For years, the Wagon Wheel Restaurant and Motel stood as a roadside landmark in Ventura County.
Its western facade and neon sign depicting a whip-cracking wagon driver were a throwback to 1950s-era California. The property was part of a strip of businesses near California Highway 1 that were a favorite stop for families, tourists and an occasional movie star on trips to Santa Barbara.
But in the last two decades, the property along the Ventura Freeway in Oxnard fell into disrepair, becoming a haven for drifters and parolees.
Now an Orange County developer wants to clear the site to build two 20-story residential towers, 1,200 row houses and condominiums and about 47,000 square feet of retail and commercial space.
Messenger Investment Co. of Newport Beach bought the 64-acre Wagon Wheel Road property in 2003. Along with the motel and adjoining eatery, the Wagon Wheel complex includes a mobile home park, bowling alley and an ice skating rink, as well as offices and a retail center.
Messenger's proposed development would transform the aging industrial and commercial property into a mixed-use community of high-density housing called the Village.
Employing "smart growth" principles, the updated European-style village design seeks to encourage walking, interaction among neighbors and use of mass transit.
The project's towers, which would include a total of 304 units, along with rival projects proposed elsewhere in Oxnard and Port Hueneme, would usher in the county's first residential high-rises.
"It's really the first high-density project that uses the 'build up, not out' philosophy. My question: Is this what Ventura County is going to look like in the future?" said Steve DeGeorge, director of technology for the Ventura County Transportation Commission. "I'm not saying it's good or bad from a planning standpoint, but I think it's fascinating that we're on that cusp."
A draft report on the project's potential environmental effects -- including traffic -- is scheduled to be released this summer, said Matthew Winegar, Oxnard's director of development services.
The property lies within a redevelopment district that includes the Esplanade shopping center immediately east of the site and the 2,300-home RiverPark development now under construction on the north side of the freeway.
The project's proximity to the Ventura Freeway and Highway 1 junction is of particular concern because freeway traffic routinely backs up for miles during peak travel times, which include weekends when Los Angeles motorists head for Ventura and Santa Barbara beaches.
Vince Daly of the Daly Owens Group in Westlake Village, the developer's local representative, said the project would generate about 5% more traffic than the entire Wagon Wheel complex would today if it were fully leased.
Daly said that traffic would be substantially less than expected from the 2.5 million square feet of office and retail space proposed in the early 1990s by the late Martin V. "Bud" Smith, the pioneer Oxnard developer who built Wagon Wheel.
The former vending machine operator opened the 40-unit motel in 1947. It was made from surplus military barracks acquired from the Seabee base in Port Hueneme. Additional rooms were added later, doubling the motel's capacity.
Before his death in 2001, Smith had built numerous hotels, restaurants, apartments and the former Oxnard Financial Plaza, which included what is still Ventura County's tallest building at 21 stories. He was also a key player in the development of Channel Islands Harbor.
Richard Shipley, a friend of Smith's for four decades, said Smith considered the Wagon Wheel complex the foundation of his real estate empire.
"That was one of the first pieces of property he acquired," said Shipley, who serves on the board of the Martin V. and Martha K. Smith Foundation. "He used it as a source of assets to acquire and build a lot of things."
Anna Slomka, who operated the motel until its closure in November, recalled how Smith and his fishing buddies used to bring their fresh catch to the restaurant's kitchen for a private lunch.
But Wagon Wheel was already facing hard times when Slomka and her husband took over management in 1991. Only 19 rooms had color televisions, and six units had rotted floors. By the time the motel closed, most guests were paying by the week, and a major source of customers was the county Probation Department, Slomka said.
Despite the property's condition, the Ventura County Cultural Heritage Commission wants city officials to find a way to save the huge neon sign and the motel office, which once sported dozens of authentic paintings and antiques from the Old West.
"I think there is a real lack of understanding about the significance of this site," said Gary Blum, manager of Oxnard's Heritage Square and the city's representative on the heritage commission.
Some preservationists also hope to save the motel's restaurant, which Blum said was considered a great example of Western steakhouse design and originally featured cowhide upholstery and chandeliers made from wagon wheels.
The signature neon sign is one of the last surviving pieces of such roadside architecture and should be given a new life -- preserved or incorporated into the retail portions of The Village, Blum said.
"Wagon Wheel is the only thing we have left that is early Oxnard and early Ventura County, except for the remaining strawberry fields," he said.