Old World charm beat out upscale progress this week when the Ventura City Council blocked a luxury condominium project that would have dwarfed a quaint European bed-and-breakfast inn next door.
Darrik Marten Development, which proposed the Island View Townhouse Project, a three-story complex of three swank condominiums on Poli Street, said it would have helped revitalize the lagging downtown area.
But Gisela Flender Baida, the German-born owner of La Mer Bed & Breakfast, complained that the project would have robbed her two-story inn of its ocean view and quiet, homey ambiance.
What might otherwise have been just another routine zoning dispute thus erupted into a symbolic battle.
Even though the size of the condominiums did not exceed city zoning standards, the council unanimously rejected them as too tall and too bulky to stand next to the 99-year-old Victorian structure that has housed La Mer since 1985.
"I know it's subjective, and I really don't like to do something like that," Councilman Don Villeneuve said. "But we have to realize that we have distinct neighborhoods where the architectural flavor, the scale, the era represented and the historical continuity are all important.
"I hope we sent out a message to developers telling them they have to abide by architectural guidelines that go beyond just dimensions."
Michael E. Wooten, president of the development company, which won unanimous approval for the 6,000-square-foot project from the Planning Commission in December, said the message came a little late in the game.
"If a zoning ordinance establishes rules for a zone and a landowner goes in and presents a project consistent with that zone, it seems reasonable for the landowner to expect to have the project approved," Wooten said. "For the city to reverse that normal process is not in keeping with good planning practice or in good faith with landowners."
For Baida, however, the council decision represented a victory that she said meant the difference between economic life and death.
Her five-room inn, which was termed one of 15 top romantic getaways for lovers in the Los Angeles Times Travel section Sunday, depends on such intangibles as charm, airiness and good cheer for its success, she said.
Donning an innkeeper's apron, Baida told the council: "If this happens and my little Victorian landmark gets squished, . . . I might as well commit suicide."
During the 2 1/2-hour public hearing, numerous neighbors and downtown merchants sympathized, but many others didn't.
"That parcel is not likely to remain a eucalyptus grove into perpetuity," said Larry Matheney, a Ventura Port commissioner, referring to the steep hillside lot where the condominiums were planned. "Change is going to occur."
But Bobbye Ming, an uphill neighbor, said change should not come at the expense of longtime residents.
"Are you going to allow the developers to come in here and steal the view from those of us who didn't have to steal it from anyone?" she asked the council.
Ironically, the dispute mirrored a battle that neighbors fought against La Mer before its opening in 1985, when they complained that the inn would generate traffic problems and threaten the residential flavor of the neighborhood.