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Sky's the limit as high-rise fever soars in Oxnard

Several projects are set to sprout along the Ventura Freeway, but traffic is a concern.

February 23, 2007|Gary Polakovic | Times Staff Writer

The Ventura County skyline is a flat and featureless expanse of suburbia and cropland except for two office towers that rise conspicuously above the Oxnard plain.

But if developers have their way, those twin towers could get some company.

Six more high-rises are proposed near the junction of Pacific Coast Highway and the Ventura Freeway. The tallest, a 37-story residential building, would dwarf an existing 21-story bank tower at the Topa Financial Plaza.

The vertical vision would add condominiums, offices, mid-rise row houses and mixed-use business-residential towers to a community now dominated by low-slung subdivisions and strawberry fields. The high-rises are part of a booming redevelopment area and hub of economic growth for the city.

"It's harder and harder to build horizontal because of [local growth control laws] and the cost of land," said Matthew Winegar, director of development services for Oxnard, "so you can justify high-rise development more and more nowadays."

As empty nesters and seniors downsize from large homes to condominiums, builders and planners say a demographic shift is driving demand for high-rise living and working space in California.

In Ventura County, the shift is forcing people to consider the changing character of their communities. Many say they are not ready for a leap from suburban living to glass towers.

"I don't believe we should be like New York, with people living in 30- or 40-story towers," said Jean Joneson, an Oxnard resident and former chairwoman of the city's Inter-Neighborhood Council Forum. "We're not prepared for vertical building; we're not ready. We're an agricultural city." Indeed, residents are still adjusting to a proliferation of subdivisions. Some of Southern California's biggest land-use disputes have occurred in or adjacent to Ventura County, including plans at Ahmanson Ranch and in the Santa Clara River Valley.

As county residents watched farmland sprout business parks, houses and shopping centers during the 1990s, they enacted one of the state's most stringent growth-control measures, Save Open Space and Agricultural Resources, known as SOAR. The measure, in force in the county and most of its 10 cities, requires that voters, not politicians, approve building on land designated for open space or farming.

Yet growth brings 10,000 residents to Ventura County annually. Existing development restrictions are most rigorous outside city boundaries, but cities have more latitude within their limits. And in Oxnard, that is driving development skyward.

One project, already approved, allows for a new 15-story commercial building in the Topa Financial Plaza along the Ventura Freeway. The 25-acre site is home to a 21-story and a 14-story building amid a cluster of banks and other commercial businesses.

Nearby, two more towers are envisioned for the so-called Wagon Wheel area, west of Vineyard Avenue along the Ventura Freeway. Messenger Investment Inc., a Newport Beach developer, is seeking approval to build two 20-story residential towers, 1,200 row houses and about 47,000 square feet of retail and commercial space.

The Channel Islands Center, in the same area calls for: a 37-story residential tower, a 28-story residential and hotel tower and a 19-story residential building off north Oxnard Boulevard. But the smallest tower might be replaced with more mid-rise structures.

City planners are reviewing the project, which would result in about 800 new residences and cost about $500 million to build, said Doug Austin, an architect for Austin, Veum and Robbins Partners in La Jolla.

Oxnard City Councilman Andres Herrera said he favors high-rise development because it would bring jobs and revenue to the city.

"The only real opportunity to accommodate population growth is to go upward instead of outwards," Herrera said. "I'm looking for an opportunity to support those projects. I'm not opposed to the concept." Proponents of the vertical growth say that Orange and San Diego counties had misgivings years ago when the first high-rises were proposed there.

But they said such developments are part of the urban evolution of a community and are the sort favored by planners who lament sprawl, desire less traffic and aim to use land more efficiently by keeping jobs and housing near each other. In Orange County, at least 30 high-rise condo and apartment towers are planned or under development.

William Fulton, a Ventura city councilman and a land-use expert, said the high-rise projects are unique to Oxnard.

For example, Ventura officials have been debating whether to allow three-story town homes in the city's midtown, much less entertain ideas of high-rises.

Fulton said developers are attracted by Oxnard's pro-growth policies and the existing twin towers at the Topa Financial Plaza. He said local growth-control laws are not driving the high-rise plans because Oxnard has plenty of land to develop.

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