Pictured: Five blocks on Main Street in Ventura will be closed to vehicles when restaurants are allowed to offer dine-in options. Photo by Kimberly Rivers
by Kimberly Rivers
On Monday, May 18, the Ventura City Council approved an emergency ordinance which includes changes to how projects are approved in the city and a plan for five blocks of Main Street — from Figueroa to Fir streets — to be closed to vehicular traffic, making room for downtown restaurants to create outdoor dining areas and retail shops to offer outdoor shopping options.
“The Downtown Ventura Partners (DVP) worked closely with restaurant owners and other business owners to make sure there is support,” said Christy Weir, Ventura City Councilmember speaking with the VCReporter on Sunday before the vote. DVP proposed the idea, prepared the schematics and plans and conducted a survey of downtown businesses. She said no one would want the council to “make a decision for the public and have businesses hate it.”
She said DVP proposed this idea and will be the applicant for the special event permit required for the road closure and will also sponsor “some of the costs” associated with the application and preparation of the street.
The city will move ahead to have everything in place when the county is authorized to move into phase three of the reopening plan — when larger gatherings and dining in is allowed. “Nothing will happen until that phase is enacted,” said Weir. When restaurants are allowed to open, she said some individuals may not be comfortable eating inside restaurants, and some of the downtown restaurants are quite small. This creates an opportunity for restaurants to get back on their feet sooner. “The goal is to be ready with the permits, the funding, the plans, so that if the governor says [restaurants can fully open] in two to three weeks, we’re not starting from scratch right then.”
When that occurs, Main Street will be prepared with k-rails and other blockades where appropriate, but still allow traffic on cross streets. Under the current plan, bicycles will be permitted near the center, and pedestrians will be allowed on the sidewalks. Dining will take place in the parking spaces lining the street. The closure will be authorized for one month to determine if it’s working.
Weir said the overwhelming majority of comments received in advance of the vote were positive, noting that people like “the whole concept of dining outside with no noise.” She said the limited outdoor dining on Main Street now is “great, but we also have motorcycles rev their engines, the exhaust. People are excited . . . It will be a more peaceful atmosphere, less fumes, less noise.”
According to Weir, one major objection relates to loss of parking. But she pointed out that only 150 of over 2,000 public parking spaces in the downtown area will be lost with this plan.
“We are not losing a large percentage of the parking,” said Weir, adding that “people have been asking the downtown to consider making Main Street pedestrian [only].”
She recalled similar endeavors in other cities in the 1970s and 1980s which were unsuccessful due to the size and expense of the projects. “They were poorly designed,” she said. With this plan, Ventura gets to try it out and see how it goes, without a major investment.
A potential benefit includes encouraging alternative transportation, like biking and taking the bus. Developing sites for additional bike parking is part of the plan.
Development process streamlined
The council’s action also included plans to “streamline” the development review and approval process, something staff said is needed in light of negative impacts to businesses from closures. Some discussions took place prior to the pandemic, with the city hiring a consultant to suggest ways to improve efficiency in the process.
The main changes include allowing more projects to be approved through an administrative review, rather than review committees. The planning director can designate the “highest hearing body” that will review and ultimately authorize projects, based on the project type.
In the past, a project would move between agencies (the fire department, building safety, etc.) when it had already been approved by other departments, creating an inefficient workflow. The staff report prepared by City Manager Alex McIntyre and Estelle Bussa, economic development manager, recommends this change, claiming it will reduce staff hours spent processing project applications. The staff report cites the current “economic situation” and a need to find a “solution that can be implemented quickly . . . The City has to accelerate the progress in order to support the economic recovery from the impacts of COVID-19.”
The approved changes include a new notice requirement that properties within at least 300 feet of the project site will be notified about proposed development, and all appeals of director approvals will go directly to the city council instead of through the planning commission.
The changes will be in effect for one year.
“The temporary solution is not perfect, but provides the tools to immediately benefit applicants, staff and the public during the recovery,” states the staff report. “The intent is that lessons learned during this 1-year period will inform our future discussions for a specific set of process regulations.”
Monday’s action also directed staff to change a zoning code that will change the rules around a council member seeking a review of a project. Council authorized staff to draft the change that still allows a council member to bring a project before the entire council for review, but that council member will be precluded from voting on the matter. Greg Diaz, City Attorney said the changes will be reviewed by the planning commission and brought back to the council for a final vote in about 60 to 70 days.
The staff report and draft emergency ordinance is online at: https://www.cityofventura.ca.gov/DocumentCenter/View/21366/12B#