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Santa Paula Takes Collaborative Approach to Growth

Residents' input comes first in planning for a possible development in Fagan Canyon.

October 02, 2003|Amanda Covarrubias | Times Staff Writer

Working with a developer, a group of Santa Paula residents embarked Wednesday on an intense seven-day planning and design effort that could be used to build a new community in the cash-starved city that sorely needs an economic jolt.

The so-called charrette process, increasingly used by New Urbanist architects seeking to replicate the patterns of a traditional city, brings together a developer and residents in a collaborative effort aimed at designing projects everyone can support.

During the next five days, representatives for Centex Homes and members of Santa Paulans for Quality Neighborhoods will hold a series of workshops and meetings to develop a plan for a 1,300- to 2,200-home project in Fagan Canyon on the city's north side.

The group and an architect from the nonprofit National Charrette Institute earlier this week toured the proposed development site. On Wednesday, they kicked off the meetings that they hope will create consensus for building in the canyon.

"I'm thrilled with it," Mayor John Procter said of the new planning approach. "It gives no real guarantees as to the outcome of the project, but it seems to guarantee a buying-in of the people of the town because they're involved. It's a visible and open process."

The charrette model encourages more pedestrian-friendly neighborhoods that feature a variety of housing designs and choices for different income groups, officials said. It also strives for better balanced communities by promoting the inclusion of public open spaces and recreational opportunities.

Santa Paula's collaborative effort is intended to get residents, the developer and city officials behind a plan before it goes to formal review, said Steve Coyle, an Oregon-based architect and town planner who is leading the meetings.

Coyle co-founded the National Charrette Institute two years ago and is a proponent of the New Urbanist or "smart growth" school of urban planning, in which communities are built compactly to avoid sprawl and traffic congestion. Fagan Canyon would be the organization's first such project in Southern California.

Coyle said maintaining a compressed planning schedule in the charrette is import to encourage focus and to avoid details being forgotten or ignored over long periods of time. Charrette is French for "cart" and usually refers to the final, intense work expended by art and architecture students to meet a deadline.

Centex Homes does not own the 2,200 acres being considered for development, but the Dallas-based company has an option to buy a large portion of it from the heirs of longtime landowner Ralph Dickinson, a Santa Clara Valley pioneer who helped develop the Santa Paula Airport.

Procter said city officials welcomed the idea of a charrette because other methods used to stimulate development have failed. Most notable was an effort last year to build a 2,250-home project in Adams Canyon northwest of the city. After a rancorous campaign, voters rejected an initiative to expand the city's growth boundary to include the proposed development site.

Fagan Canyon is within the city's urban boundary, and the proposed development would not require voter approval.

City officials agree the Santa Clara Valley town of 30,000 needs to rejuvenate its downtown, build a stronger tax base and provide more housing for residents of all incomes. The city's once-thriving business district has been struggling since the oil industry pulled out years ago.

Land-use activist Michael Miller of Santa Paulans for Quality Neighborhoods and city officials said Fagan Canyon has a better chance to succeed not only because of the innovative planning approach but because the site is close to town and contiguous with existing development, unlike the remote Adams Canyon.

"It allows for real community input," said Miller, who fought the Adams Canyon project. "There's a real frustration in Ventura County with the kind of growth that's been taking place. What we're proposing is what people want, classic neighborhood communities, not cookie-cutter, suburban garages on streets."

Rick Bianchi, project manager for Centex, said company officials initially were skeptical about the charrette, a process the national developer has never used before. But officials warmed to the idea after researching the method and meeting with Coyle.

"It's not something that's widely recognized as an effective planning tool," Bianchi said. "If it was more popular, there would be consultants here in Southern California. But we've already gained wide, community-based support for the project, not necessarily because of the charrette but because of Centex Homes' desire to garner wide support for any project."

Centex has conducted neighborhood outreach programs in Santa Paula for several months, in which company representatives visit residents and solicit input, such as what kind of housing styles and parks they would like to see in the project.

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