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Ventura Polishes 'Diamond in the Rough' : Influx of artists, young couples to The Avenue has put colorful district at a crossroads.

June 18, 1989|JESSE KATZ | Times Staff Writer

In the sunny seaside city of Ventura, known for its uncrowded beaches and pricey homes, only "The Avenue" fails to fit the mold.

This 20-block-long neighborhood, which flanks Ventura Avenue along the town's west side, has long housed a gritty stretch of oil-industry machine shops, low-rent bungalows and seedy taverns.

It is home to Ventura's only tattoo parlor, its only legal poker club and its only bar featuring bikini dancers. The Hells Angels keep their clubhouse nearby. Local gangs, such as Da Boys, paint the streets with graffiti. And homeless are drawn there to the only shelter providing showers for the poor.

But now, the rest of Ventura--a predominantly conservative, white, middle-class city of 90,000, about an hour northwest of Los Angeles--is beginning to see The Avenue as a diamond in the rough.

Young couples who had long avoided the area are buying homes there in the $160,000 to $170,000 range--a good $20,000 to $50,000 less than comparable dwellings in the town's more suburban-flavored east end.

Funky Charm

Artists, many of them attracted by The Avenue's funky charm, have begun to rent the vacant storefronts and old stucco bungalows to use as studio space.

Most imposing is the plan by the California State University to build a two-year extension campus for 2,000 to 3,000 students on a scenic bluff overlooking the neighborhood. City officials hope that the facility, which could be open by 1994, will bring new-found prestige and investment.

"The Avenue, for a long time, has been ignored," said Nicholas Deitch, a Ventura architect who lives on The Avenue. "Now that people are starting to pay attention, it's definitely at a crossroads."

For the poor and working-class families who have long made The Avenue their home, that juncture could signal a turn for the worse.

Rents Among the Lowest

While rents remain among the city's lowest, they're no bargain at about $500 a month. And the rapid increase in the resale value of homes, which shot up 28.4% in Ventura County last year, threatens what little refuge remains.

"There's just nowhere else for the poor to go," said Pat Driskell, executive director of Project Understanding, a nonprofit group that has purchased an old apartment building on The Avenue and plans to convert it into a shelter for homeless families.

Others, who see The Avenue as the only haven for diversity in an otherwise homogeneous town, also bemoan the changes. To them, the neighborhood is the last repository of homespun color, a community whose soul would be erased by a face lift.

"My concern is that it will lose its character and become white-bread, middle-class Americana," said Richard Peterson, director of the Ventura College art gallery, who in April launched a drive to sanction part of the neighborhood as a historical district.

But to others, who have seen The Avenue as an unprofitable eyesore ever since production in the surrounding oil fields began its steady decline 25 years ago, the renewed interest is a welcome sign.

Many residents, in fact, have rallied against Project Understanding's proposed shelter as an unsavory and inappropriate addition to a neighborhood on the verge of respectability.

They prefer such recent developments as the Mission Plaza, a 102,000-square-foot shopping center built at The Avenue's southern tip in 1984 with the help of the city's Redevelopment Agency. Or the 101 pink Mediterranean-style homes in the Brock Hills Paseo Del Mar tract that sold quickly last year for about $200,000 each at The Avenue's north end.

Most of all, investors are banking on the 465-acre Cal State campus, which college officials say might someday be expanded into a four-year university for several thousand more students. Although the owners of the property, known as Taylor Ranch, just north of U.S. 101 and west of California 33, have declined to sell, the Cal State Board of Trustees on May 17 voted to acquire the land, even if that entails obtaining it through eminent domain.

"It's the only area left where you can still afford to buy something and turn it into a lucrative profit," said Gary Waltz, a Ventura realtor who works with small developers and investors. "But like in the rest of Ventura, that will eventually disappear too."

A stroll down Ventura Avenue serves as a reminder that much of the rough-hewn neighborhood has yet to be touched by upscale investment. In fact, a portion of The Avenue has the lowest median household income, estimated at $14,310 last year, of any census tract in Ventura County, where the median was $36,648.

In Business 45 Years

Avenue Hardware, owned by the same family for 45 years, is still selling such necessities as small-game traps, cast-iron frying pans, old-time washboards and gold-panning sluices. Salty bars with names like The Derrick Room and The Rock House are still in business. And the old B-Z Market still allows customers to pay their phone and utility bills at the checkout stand.

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