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Ventura parts ways with smart-growth guru

Eight years ago, Rick Cole was seen as the right person to transform the beach city into a model of eco-friendly growth. This year, a new council majority accepted his resignation.

October 16, 2012|By Catherine Saillant, Los Angeles Times
  • Former Ventura City Manager Rick Cole, 59, left, walks with Father Tom Elewaut, right, pastor of the San Buenaventura Mission.
Former Ventura City Manager Rick Cole, 59, left, walks with Father Tom Elewaut,… (Al Seib / Los Angeles Times )

Eight years ago, elated Ventura City Hall officials had snagged Rick Cole as their new city manager, hailing Southern California's smart-growth guru as just the guy to transform their sleepy beach town into a model of sustainable, eco-friendly growth.

Cole had helped revitalize Pasadena by reimagining the city's historic core, called Old Pasadena. He did the same for Azusa, applying the "new urbanism" rules of high-density, pedestrian-friendly construction as an alternative to big-box retail development and suburban sprawl.

To Ventura's City Council, this was exactly what was needed. Yet in a vote that surprised residents, and even some inside City Hall, a new council majority in late August accepted Cole's resignation.

Cole, 59, said he offered to leave when it became clear that four of the seven council members didn't like his leadership style and wanted him to go. He recently started a new job as administrator of San Buenaventura Mission.

The self-described progressive Catholic called it a logical next step. "I've been a newspaper publisher, a mayor and a city manager," Cole said. "But I did that not because I wanted to be something but because I wanted to do something — to make a better world by having better communities."

His most notable achievement in Ventura was adoption of a general plan that emphasizes redevelopment of the city's core, including its commercial downtown, favoring walkable communities that grow by going up instead of out.

Mayor Mike Tracy said the council majority agreed it was "time for a change in leadership."

Cole's resignation was met with suspicion by some residents. Would the move signal a return to the days when lemon groves were uprooted willy-nilly to make room for housing tracts?

"The city knows Cole's direction, Mr. Mayor," wrote resident Alexander Jannone in a letter to the Ventura County Star. "What's yours now?"

Others derided Cole as a "pie-in-the-sky" idealist who wasted money on music and arts festivals while potholes went unfilled.

Tracy, Ventura's former police chief, has publicly rebutted that the council is contemplating wholesale change in the city's direction. In fact, he said the majority thought Cole did a good job outlining a vision for Ventura's future but was less effective as a hands-on leader.

After eight years, "sometimes a change in leadership is good,"' the mayor said.

Cole didn't fight the council's decision, though he said he didn't agree with it.

Bill Fulton, the city's former mayor, thinks Cole and Tracy simply were at odds. Cole for 30 years worked in the collaborative and sometimes painfully slow atmosphere of local government, while Tracy came up through the ranks of law enforcement, which "is very hierarchical," Fulton said. "They had differing styles and expectations about how things should get done."

In the end, it came down to arithmetic.

The arrival of new council member Cheryl Heitmann in January provided the fourth vote needed to force Cole out. Heitmann, former executive director of the Ventura Music Festival, did not return calls seeking comment.

In his 12 years as mayor and city councilman in Pasadena, Cole is credited with helping to save not only Old Pasadena but with pulling together divergent groups to plot a long-term strategy for growth. His ideas sparked an economic revival of the city's core that is still being felt.

He next took on the city manager's role in Azusa, breathing new life into a tired San Gabriel Valley community by convincing developers to build the first new stores, houses and industrial parks in decades. In both cities, he included residents in the planning process.

Cole initially found plenty of like-minded support in Ventura. He intervened in development projects to demand changes, positioned the city as a hub for green-technology business and backed a plan to reconnect the downtown with its beaches by capping the 101 Freeway.

He also reorganized City Hall to increase efficiency. But other moves brought sharp-tongued detractors, including downtown business owners opposed to placement of parking meters along Main Street. A plan to remake Victoria Boulevard, a major thoroughfare, into a pedestrian-friendly corridor also sparked controversy.

When the recession hit, Cole concentrated on keeping the city running on fewer dollars. Then Fulton, a nationally known urban planner and Cole's closest council ally, left to take a post with Smart Growth America in Washington.

"People wanted to put that era behind and make their own mistakes," Cole said.

Yet he is smitten with Ventura, with its foggy mornings and laid-back vibe, and intends to stay. His three children attend a Catholic high school in nearby Ojai. He and Father Tom Elewaut, pastor of the mission, have big plans for its 2,000-member parish.

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