February 27, 2004 - From the February, 2004 issue

Ventura's New City Manager On The Value Of Smart Growth

The City of Ventura is at a crossroads when it comes to growth and development, sandwiched between the explosive development of Oxnard and the suffocating restrictions (and the associated skyrocketing property values) imposed in Santa Barbara. This month, the Ventura City Council voted to hire Rick Cole as its new City Manager. Cole, the current City Manager of Azusa and a staunch supporter of smart growth, will bring his vision to Ventura at the end of April. TPR is pleased to present this interview with Rick Cole, in which he addresses the challenges of escalating property prices, development restrictions, and the need for a new approach to planning in the city of Ventura.


Rick Cole

Rick, you recently were named as the new City Manager of Ventura, and thus will step down as City Manager of Azusa. Share with our readers what the challenges and opportunities are that attract you to Ventura?

Ventura has the potential to be the Portland of Southern California-the model for smart growth in our region. It's a city with a unique identity and a healthy downtown. Because of the SOAR initiatives, both for the city and the surrounding county, outward growth is limited. In making a decision not to sprawl, Ventura is among the first to face the challenge of growing by recycling its strip arterial boulevards to accommodate attractive housing and mixed use. Without such an infill strategy, Ventura will be hammered between the ‘no growth' mentality of Santa Barbara and the continuing outward growth of Oxnard.

Rick, before we delve into the challenges of Ventura, reflect on the lessons learned from five plus years of success in Azusa; lessons that might be applicable to the challenges you could encounter in Ventura.

Two elements that are critical to the success of the City Council's vision for Ventura have both been key to our success in Azusa. The first is engaging citizens to shape the future of their community. The vision of ‘smart growth' can't overcome the powerful forces of ‘dumb growth' and ‘no growth' without mobilizing an informed and active citizenry. Over the past five years, Azusa has expanded the pool of citizens interested and involved in planning issues from just a handful to several hundred residents from all backgrounds. These citizens have not only embraced smart growth, but are committed to transit-oriented development around the future Gold Line, the revitalization of obsolete commercial corridors and pedestrian-oriented commercial districts.

The second element that's absolutely crucial in today's severe fiscal environment is demonstrating that government can work better and cost less. It isn't seen as directly related to smart growth, but reinventing government is essential for government to deliver quality services and provide leadership for the future. In a city that is clearly disadvantaged by the state's counterproductive approach to local government finance, the lesson we've learned in Azusa is that we can make government more accountable, more responsive and more entrepreneurial.

Let's return to your new post in the city of Ventura in Ventura County. The city and county are both known for resisting growth. How do you anticipate addressing the need for smart growth planning and greater housing density in a county and city that have been relatively averse to these concepts?

Unfortunately, many well-intentioned advocates of new urbanism and affordable housing have allowed the emotional issue of ‘density' to define the politics of smart growth. The reality is that density is only one facet of a much larger set of issues. In creating healthy communities, advocates who always call for higher densities are just as wrong as their ‘not in my back yard' opponents who always insist on lower densities. Intelligent planning recognizes that there are ranges of appropriate densities in neighborhoods, towns and cities. Abstract arguments over densities are far less useful than putting in place higher quality development standards that create places people like and places that work for people.

It's been my experience that when you talk quality instead of numbers and when you focus on images instead of formulas, the vast majority of Southern Californians not only support, but embrace, smart growth. If you talk mandates, people recoil from affordable housing. The focus should instead be on accommodating our growing population by building new homes that respect neighborhood character, improve community quality of life, safeguard our standard of living and provide an alternative to traffic gridlock.

How do you anticipate, under your leadership as City Manager, the city of Ventura actually accommodating greater growth within its boundaries?

Recently, the voters of Ventura soundly rejected a developer-sponsored effort to allow more growth in the foothills. As a result, the opportunity is to direct that growth onto Ventura's sagging commercial corridors, which are simply no longer functional for modern retailing. They have become eyesores that drag down the surrounding residential neighborhoods. They present a huge opportunity to accomplish two things: to develop obviously needed homes that working families can afford as well as to upgrade the look, the feel and the prosperity of the key arterials that hold Ventura together.

Let's tie these two policy threads together. As the City Manager of Azusa for five plus years, you encouraged a very engaging community process around consideration of a master planned development on the Monrovia Nursery property. From such experience, what lasting lessons were learned that might be applicable to the challenges you may face in your new position as the City Manager of Ventura?

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The obvious lesson is that a developer-driven process doesn't promote quality development. A plan for Monrovia Nursery, developed by Lewis/KB Homes, was defeated just as I was becoming city manager five years ago. Cities need to reassert the public role in planning new development, instead of reacting to developer proposals. That's why it's so critical for cities to reform their obsolete zoning codes, redo their general plans and take the initiative to plan areas like the Monrovia Nursery, instead of surrendering the initiative to developers. Without public leadership and involvement, we wouldn't have developed a nationally-recognized plan, nor would we have the support for that plan to prevail at the ballot box over the objections of the elitists who object to mixed density neighborhoods.

Again, look at the recent rejection by voters in Ventura of the developer-sponsored ballot measure. Cities must step forward to define, protect and enhance the public realm, whether it's open space, neighborhood streets or public places. The damage that has been done by defaulting that role to developers is all around us. When cities reclaim their leading role, we can again create great places and we can regain public trust and support for that effort.

With very high profile and well thought-of elected officials like Kathy Long on the Board of Supervisors and now the newly elected Bill Fulton on your City Council, could you comment on the politics of both the city and county of Ventura?

I'd be the last one to pose as an expert on Ventura's political environment. Instead, my focus is going to be on translating the community vision – which is reflected both in Ventura's new comprehensive plan and in the election of officials like the ones you've named - into smart growth that is visible and viable on the ground.

Let's turn to the price of real estate in the city of Ventura. How does housing affordability affect your options in terms of accommodating growth?

I see that impact in a very personal way. When my family of two working professionals can't afford to buy a home in Ventura for our three children, we face a crisis that is obviously far more severe for folks who don't have our resources. The reality is that the vast majority of homeowners in Ventura couldn't afford to buy back their homes at today's prices. The situation is much worse for the half of Ventura's population who can't afford to buy homes and face the rest of their lives as renters.

Even if that were acceptable at the personal and social level, which it is not, it still would pose a grave challenge to a community like Ventura. It isn't just an affordable housing problem. Losing the opportunity for working families to own a home will eventually crush the city's autonomy, economy and character. Ventura is truly caught between the conflicting growth policies of Santa Barbara and Oxnard. That's why it's so urgent for Ventura to forge a middle way, a better way, a model way.

As you leave for Ventura, what do you want your legacy to be in Azusa?

I hope my legacy in public service in Pasadena, Azusa and Ventura will be to inspire others to follow the admonition of Robert Kennedy, which is that "any person can make a difference, and every person should try." I hope my children and their classmates will inherit a Southern California that continues to have great communities. The fear all of us have is that the growing gap between rich and poor and the failure to deal intelligently with growth pressures will mean that our kids won't be able to afford, and wouldn't want to live, in the place we call home.

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© 2021 The Planning Report | David Abel, Publisher, ABL, Inc.