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Town Center Project OKd by Council

By a 3-2 vote, Thousand Oaks officials give the go-ahead for the $40-million retail complex adjacent to the Civic Arts Plaza.

March 11, 2004|Gregory W. Griggs | Times Staff Writer

Following a contentious six-hour public hearing, a split Thousand Oaks City Council voted early Wednesday to approve plans for a $40-million town center to be built next to the Civic Arts Plaza.

The council voted 3 to 2 shortly after midnight to approve the restaurant and shopping complex that has been in the planning stages for years.

"If you measure success based on aesthetics, this will be the most beautiful project anywhere in Thousand Oaks," said Mayor Robert L. Wilson, who joined Councilmen Andy Fox and Dennis Gillette in voting to approve the project. Council members Claudia Bill-de la Pena and Ed Masry voted no.

The Thousand Oaks Town Center project will include 48,000 square feet of retail space, including P.F. Chang's, California Pizza Kitchen and Claim Jumper restaurants. The project will also feature fountains, a small amphitheater, a public plaza and two ponds that could be frozen in winter for ice skating.

Caruso Affiliated Holdings is working on the project in partnership with the city's Redevelopment Agency, which owns the site. Construction is scheduled to begin in the next few months, with completion set for summer 2005.

"I think people in Thousand Oaks want a great place and I promise to build them one," said developer Rick Caruso, chief executive of Caruso Affiliated Holdings. "It will very likely be my last project in Thousand Oaks, so I want to make sure it's my best project in Thousand Oaks."

City officials still hope to eventually place the Discovery Center, a $25-million children's science museum, between the commercial development and the Civic Arts Plaza. Money is still being raised for the museum.

"From the inception, the Discovery Center has believed that this was a good project for the community. We are pleased with the council's continuing support," said attorney Michael D. Bradbury, the former county district attorney who serves as president of the Discovery Center.

The City Council's approval of the Town Center came two weeks after a divided Planning Commission decided not to recommend approval of the project, first proposed in 1999. Bill-de la Pena and Masry shared the commission's view that the project had not been subjected to a sufficient environmental review.

But Fox and others defended the Caruso development deal, which was approved under a different council body.

"The overwhelming number of residents in this community will support this project," said Fox, who noted such backers as the local Chamber of Commerce and the Thousand Oaks Boulevard Property Owners Assn.

Among the dozens of people who spoke in favor of the project were two officials from Macerich Co. of Santa Monica, owners of The Oaks mall, and Ed Hogan, founder of Pleasant Hawaiian Holidays, whose foundation spent $10 million to develop Gardens of the World directly across the street from the Civic Arts Plaza.

Several speakers urged the council to either vote down the proposal or force Caruso Affiliated to return to the Planning Commission to work out compromises on key sticking points, such as the relocation of 11 oaks on the development site.

"You can go anywhere in the USA and go to a shopping center, but where else but here could you find an oak grove in the center of downtown?" asked county Supervisor Linda Parks, who served on the Thousand Oaks City Council until joining the county board in January 2003.

Fox told the audience that relocating or removing oak trees had always been part of the plans for developing the east side of City Hall, adding that construction of the Civic Arts Plaza required removal of 11 oaks. Supporters also noted that the city's oak tree ordinance requires planting three oaks for each one cut down.

Some critics said that the city's development agreement was overly generous.

Caruso negotiated a long-term, rent-free lease until the project makes a guaranteed 12% return on his company's investment. At that point, the city will share 20% of the net operating income. The deal also gives Caruso the option to buy the Town Center project at any time during the 55- to 99-year lease for its fair market value or $2 million, whichever is greater.

Masry, who is also an attorney, said he convinced the council to spend $75,000 to hire a top Los Angeles law firm to see if the city had any chance at reopening negotiations, but was told, "There's absolutely no way this contract can be broken."

"We're faced with a situation where we really have no choice," he said, before telling the audience that he planned to seek an ordinance that would require the city to hire outside legal experts to negotiate any future land deals valued at $1 million or more.

Caruso defended his deal with the city.

"If this project fails, it will fail on my nickel," he said. "If it fails, the city can take it over and run it itself or tear it down. There's no financial risk to the city."

The project is projected to generate about $4.5 million in sales tax revenue for the city in the first 10 years, he said.

After the meeting, Caruso said the lengthy approval process and several mandated redesigns didn't deter him.

"It was worth the wait and I'm not a quitter," said Caruso, who also built the Promenade at Westlake. "I was going to pursue this until they told me I couldn't build it."

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