Ventura is at a crossroads. We are still recovering from the Thomas Fire, and the pandemic is going to get worse before it gets better. We don’t know how long the recession will last, or whether the economy will bounce back or creep up slowly to 2019 levels.
The next few years are going to be grueling for Council. They’ll make difficult, unpopular decisions. They’ll need to spend days preparing for every meeting, so they can choose between two bad options, or so they can persuade their colleagues to act in the city’s long-term interests, rather than chase a temporary, easy fix that leaves a bigger mess for future Councils.
At City Hall, things are precarious.
Mark Watkins retired as City Manager in 2017, after four years. Assistant City Manager Dan Paranick served as interim CM for about seven months before taking a job in another city. Alex McIntyre came to us from Menlo Park. He’s been in the job for a year and a half, which means he’s had time to get a handle on how this city works, and how this city doesn’t work. But for many residents — some of whom have been active in local issues for decades — he’s still the new kid, an unknown quantity. He’s more engaged with residents than Mark Watkins, but more of a cipher than Rick Cole.
There’s been an exodus from City Hall as department heads and senior staff have left for greener pastures. Mr. McIntyre’s first year was daunting, as he had to assemble a new leadership team. In Community Development, it wasn’t just the Director who left. The Chief Building Official left, and the Planning Director, and several senior members of the Planning staff. Institutional memory is practically non-existent.
Even before the pandemic and recession, there was a payment to the state’s Public Employee Retirement System blowing a $4 million hole in the 2020/2021 budget. And now, the recession means the city needs to cut even deeper. We face an $11 million shortfall. There will be early retirements and furloughs and a hiring freeze. Employees will forgo pay raises or cost of living adjustments, and they’ll have to contribute more to their benefits. Morale is going to suffer, and departments will find themselves having to compete for resources.
All of this is happening as we begin the expensive, long-overdue overhaul of our broken development review process, a mess which has stymied development for years. Even while the national economy boomed, Ventura’s stagnated. The lack of new housing has driven up the cost of living, making it hard for employers to recruit and retain employees. Moreover, businesses have trouble building, relocating, improving, or expanding in Ventura. Commercial property owners let their property fall into disrepair, rather than spend years, and tens of thousands of dollars, fighting to get permission to improve their parking lot or their facade.
We are finally beginning the process of adopting a new General Plan. The current plan, adopted in 2005, is our guiding document, but everybody has been complaining about it for ten years. Writing a new General Plan is a monumental effort, and will cost hundreds of thousands of dollars and take several years of public meetings.
We have to submit a Housing Element to the state before the General Plan is adopted, which is backwards. We should have adopted a new General Plan, and then created a new Housing Element based on the General Plan, but there’s a deadline for the Housing Element that we must meet. And we’re doing it at a time when California is stripping local governments of control over housing projects. The city will have to approve and accommodate denser housing. That’s not just a state mandate. We must address the housing crisis.
Our current Economic Development Strategy is outdated and ignored. We began creating a new Economic Development Strategy a couple years ago, but when Alex McIntyre took over as City Manager, he was quick to direct staff to start over, to go back to Square One. Eighteen months later, we are still working on it. We need a new strategy more than ever.
We’re still in a drought, still in Stage 2 of a Water Shortage with mandatory conservation, and we’re about to spend hundreds of millions of dollars building Ventura WaterPure, a massive project that has seen its price tag double, and double again, years before we’ve even broken ground. Ratepayers are going to see their bills increase substantially next June, and they are going to be upset.
District 3 — the College Area — needs a strong advocate.
As the city adopts a new General Plan, a new Housing Element, a new Mobility Plan, and a new Economic Development Strategy, the residents of District 3 expect and deserve that the College Area’s needs and opportunities are given the same weight as other neighborhoods. That requires a Councilmember who has spent years involved in the process, a Councilmember who has been a tireless advocate for the College Area.
The upcoming Housing Element will be crucial in determining how the College Area is developed. Development is going to happen; we must protect our right to have some say in what it looks like. The state is moving aggressively toward allowing housing developments to be built By Right, meaning if a proposal meets the city’s official land use planning, the developers have the automatic right to build. Some proposals in Sacramento would go further, and override local restrictions regarding issues like building height. I expect that whatever we submit to the state in our Housing Element Land Inventory (HELI) will take precedence over any General Plan or Land Use Designations.
This is a big deal, because the HELI generally receives almost no public scrutiny, and our current HELI is bad. It’s not obvious to a casual glance, but once you cross-reference it to parcel maps, it’s bad. It may not ring any alarm bells to see 0.2 acres at 3553 Telegraph Road labeled as underutilized, identified as a location where six affordable units could be built.
But 3553 Telegraph Road is also known as the Kentucky Fried Chicken parking lot.
Imagine, now, if the state allows a developer to build six units of affordable housing in the Kentucky Fried Chicken parking lot, build them By Right, so the DRC couldn’t stop them, or the Planning Commission. Even the Council couldn’t stop it — but they can stop a sloppy, unbalanced, or fantastical HELI from being submitted to the California Department of Housing and Community Development next year.
As we write a new General Plan, new state legislation limits the city’s ability to change zoning to reduce density. If the new General Plan reduces the density of housing in one neighborhood, it will have to increase the density in another. I suspect staff will propose increasing building height and density along the Telegraph Corridor in the new General Plan by rewriting the definition of the C-1 Limited Commercial Zone to allow 4, 5, or 6-story apartments. 48 of the city’s 71 C-1 parcels are in District 3. Any change to C-1 would have a profound and disproportionate effect on the College Area.
The General Plan will include some sort of Transportation Plan; it should be an Active Mobility Plan, one which plans not just for cars and public transit, but also school buses, bicycles, pedestrians, paratransit, electric bikes and scooters (both personal and shared), shared ride services such as Uber and Lyft, and even autonomous vehicles. The College Area has unique needs and challenges that must be addressed in the new Mobility Plan. Not only do we have 15,000 residents, we have a college, four high schools, two middle schools, three elementary schools, and a shopping mall, each of which concentrates traffic not only at certain points on the map, but at certain times of day. An Active Mobility Plan should specifically address transportation to and from these hot spots — and it should be created with input from the school district and Macerich, the mall’s owner.
Meanwhile, for thousands of Venturans, the College Area is little more than a corridor, a way to get from one end of town to the other. They’re not stopping at Cask Alehouse or La Parilla. They’re not even slowing down. I’ve spent hundreds of hours visiting Community Councils across Ventura, and while traffic is a common complaint, it’s only at the College Area Community Council that the most common complaint isn’t how slow traffic is, but how fast. The Active Mobility Plan must ensure safety, and in the College Area that means reducing speeding and cut-through traffic.
For years, the College Area’s economic needs have been neglected. The city has shifted its economic focus from Downtown to the Westside to Midtown to Mills Road to Victoria Avenue to Wells Road to the Auto Center and back to Midtown. Meanwhile, the Telegraph Corridor is slowly aging. We have purpose-built architecture that no longer serves its original purpose, including two old gas stations. The Rincon Brewery was a marvelous feat of turning an awkward dilapidated building into a community jewel — and it happened only because residents advocated for the project, not against it. Likewise, the old Fresh N Easy would probably still be empty if residents, area employees, and college administrators hadn’t shown up in force to beg the city to allow a Starbucks.
The biggest threat to the College Area’s economic development is the build-out of new commercial space elsewhere in the city. Over the past fifty years, Ventura has repeatedly built new commercial, retail, and medical buildings, not to attract new businesses, but to move existing, successful businesses from one location to newer, pricer digs. The buildings that are left behind decrease in value, and often fall into disrepair. We must prioritize the redevelopment of existing properties, and we must attract the necessary capital by allowing owners and investors to meet existing and projected demands, whether it’s for office space, retail, medical use, or even housing.
I am ready, willing, and able to take this on.
I’ve been engaged in community issues since December of 2007, when the recession led to cuts in public safety, when my quiet little Campus View neighborhood was rocked by a series of felonies in one week. I’ve knocked on the doors of my neighbors to talk about crime, and I’ve organized meetings between the public and the police and councilmembers. I’ve worked with the PD’s Traffic Division and the city’s Transportation Division and the school district’s Risk Management Attorney and school administrators and parents to make Victoria Avenue a little safer for Poinsettia students.
I’ve been to countless meetings of the City Council, the Planning Commission, the DRC, the Water Commission, the Economic Development Subcommittee, the Finance-Audit-Budget Subcommittee, the Subcommittee on Homelessness and Affordable Housing, and the Measure O Citizens Oversight Committee. I’ve spent dozens of hours watching Council wrestle with budgets or long term goals.
I’ve been at nearly every meeting of the College Area Community Council for ten years; I served as chair. I’ve been to meetings of all the other Community Council; I don’t go there to speak. I go to listen.
So I’ve worked on transportation issues, and the Economic Development Strategy. I’ve spent hours with staff going over the HELI, the urban forestry budget, the long-lost Neighborhood Traffic Management Program, utility box murals, the traffic signal at Day & Telegraph, the Channelkeeper lawsuit, double-yellow striping in residential neighborhoods, the feasibility of microtrenching fiber optic cables for broadband. I was there when the General Plan Refinement didn’t pass, and when the Optional Residential Mixed-Use Overlay Plan didn’t pass. I’ve been there alongside members of other Community Councils working on priorities for the next General Plan. I’ve been reporting on water issues since before the drought. I’ve been following the budget since the money was coming in faster than the city could spend it. I was there for hearings on the Drive-Thru Starbucks, and Rincon Brewery, and The Tides Apartments. I’ve explained to Councilmembers what the Measure O Committee was trying to do, and I’ve explained to Measure O Committee Members what the Council was trying to do.
After spending ten years on College Area issues, I know how important it is that we elect a strong representative to Council. I’m running because I’ll be ready to lead on Day One. I would be grateful for your support.