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The Region

Oxnard Mini-City Project on the Fast Track

Development: Seen as key to improving the city's image, RiverPark has raced through the approval process.

April 21, 2002|DARYL KELLEY | TIMES STAFF WRITER

The $750-million RiverPark mini-city, the largest mixed-use project in Ventura County history, appears headed for approval in a fast-track process scarcely two years after it was first proposed.

Backed by Oxnard officials who see it as a key step to improving the city's image, the 700-acre home-and-business development is set for consideration by the Planning Commission on May 2, and the City Council shortly after that.

"They have the opportunity to create a showcase project for Ventura County," City Atty. Gary Gillig said. "And at this point there are no legal obstacles I anticipate or know of to stop it."

At the junction of the Ventura Freeway and Pacific Coast Highway, the RiverPark site is among the most prized undeveloped locations in the county. And Oxnard officials say construction would represent a victory for a city that regularly underwrites development to lure new businesses.

RiverPark--backed by a $12-billion pension investment fund, a noted Los Angeles builder and the county's top real estate deal-maker--is extraordinary both for its ambition and its ability to deflect criticism.

The plan includes about 2,800 dwellings centered on village greens, a vintage Town Square fashioned after the city of Sonoma's, a movie theater and restaurants, a first-class hotel and convention center, three schools, sports fields and a food-and-wine exposition.

"Oxnard will go from being the old strawberry capital of the world to the next CityWalk," said Community Development Director Curtis Cannon, referring to the popular Universal City pedestrian mall.

Commercial space would total 2.5 million square feet in 30 buildings. By comparison, The Oaks mall in Thousand Oaks and the Pacific View mall in Ventura each contain about 1 million square feet. The controversial Ahmanson Ranch project near Calabasas has nearly the same number of homes but only about one-sixth RiverPark's office and retail space.

Developers hope to break ground by late summer and open the first of five phases for occupancy by early 2004, after construction of a new freeway interchange and the widening of the adjacent Santa Clara River Bridge--a $100-million project set to begin next month.

"It's nice to be able to point to RiverPark as a sophisticated development up to the level that good companies want and are accustomed to seeing," said Steve Kinney, chief of the city-backed Oxnard Community Development Corp. "That quality of land development doesn't exist now in Oxnard."

Project Wins Praise From Many Sides

Despite its enormous size and a host of potential problems, RiverPark has received praise not only from Oxnard City Hall but from water quality, environmental and affordable housing advocates, and from school officials and the city and county of Ventura.

All initially voiced concerns, but are now at least neutral, if not entirely satisfied, because of changes by developers to answer their complaints. The entire project is within Oxnard's growth boundaries.

"The perspective here, from top to bottom, is that there aren't any major obstacles," said Paul Calderwood, the planner leading Ventura's analysis of RiverPark. "We're having productive, problem-solving types of discussions."

Ventura's position is significant, because Oxnard and Ventura traded lawsuits for a decade over construction of rival shopping malls before signing a peace treaty. Ventura also had blocked for years an even larger commercial project on part of the RiverPark site because of traffic concerns.

RiverPark's greatest potential flaw, in fact, are the nearly 79,000 vehicles that would flow from it each day onto local streets and the Ventura Freeway. That includes about 10,000 during the evening rush hour.

The Ventura Freeway is already so clogged during peak hours and on weekends that cars back up for miles waiting to cross the Santa Clara River Bridge that connects Oxnard and Ventura.

But under a 1998 agreement settling Ventura's lawsuit, Oxnard won't allow RiverPark to be occupied until the bridge's two-lane bottleneck to northbound cars is expanded to four lanes. That is tentatively set for mid-2003. By 2006, the bridge is set to be widened to 12 lanes.

"Traffic, obviously, is a big issue," Ventura Councilman Sandy Smith said. "But we haven't reached anything in the process where we've started preparing for war."

Perhaps RiverPark's most costly and unusual accommodation is a tentative agreement to build three schools at an estimated cost of $47 million.

Educators were concerned the project's 1,900 school-age children would jam already-crowded campuses in nearby neighborhoods. But RiverPark agreed not only to donate 37 acres for the three schools--the usual developer contribution--but to build and equip those schools, with no guarantee of repayment.

The first elementary school would open as part of the first phase of 500 homes in 2004, the junior high in 2005 and the second elementary school in 2006, school officials said.

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