VAN NUYS — Dramatically reversing a decade of designs for the San Fernando Valley's main street, Los Angeles city planners will now support a proposal to slash the budget to beautify Ventura Boulevard and abolish the unpopular "trip fee" on boulevard property owners.
Under the proposal accepted by the planners--which must be approved by the city Planning Commission and the City Council--the budget for the Ventura Boulevard Specific Plan would be cut in half. The trip fees--based on the number of rush-hour car trips that city planners estimate each business generates--would be replaced by much lower fees based on a property's square footage.
"It's a massive reworking" of the plan, said city planner Tom Rath.
Boulevard property owners have complained for years about having to pay the high trip fees. A city-appointed panel also has criticized the 20-year master plan, saying the trip fees are excessive, unfair to new property owners and discourage development on the boulevard.
If the change is adopted, property owners who have paid trip fees since 1985 will receive refunds for any amount they paid above what they would have owed under the new system, but will not receive interest on the money.
Although the planning staff has not released a new budget, Rath said it is proposing that it be cut to about half its current $222 million over 20 years.
The plan provides for boulevard improvements, including street widening, landscaping, parking structures and shuttle buses.
The Planning Commission is scheduled to consider the staff recommendations, contained in a proposed plan amendment, at its meeting Dec. 8. If approved, the proposal will then be sent to the City Council, which probably will consider it within 90 days of the commission's decision, according to Rath.
Jeff Brain, chairman of the Ventura Boulevard Specific Plan Review Board and an announced candidate for the City Council seat being vacated by Zev Yaroslavsky, characterized the staff's decision to recommend the changes as a major victory for his panel. Brain said the board submitted letters from every chamber of commerce and almost every homeowners group along the boulevard from Woodland Hills to Studio City, demanding that the plan be scaled back and the trip fees abolished.
"It's very significant," Brain said. The Planning Department "coming out with this report now vindicates the direction that we've been heading toward (on the review board) for the last two years." The review board is made up of 20 business and community leaders.
Rath agreed, saluting the panel's contributions.
"The (review board) is really the source of these major changes," he said. "They initiated virtually everything that we're looking at. . . . I don't think I have ever seen any board that has done more work than this group of people. They are exceptional."
Rath said that in addition to listening to the opinions of the review board, planners also took into account that the city had faced a legal challenge to the Specific Plan and that the city Department of Transportation favored changing the way the fees were calculated.
According to Brain, if the new fee system is adopted, new property owners would pay about half of what they do now. The fees have been collected since 1985 from developers of new commercial projects on the boulevard, but not from the owners of existing buildings.
For example, under the current plan, a landowner who built a 1,000-square-foot office building in Encino would be required to pay $14,100 in one-time fees. But under the new system, the owner would pay only $7,360.
The fees would be reduced even more if property owners agree to create a business improvement district, which would fund some of the plan's envisioned improvements. Such a district would spread costs to all property owners in the district--not only new developers--and over several years, not in a lump sum.
Brain said that his only disappointment with the proposed changes is that they do not discourage street widening, as the review board wanted. The board wants the boulevard to have a pedestrian-friendly character, which would mean building more sidewalks and maintaining current street widths, he said.