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Thousand Oaks Offers a Deal for Developing Site : Growth: Council willing to ease design standards. It seeks $12 million for former City Hall to fund the new arts plaza.


The Thousand Oaks City Council, in need of $12 million to help fund the Civic Arts Plaza, has agreed to relax design standards on a key piece of city-owned property in order to woo wealthy developers.

Developers eyeing the "For Sale" sign on the former City Hall at 401 Hillcrest Drive will now be able to count on a grab bag of incentives allowing them to build residential, commercial or corporate structures on the steeply sloped parcel.

Buildings on the site can exceed the city's height limit of 35 feet, cut into the angled hillside, and bump out some of the lot's wizened oak trees. Developers also will be allowed to construct a parking garage and tear down the existing buildings, which were gutted several years ago to remove asbestos.

The City Council approved the guidelines in concept Tuesday night and directed staff to draft documents detailing a development plan for the 30-acre lot.

"You give a little to get a little," said David Carpenter, a member of the citizens committee that came up with the guidelines and presented them to the council. "If you relax the development standards . . . someone might come up with a fantastic plan that would blow our socks off."

The council is counting on $12 million from the sale of the property to finish paying construction bills on the Civic Arts Plaza, which is due to open for government business in September.

Recognizing that the economic downturn has rendered that asking price unrealistic, the council on Tuesday agreed to hold on to the property for up to a decade, until the real estate market rebounds. In the interim, the City Council will try to lease the site to generate some quick cash.

"We can have a balance: a great project and some revenue for the city," Councilman Frank Schillo said.

While the council waits for deep-pocketed buyers, Finance Director Robert Biery is studying the city's options for financing the last eight or nine months of construction at the Civic Arts Plaza. The council will vote soon on whether to take out loans, issue bonds or shift funds from other municipal accounts.

This week, however, the discussion focused on the best use of the Hillcrest Drive property, widely considered one of the most sensitive and visible ridges in Thousand Oaks.

The City Council agreed to focus its search on developers interested in building corporate headquarters, educational facilities, a restaurant, condominiums, an art gallery, a sports complex, a hotel and conference center, a museum or a cinema.

"Given the right flexibility (in development standards), we might be able to coax someone out of the woodwork," Carpenter said. "If someone can bring us an imaginative plan for this site, they deserve to get cut some slack."

The council voted 3 to 2 to accept the citizens committee guidelines for relaxed standards on the parcel. Mayor Elois Zeanah and Councilwoman Jaime Zukowski dissented, arguing that developers should not be permitted to breach city norms on such a prominent site.

On the same divided vote, the council agreed to study the possibility of purchasing Fireworks Hill, the 27-acre parcel adjacent to the former City Hall. Named after the annual Fourth of July celebrations there, Fireworks Hill is now zoned for commercial use.

Every council member has expressed a desire to preserve Fireworks Hill as open space, but Zeanah said she preferred to change the zoning to "protected ridgeline" rather than purchase the property outright.

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