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Math Error Inflated Ventura Blvd. Cost : Traffic: Mistake made in 1991 added $74 million to widening and beautifying the street. But another goof cut the expense a bit.

November 18, 1994|KAY HWANGBO | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Developers and some community leaders say they've known for years that a city master plan for the San Fernando Valley's "Main Street" was out of whack. The city, they claim, was charging developers exorbitant fees to fund a 20-year plan for improvements to Ventura Boulevard that seemed doomed from the start because of its shaky funding structure.

Now, the city has admitted for the first time that the critics were at least partially right.

City Department of Transportation officials acknowledge they are responsible for an arithmetic error that inflated the cost of the Ventura Boulevard Specific Plan by one-third. The mistake added $74 million to the budget for beautifying the boulevard, driving the total up to $222 million, they concede.

That's one of the reasons city planners are now trying to replace that 1991 plan with another, which would cost only about $76 million if it is approved by the City Council.

The 1991 plan was to be funded in large part by controversial "trip fees" imposed on a one-time basis on developers, based on the number of auto trips a new development was expected to generate. The newly proposed plan would be funded instead by project impact assessments, much lower fees based upon a development's square footage.

The new $76-million proposal takes into account another error made by the city, when it failed to include $8.8 million in the budget for the cost of moving public utilities such as telephone poles and fire hydrants to make room for intersection widening.

According to Allyn Rifkin, chief transportation planner for the Department of Transportation, the city discovered the smaller error while investigating budgetary problems raised by community activist Jeff Brain, who discovered the larger error.

Rifkin said that in a sense, the two plans are similar because both are founded on the principle of developers' paying fees to reduce traffic problems that their projects create.

"On the other hand," he said, "the reduced (project impact assessment) fee and easier payment procedure, we hope, will be an incentive to bring some development to the boulevard."

Community leaders expressed mixed reaction to the news.

Longtime critics of the plan predicted that, even with the more-realistic price tag, the proposed plan's funding mechanisms would not generate enough money to pay for the envisioned improvements; that is, street-widening, landscaping and more parking.

Other community leaders said the correction would make the plan work better and the discovery of the error did not detract from the plan's main concept--to assess developer fees as a way to manage growth and make infrastructure improvements.

"It's good that they corrected the math error, but there are still problems that need to be addressed," said Brain, chairman of the plan's citizens review committee and an announced candidate for the City Council seat being vacated by Zev Yaroslavsky.

He said the (Project Impact Assessment) fee revenue "is still overestimated, private business and commercial property owners are having to pay for a disproportionately high share of the improvements, and when they started cutting from the budget, they took from areas such as parking and community shuttles, which are very important improvements."

"The plan is still fatally flawed," said Fred Gaines, a Sherman Oaks attorney who has successfully represented several developers who appealed their trip fees. "Even with this reduction in the overall budget, the fees are still excessive when you look at the market on the boulevard. It still creates a tremendous disincentive for people to put in development along Ventura Boulevard."

But other community activists said that the correction would make a good plan better.

"The finding of this error is positive in that it allows for a budget based on reality," said Tony Lucente, a member of the citizens committee and president of the Studio City Residents Assn. "What we went through is just a review and correction process."

Gerald A. Silver, a member of another citizens committee that advised the city as it drew up the plan in the 1980s, suggested that the city try to get its money back from the consulting firm that developed the original plan.

"If they made a gross mistake of that magnitude, that smacks of gross incompetency," he said.

Brain said he discovered the mistake about 18 months ago as he was studying the details of the plan's budget. The community leader said he raised the issue with Transportation Department officials, who at first refused to acknowledge that they had made a mistake.

According to Rifkin, the mistake was made when the consulting firm that worked on the plan, Barton-Aschman Associates of Pasadena, double-counted the amount of land that would have to be bought and improved for intersection widening.

Brain explained the error this way: If the city decided to widen each side of a road by 10 feet over a stretch 370 feet long, engineers could calculate the land needed by multiplying 10 times 370 and doubling the result. Or, they could arrive at the same result by multiplying 20 by 370.

Instead, the consulting firm made a mistake that was the equivalent of multiplying 20 by 740, doubling both figures before multiplying them.

Rifkin confirmed that this is the essence of what happened.

"The consultant did it, but I would have to take responsibility for not having caught that," Rifkin said, adding that he has not decided what action to take against the consultant, if any.

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