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Ventura Rejects Proposal for Lowe's Store

Council members say they didn't object to the home-improvement giant but to a drugstore that was expected to be one of the site's tenants.

November 20, 2002|Steve Chawkins | Times Staff Writer

The Ventura City Council has unanimously turned down a deal that would have boosted city revenue by bringing a Lowe's home-improvement store to a site now occupied by an empty Montgomery Ward building.

Council members took pains to point out that their unexpected rejection Monday night did not signal any less interest in securing the home-improvement giant. They objected, however, to the project's developer tentatively lining up a Sav-On drugstore instead of a more upscale retailer as one of the midtown site's three tenants.

"People are panting in this town for Lowe's to get off the ground," Councilman Sandy Smith said. "To think we can't get a better tenant [than a drugstore] at that site doesn't make any sense. We feel like we're taking a big step backward."

The drugstore chain most likely would move to the site from another Ventura location, city officials said. Such a move would create no new sales tax income for the city and leave a vacancy in a shopping center elsewhere.

The council's opposition surprised Thomas Malayil, a real estate executive for the Macerich development firm. Malayil said months of discussions with city staff members led him to believe that Monday's meeting would be "a formality."

"Maybe we've been misguided," he said.

At issue was a proposal from city staff members that the council agree to a request from Macerich and sign away its option to buy the 13 1/2-acre Ward's site across Mills Road from the Pacific View mall. By abandoning its right to buy the property from Macerich, the city would open the door for the purchase of 11 acres by Lowe's.

But the sticking point Monday night involved the remaining 2 1/2 acres, which would still be owned by Macerich and very likely be leased to a bank and a drugstore. City officials had hoped for a high-end home furnishings store such as Pottery Barn or Crate & Barrel. But Malayil said such stores see no advantage in a Ventura site.

"Crate & Barrel isn't even at The Oaks," said Malayil, whose firm owns both The Oaks shopping center in Thousand Oaks and Ventura's Pacific View mall. "We'll be able to bring these better uses to Ventura in time, but they feel the demographics aren't here yet."

That explanation did not satisfy council members, nor did the company's claim that the Lowe's deal would collapse unless the city acted immediately. "Those are negotiating tactics," Councilman Jim Friedman said.

By turning down Macerich, the city may be forced by its contract with the company to either buy the property or sell its option within six months. That prospect did not worry Mayor Ray Di Guilio, who passionately urged rejection of the deal.

"This isn't about what's best for Ventura," he said. "It's about [Macerich] getting the biggest return for their investment. If Lowe's goes somewhere else, there will be another tenant who wants the site."

For several years Ventura officials have sought a big home-improvement store as a way to keep a sizable amount of sales tax dollars from flowing down the freeway to Oxnard. Two years ago, pressure from residents worried over traffic and noise sunk a Home Depot planned for the site of a defunct drive-in theater less than a mile from the Ward's site.

In contrast, the proposed Lowe's -- which at 135,000 square feet would be 25% larger than the proposed Home Depot -- faced milder neighborhood opposition, despite its location at one of the city's most congested intersections.

A spokesman for homeowners in the adjacent Buenaventura Gardens condominiums said a Lowe's would be far better on the site than the building abandoned after the Ward's bankruptcy. "Dead stores are the death knell of any neighborhood," Ed Lacey told the council.

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