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The Valley

A Battle for the Heart, Soul and Design of City Hall

Planning: Five years ago, Calabasas decided to build a new civic center. But officials haven't stopped fussing over what it should look like.


It was billed as a consensus-building workshop, and the questions on the table were: Should the future Calabasas Civic Center be raised up, set back from the street, have a distinctive tower or what?

City Council members and planning commissioners seemed to answer: Raise it up, but not too high, set it back, but not too far, and, by all means, include a tower or some other strong vertical element.

Wednesday night's workshop lasted more than three hours, but progress was made. It has been five years since the wealthy young city in the west San Fernando Valley agreed to build a new city hall, library and performing arts center next to The Commons at Calabasas shopping center.

But city officials have yet to approve a design for the $25-million complex. Meanwhile, the adjacent community of Agoura Hills has already moved into its new center, and the city of Westlake Village expects to occupy its new complex early next year.

What Calabasas has so far is a "massing study," done by the architectural firm Gonzalez / Goodale of Pasadena. That plan shows how the new center might relate to nearby streets, The Commons and the modest mountain on the edge of the site. The study, approved by the Civic Center Advisory Committee and Planning Commission, has yet to be endorsed by the council.

San Francisco-based urban planner Michael Freedman, hired to facilitate the Calabasas planning process, explained to the council and commissioners that the previously approved guidelines for the project sometimes contradicted themselves. "We have to get clear on council intent" before progress can be made, he said.

The original proposal by Gonzalez / Goodale showed the complex set back more than 100 feet from Park Sorrento, the adjacent street, and raised up on a plinth 21 feet or 42 steps above the level of The Commons. Some proposed structures were several stories high but had no tower.

Council members and commissioners took turns expressing their likes and dislikes.

Commissioner Lee Van Houten wanted the Calabasas center to come down from its plinth and move closer to the street. Councilman Michael Harrison argued for a distinctive vertical element that would say Calabasas to passersby.

"I'm still looking for that Pumpkin Dome or something like that," said Harrison, making a jocular reference to the city's name, derived from the Spanish word for pumpkin.

Planning Commission Chairman David Brown doesn't want the center too close to the street. That would make it too urban, he argued, and not appropriate for a suburban city such as Calabasas.

"We're not a city in the sense of Los Angeles," he said. The new center should say, in effect: "You're leaving L.A. This is Calabasas."

Mayor Janice Lee didn't want the tower concept taken too far. "Vertical element, yes, but I don't think we need something that's a beacon to ships at sea," she said.

Commissioner James Leewong told Freedman that he didn't envy the facilitator's job. "Everyone has great ideas, and they don't want to let go of them," Leewong said. He urged the architects: "Don't design by committee, because it doesn't work."

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