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Thousand Oaks Council Approves Town Center Plan

The $40-million complex is on track, but some object to the generous lease and buyback deals for the developer.

October 23, 2003|Gregory W. Griggs | Times Staff Writer

A $40-million outdoor restaurant, shopping and entertainment complex planned next to the Thousand Oaks Civic Arts Plaza cleared a significant hurdle this week, despite complaints that the project amounts to a sweetheart deal for the developer.

After a sometimes contentious three-hour hearing, the City Council -- acting in its dual role as the city's redevelopment board -- voted 4 to 1 early Wednesday to approve the site plan and architectural details of the Thousand Oaks Town Center.

Councilwoman Claudia Bill-de la Pena, while acknowledging the prominent reputation of the developer, Caruso Affiliated Holdings, opposed the ruling. She said that the plan left too many unanswered questions about traffic flow and parking and that it jeopardized at least one mature oak tree on the site.

The city signed a conceptual development agreement with Caruso in July 2000. But that deal was amended two years later to allow the Los Angeles-based firm to construct the project in two phases. A 50,000-square-foot multi-screen movie theater and a parking garage would be built in the second phase.

The council's vote, at the end of a long meeting that began Tuesday night, was to affirm that the current plans remain consistent with the original agreement, which was approved under a different council body. The developer is hoping to win full approval in the coming months and start work on the project by early next year.

As designed, the center would have 30,000 square feet of restaurants and 18,000 square feet of retail space. PF Changs, Claim Jumper and California Pizza Kitchen have already signed on as tenants. And Caruso has agreed to pay for construction of a public plaza, fountains and two ponds, including one that can be frozen in winter for ice skating.

But it's the amount of money the city has pledged to the deal -- more than $7 million in donated land, site improvements and fee waivers -- that has some officials angered that Caruso was given an overly generous deal.

In fact, Bill-de la Pena and Mayor Pro Tem Robert Wilson Sr. made the issue a central theme of their slow-growth council campaigns last fall, condemning the fact that Caruso had arranged a long-term rent-free lease until the project made a guaranteed 12% return on his company's investment.

The development agreement also would allow Caruso to buy the project anytime during the 55- to 99-year lease for fair market value or $2 million, whichever is greater.

"I'll give you credit: You know how to negotiate a contract," said Councilman Ed Masry, who voted in favor of the amended development agreement last year. "But if I had been there in the embryonic phase, you wouldn't have gotten offered such a fat deal."

At one point, tempers flared and developer Rick Caruso accused the council of negotiating in bad faith by bringing in outside lawyers at the eleventh hour to look for ways to void the deal.

"I may be the only one who will stand up to you," Caruso told Masry, an environmental lawyer. "I will go toe-to-toe with you, because this project will not make or break me."

The council majority asked if the 525 parking spaces would be adequate during peak times. They challenged plans to remove an oak tree to make way for a restaurant. They questioned the distance of building setbacks and pushed to have Caruso keep the parking area for tour buses that frequent the Civic Arts Plaza on his side of the property.

Much of the council opposition centered on how the project would affect the building of a $25-million children's science museum known as the Discovery Center, a separate development that has been in the planning stages for nearly a decade. But Caruso said that his project would not have a negative effect on the science center.

"I get the impression that you're grasping at straws to find reasons to deny this project," Caruso said. "The Discovery Center can be built. There's nothing in this project that prevents it.

"We'll do everything we can to stand by them to see it built. We consider it an anchor of our project," he added.

Wayne Davey, a member of the Discovery Center's board, endorsed the retail center and agreed with Caruso's contention that his group's fund-raising would likely improve once prospective contributors saw construction begin in the area.

Shortly before the vote, Masry told Caruso he hoped the project made $100 million and that he would then donate $50 million to the Discovery Center. Caruso replied that he would consider matching whatever amount the multimillionaire lawyer decided to donate.

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