YOU ARE HERE: LAT HomeCollections

Downtrodden Downtown Builds a New, Upscale Identity in Ventura

Resurgence gains momentum with a pair of condominium developments.

October 13, 2002|Daryl Kelley | Times Staff Writer

Ventura has been a poor man's seaside resort, the white-sand home of Midwestern migrants and faded thrift stores, dismissed as "Bakersfield by the Sea."

But with the opening of new restaurants and a movie complex, the arrival of live theater and trendy boutiques, Ventura's downtown has become more quaint than tattered, more cool retreat than homeless haven.

Out-of-town visitors and Main Street merchants join city officials in saying Ventura's old downtown, radiating out from an 18th century Spanish mission and a century-old City Hall, has begun to live up to its promise.

"We're not Santa Barbara, we're not Pasadena and we're not Santa Monica," said author and planning expert Bill Fulton, whose office occupies a Victorian house on Main Street. "But we're not Bakersfield either. We're a prosperous beach town. We have a great downtown. It's bustling."

So far, the bustle is only a few blocks long and a couple of blocks wide. But in the latest sign that an economic revival may finally fill the weeded, vacant lots along Santa Clara Street and replace the red-light motels of Thompson Boulevard, homebuilders are eyeing downtown Ventura as never before.

The Olson Co., the state's largest developer of urban "in-fill" -- housing in aging city centers -- has already sold nearly all of the 26 Spanish-style condominiums it is constructing on one long-vacant acre at downtown's edge next to the Ventura Freeway. Prices range from $327,500 to $379,500, nearly double what they could have commanded three years ago.

"I think everybody's interested in building in the downtown," said Todd Olson, managing director of acquisitions for the Seal Beach-based company. He said Olson wants to build another larger project nearby.

And on a hillside across from Ventura's neoclassical City Hall, architect and developer Ray Mulokas is finishing 33 upscale condos, including four penthouses with dramatic ocean views priced up to $1 million each. Three of the units are artist's lofts. Offices will line the street level of the four-story building.

"Ventura is just beginning to realize its potential," said Mulokas, who plans to live in one of the penthouses. "It's a fantastic little town. And everybody is beginning to discover it."

Mulokas, who has built about 1,000 dwellings in Southern California in the past 30 years, said he has 200 people on a waiting list for his condos. He hopes to build another complex not far away on what is now city land. He also has ambitious plans, including elaborate drawings, for other parcels he will not yet discuss.

"Developers are crawling all over every piece of property down here, looking for opportunities," said architect Nicholas Deitch, who is working with four of them.

Deitch has worked on the same block of Main Street for 20 years, waiting for the downtown area to awake from its slumber.

"When I first started, you could park anywhere you wanted, anytime you wanted," he said. With a Main Street parking space almost as rare as snow on the beach, a new parking garage was built four years ago for the overflow.

The city spent $18 million over five years in the 1990s to refurbish the downtown core, sprucing up Main and California streets with decorative sidewalks and palm trees and underwriting the four-story parking garage and a new 10-screen movie theater. That has increased the city's share of downtown property taxes by at least $1 million a year.

"I think there is a comfort level in the downtown that wasn't here before," said Denise Sindelar, co-owner of Natalie's Fine Threads, a Main Street shop where sales have grown steadily since opening in 1996. "We've been here six years, and it's changed so much for the better -- it's safer. There had been this stigma that only the homeless lived here."

Sindelar, an arts supporter, may now choose on weekend nights between comedy improv at the Livery community theater and plays at the cozy 200-seat Rubicon Theater, which hosts a stage company that features actors such as Larry Hagman, Stephanie Zimbalist and Linda Gray.

"The Rubicon Theater has brought people up from Los Angeles [who] never came before," Sindelar said.

Nona Bogatch founded her Victoria Rose bed and breakfast in a 19th century church near the downtown three years ago. Since then, she has seen the opening of half a dozen fine restaurants to which she refers her guests.

"With the revitalization of the downtown, we have more people, from more places," she said. "These are wonderful restaurants, and the movie theater is great. Keeping out the fast-food restaurants had really helped us."

Ventura, with its population of 100,900, is already considered a model of how older cities can begin to reinvent themselves. Now officials hope it can show how a land-poor city in a county where outward expansion is strictly controlled can look inward to accommodate population growth. The key is new housing.

Los Angeles Times Articles