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Oxnard Is Riding a Job-Fueled Building Boom

Growth: Years of commercial and industrial buildup spurs demand for housing, especially in city's northeast quadrant.

March 11, 2001|MARGARET TALEV | TIMES STAFF WRITER

OXNARD — Although Ventura County remains in the grip of a housing shortage, its largest city is experiencing its biggest construction boom in a decade.

And Oxnard is certain to remain a prime area of development for years to come in a county increasingly constrained by strict growth laws and rising land costs, experts say.

More than 2,500 new housing units are either being built or have been approved, with another 3,900 in the permitting process. They range from affordable to luxury housing, attracting a diverse mix of renters and buyers from lower wage service employees to corporate executives.

The residential boom has been fueled in large part by years of heavy commercial and industrial development, the result of a red-hot economy that only recently has begun to cool.

Oxnard also has benefited from a growing technology corridor along the Ventura Freeway. New or expanding businesses drove vacancy rates down and rents so far up in white-collar communities such as Thousand Oaks and Santa Barbara that many companies began relocating to Oxnard, about halfway between the two cities.

"You've got a relatively pro-business climate in Oxnard that was gladly accepting some of the outfall from those areas," said Mark Schniepp, director of the California Economic Forecast Project. "You've created lots of jobs. The residential communities have followed in the wake of the industrial buildup."

As long as the economy remains stable, the building boom is expected to continue.

"Recessions always kill building booms," said Bill Watkins, executive director of the UCSB Economic Forecast Project. "The housing industry is always one of the first things hit. But that's a very low probability."

He estimates the county's economy should grow 4.5% this year and at a slightly stronger pace through 2005.

Oxnard has enough industrial and commercial construction pending to surpass the new square footage being projected by any other city in the county. Much of that would be 2.5 million square feet of commercial space concentrated at the proposed RiverPark mini-city at the junction of Pacific Coast Highway and the Ventura Freeway.

If approved, RiverPark also would include as many as 3,000 new homes, village greens, a town square, movie theater, restaurants, hotel, a food and wine exposition as well as a school and sports fields.

Meanwhile, new homes are being approved, framed and snapped up every day in more modest developments in the city's northeast area.

Since the county began to emerge from recession in 1995, most new home construction has been concentrated in Simi Valley and Thousand Oaks in the east county. In the west county, Camarillo also has had a robust market in recent years.

But Oxnard last year surpassed plans in each of those cities, issuing permits for 1,032 new housing units.

"We have robust development activity going on, and a few areas left that are fairly significant," Simi Valley Planner Jim Lightfoot said. "But we are going to run out of area to be developed."

Most of Growth in Northeast Sector

Most of Oxnard's growth is occurring in the city's northeast quadrant, the area around St. John's Regional Medical Center. The neighborhood, undeveloped until the early 1990s, is teeming today with construction crews and home buyers.

Oxnard officials say the area is designed to be more diverse than more established neighborhoods labeled as working class, golf course or luxury beach properties, or as predominately Latino or white enclaves.

The new neighborhood draws on employees from the nearby medical center and Seminis Inc., the world's largest producer of fruit and vegetable seeds. It also draws on technology employees who work on the east side of the county or to the west in southern Santa Barbara County. "It's going to be probably the best integrated neighborhood from a socioeconomic standpoint in the whole city," said Matthew Winegar, Oxnard's development services director.

"I think you're going to see a very broad range of family types. You're going to find people with graduate degrees and GEDs [high school equivalency certificates] all living in the same neighborhood, machinists and physicians."

Bill Fulton, an expert on regional planning and development, said a glance at the mix of projects being built suggests there is truth to the city's spin.

"There's more of a market for a range of housing than most of the cities in this county are willing to entertain," he said. "Oxnard is willing to entertain it."

Over the past two decades, Fulton said, Oxnard tried to build elite communities to recast its image from that of a largely minority, blue-collar city to that of a more insulated enclave, such as Ventura to its west or Camarillo to its east.

"They're not going to overcome their image that way," Fulton said. "No town ever builds itself out of a reputation as a poor town. They're only going to overcome their image by embracing their history and capturing the market inside their boundaries. I think they've begun to figure this out."

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