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Upscale Conejo Valley Is in for a Spa Polish

A 750,000-square-foot health resort, slated to open in Westlake Village this fall, is the biggest of several projects now under construction.

August 08, 2006|Gregory W. Griggs | Times Staff Writer

Agoura Hills. Thousand Oaks. Westlake Village. Their names are a tribute to the rolling hills, trees and lakes that dot the landscape.

So proud were they of their surroundings, the three Conejo Valley cities lobbied for several years to have a 16-mile stretch of the Ventura Freeway designated a scenic highway.

The state turned down the request because there were too many billboards, industrial parks and gas station signs lining the road. That was more than a decade ago.

Although the corridor that connects Los Angeles and Ventura counties is still known for its dramatic topography, these days, corporate headquarters and luxury homes define the valley. Further enhancing its image, a Four Seasons resort and spa is set to open in November, adding Westlake Village to its list of locations that include London, Paris, Singapore and Bangkok, Thailand.

Wealth and fame are no strangers to this area, home to five Fortune 500 companies: Countrywide Financial Corp., Dole Food Co., the Ryland Group Inc., Guitar Center Inc. and Amgen Inc., the world's largest biotechnology firm, which for more than two decades has helped fuel the business boom.

The high-tech and healthcare companies that followed Amgen's path -- including divisions of Baxter Healthcare Corp. and WellPoint Inc.-- brought to the area thousands of well-paid, white-collar professionals who were also drawn by the good schools and the Conejo Valley's reputation as a safe community. The estimated median household income along the corridor ranges from $87,895 in Thousand Oaks to $128,684 in neighboring Westlake Village.

"It wasn't always like it is today. There was a day when we would celebrate when a barbershop would open," said Charles Cohen, a Thousand Oaks land use attorney who served as mayor from 1967 to 1972.

Bill Fulton, an urban planning expert and Ventura city councilman, said the core of the Conejo Valley was destined for white-collar exclusivity.

"Westlake Village and Thousand Oaks were originally developed as executive suburbs," he said. "From the late '50s forward, they were designed as a self-contained enclave for executives and middle managers. And businesses like to locate where the bosses live. That area tends to attract high-end jobs."

Development in Westlake Village is on a tear. At the intersection of the Ventura Freeway and Lindero Canyon Road, crews, cranes and heavy machinery are visible on three projects that are under construction, including the Four Seasons. The six-story, 270-room hotel, set to open on the Dole Food campus in November, will be part of a 750,000-square-foot health resort that is the brainchild of Dole Food Chairman David Murdock, who has played a key role in the area's upscale climb over the last 20 years.

Starting in the 1980s, the billionaire developer began transforming the rustic community of Lake Sherwood, on Ventura County's eastern edge, into a posh residential enclave where homes are priced up to $25 million. Actor Will Smith and hockey legend Wayne Gretzky are among the celebrities who have called this area home.

During a ceremony at the construction site last year, Murdock said that creating a luxury health resort next to his privately held company's headquarters has been a longtime goal. He said the resort -- Four Seasons Westlake Village, which will include the California Wellbeing Institute -- will offer a spa, nutritionists and "life coaches" to help attract health-conscious guests. The facility also will have a television production studio where programming on health and nutrition will be created.

"We started from the very beginning to build a complete wellness center," Murdock said. "Sixty percent of the people in America are overweight, and 40% are absolutely obese. People are killing themselves by improper eating."

The California Health and Longevity Institute in Santa Monica will oversee an 11,400-square-foot on-site medical clinic and diagnostic facility featuring nutritional laboratories and teaching kitchens. It also will employ staff cardiologists, radiologists and internal medicine specialists.

Across Lindero Canyon from the Four Seasons, Texas-based Huntington Hotel Group is building a 160-room Marriott Residence Inn, which is set to open next spring. Farther east of the Marriott is the project most visible from the freeway: Westlake Landmark, a two-building complex that will add 180,000 square feet of office space to the city.

Who's to say that one of the office park's new tenants won't one day become a star on the Fortune 500? Amgen, for example, had modest beginnings. From sharing leased space in an office park, the biotechnology firm expanded until it took over the building, then the whole park, before stretching out on both sides of Rancho Conejo Boulevard. The company now has 45 buildings spread over 184 acres, with nearly 8,000 full-time employees.

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