic impact of the tourism draw.

Brokaw said she is definitely interested in the project but knows there are still many questions yet to be answered, including parking and traffic concerns, configuration around the historic fig tree, displacement of the homeless population that hangs out in the park and the privatization of public space in general, though the park would never be sold. She relayed that such public-private partnerships are not rare, noting the Ventura Botanical Gardens behind City Hall and the BMX track that just recently became defunct at Ventura Community Park off Kimball Road. But such endeavors take time — the gardens took over seven years to produce a long-term 40-year lease.

“This project will change the character of the park so we really examine it carefully before you allow an outside person to invest a lot of money into the project,” she said. “I am very intrigued by the idea but a lot of the details need to be worked out.”

The Play Ground project at Plaza Park will reuse cargo containers for small businesses to use during events.

The Play Ground project at Plaza Park will reuse cargo containers for small businesses to use during events.