July 12, 2004 - From the November, 2001 issue

Ahmanson Ranch: Housing California's Growth Won't Be Accomplished Easy In This Region

For the past 15-years the vision of a comprehensive community at Ahmanson Ranch has been relegated to a mere set of elevations and plot plans due to ongoing litigation by environmentalists and anti-growth advocates. But perhaps as we come upon a new century there's a light at the end of the tunnel. MIR was pleased to sit down with Guy Gniadek, President of Ahmanson Land Company, to talk about the status of The Ranch, dispel any doubt surrounding its viability and generally share his views on the future of large-scale, comprehensive projects in Southern California.

Guy Gniadek

Guy, let's start by having you give our readers a sense of the

Ahmanson Ranch Project as envisioned.

The project was initially approved in Dec. 1992. At that point the approvals allowed for 3,050 homes (23-percent of which are affordable housing), 400,000 sq. ft. of office and retail, a 300-room lodge, 40-acres of parkland, 50-acres of multi-purpose trails, 2 golf courses, an elementary and K-8 school and a 900-acre green belt that weaves through the community.

To complement that design, in 1998 we completed the transfer of approx. 10,000-acres of open space to the public to expand recreational opportunities and preserve natural resources in the Santa Monica and Santa Susanna Mountains. That transaction allowed both the development agreement and the specific plan for the project to move forward.

And most recently we are approaching the public release of the Phase A Supplemental EIR for 650 homes being prepared by Ventura County. We expect that it will be available within the next month.

Those milestones have really helped the Ahmanson Ranch project become the type of project that Southern California desperately needs. It provides a mix of housing, commercial and retail in a single place and proves the importance of planning for and recognizing the necessity of a sub-regional balance as it relates both to new development and the revitalization of our existing community fabric.

Give us some greater detail into your negotiations with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service re: the species found at the site. Where are you in that process?

In 1999, as a result of moving forward with Phase A of the project, we conducted additional biological surveys on The Ranch. In completing those surveys, we identified a previously thought to be extinct plant-the San Fernando Valley spine flower-and a threatened animal-the California red-legged frog. We reported those to state and federal wildlife agencies and have been working with them to create conservation plans for both species.

Your description paints a picture of a development that holistically addresses a number of concerns. But given the opposition the Ranch has faced, is it possible to actually achieve any of this vision?

There are tremendous planning and design opportunities in large-scale developments, but inherent in that opportunity is the fact that you become a catalyst for criticism from people opposed to growth in Southern California. Combine that criticism with the enormous amount of time dedicated to the CEQA litigation process and you begin to realize just how difficult large-scale projects are nowadays. Despite all of this, we believe our vision can be realized.

Ahmanson Ranch is located in Ventura County. But some of your permits and surrounding neighbors come from the L.A. area. What's the friction that's caused by having a project in one municipality yet adjoining and impacting another, particularly when that jurisdiction is less than enthusiastic about the project?

As a result of The Ranch's property line being the boundary line between Ventura and Los Angeles Counties, the perception is that Ventura will receive all the benefits and L.A. will get all the impacts. However, the reality is we've mitigated the off-project impacts. And we've gone so far as to take the CEQA process all the way to the State Supreme Court to explain that fact to the L.A. communities. We have $7 million worth of planned road improvements for Los Angeles County and we've allocated $3.7 million in air mitigation fees to both Ventura and L.A.

Unforunately, the opponents fail to realize that this project represents an enormous economic driver for both counties. During the construction period alone, this project will provide $3 billion in economic stimulus to L.A. County. And that's merely the short-term effect, it doesn't take into account the number of jobs that will ultimately be created or the $200 million in ongoing sales revenues that the residents of Ahmanson Ranch will provide to L.A. County.

But to press this issue a little bit, what about the City of L.A.? They recently ruled against opening Victory Blvd. and providing access to the project's east end. What about the impact on that local municipality?

The City of Los Angeles did extend an 18-month ordinance allowing for the retention of a gate across Victory Blvd. Ahmanson had not objected to the gate in the past, mostly because it's mainly to prevent any nuisances from occurring there.

Based on Ahmanson's preexisting rights, there was a provision on that resolution to allow for the gates to be taken down upon Ahmanson's request. That portion of the resolution was deleted. But we're currently in discussions with the City Attorney's Office to resubmit the information regarding the underlying easements which exist there that we feel very strongly supports our position for access onto Victory Blvd.

Are these travails merely a case study of the development climate for a complex multi-jurisdictional private sector development project?

I believe that most of the political issues and opportunities that arise do so because of the current NIMBY climate. For example, there are cities like Calabasas that remain opposed to the project, regardless of extensive mitigations, yet have no problem approving significant amounts of development on a "jobs-only" basis, without opposition.

Smaller projects are going through in Calabasas at the same time the larger scale projects such as Ahmanson Ranch were being opposed. Is that common? And does it send the wrong message to large-scale developers that they should merely chop their projects into smaller pieces so they can slip under the public's radar screen?

What you trade in headaches and extended schedules is the opportunity to create townsmanship and environmental principles that only large-scale projects can provide.

Smaller scale projects have enormous impacts on infrastructure. Those impacts are far more significant than the ones that an Ahmanson Ranch-type project have, where you have all of the programmatic elements in place. Better regional or even citywide planning comes from larger projects.

Now you also made mention of the evolving regional nature of planning and development. But is there a regional entity now responsively oversee planning and development in California? There are obviously county planning commissions, but they're not really planning commissions, and there's no state Smart Growth plan. So when projects like Ahmanson Ranch-or a handful of others-come along, how should they be addressed and by whom? Isn't plan review for large developments now all de novo, government agencies making it up as they go? Would it not be better if there was a state growth plan and regional entities that could seriously address and mitigate large scale regional development projects?

Some semblance of a regional understanding of how and where growth can occur would be helpful.

One of the big problems that we're faced within the state is that you now have in excess of approximately 30-percent of the jurisdictions that are non-compliant with their housing element and this is a signiciant problem, particularly given the growing housing crisis. That combined with the opportunity of placing housing where jobs occur is critically important.

SCAG certainly makes a lot of suggestions as to where housing should occur and those suggestions are very important in terms of how we respond to the needs of our transportation systems. Certainly the ability, on a regional basis, to provide housing near jobs will go very far towards reducing the burdens on infrastructure that we are all subject to.


The legislature has tried to shape the linkage between governance and growth through the recently signed bill SB 221. What effect will that have on the progress you're making at Ahmanson Ranch? Has its passage forced the project to make any adjustments?

We have owned a mutual water company since the early 60s. And we will be using approximately 50-percent of that allocation for the Ahmanson Ranch. That bill won't have a drastic effect on The Ranch.

More important is what effect this legislation will have on providing water to people in California. We all understand that California is going to grow by 10-15 million people and that the City of Los Angeles will grow by 600,000 people. Yet despite that we are singling out projects that are in excess of 500 units and are making them responsible for finding their own water supply. That seems to contradict the fact that everybody's aware that this growth will occur. We shouldn't penalize projects that are trying to deal with this great need, we need to aid them in finding the water and creating a workable system. But that vision just doesn't seem to be in place.

You mention the difficulties inherent in development. In our sister-publication The Planning Report, Gail Goldberg, the Director of Planning for the City of San Diego, said that the biggest hurdles to overcome are consumer misconceptions about growth and density. The former President of Playa Vista, Peter Denniston, echoed those remarks and hoped that Playa Vista would help alter current misconceptions. How can Ahmanson Ranch aid in the evolution of these development concepts to make people sense that quality planning and development mitigates much of the impact of density? How do you go about doing that when you're such a large target for all opponents to any kind of densification of California?

One of the issues in Southern California is that there aren't many examples of large-scale developments. When one looks at projects such as the Kentlands outside of Washington D.C., one can understand why mixed-use towns work well, encourage pedestrian oriented design and result in very active public realms.

Los Angeles, and in particular the San Fernando Valley, only knows what it's seen over the last 50 years-a very auto intensive type of public space. That frame of reference creates a group of citizens whose only reference is the suburban tract house developments.

So how do you go about convincing people that the way you are going to go about approaching densification is going to mitigate their quality of life concerns?

What we've tried to do is communicate the design concepts and make ourselves available to discuss why we planned as we did. We feel that that has allowed us to inform a growing number of people to understand what growth is. The unfortunate consequence of addressing that topic is that there are still some very vocal groups who view growth in a very negative way. To combat those perceptions, all we can do is present The Ranch in as many different ways and venues as possible for the purpose of beginning to break through the historic image of the sprawling suburbs.

Guy, if you were to be plucked from your current position with an outrageously attractive offer to be a special assistant to the Governor to deal smartly with the growth projections forecasted for California in terms of development, land use and housing, what would you recommend to the Governor to improve this process? More specifically, given your experience with Ahmanson and your other experiences, what changes would you recommend to the regulatory approval processes so that it becomes a better marriage of the interests and goals which both drive California development and our desire for environmental review?

I certainly have provided the housing administrators in the state with information as it relates to how California can grow. And one of the biggest problems that we have today is that with any large-scale project, the starting point is adversarial.

If there were a mechanism at the state level for making sure that local housing needs were met that would help remove the barrier between whether growth should occur or not occur. That, combined with a better understanding of how the responsible agencies manage growth would also be very beneficial.

The fact that there have been numerous approvals for the Ahmanson Ranch Project, yet the surrounding jurisdictions continue to perpetuate their disagreement by going to court on an ongoing basis, is an unfortunate sequence in any large-scale project.

How could you fix that? How would you recommend the state fix that?

I don't know that there's any short-term solution. I certainly haven't seen anything occur at the state level or in the legal framework which would facilitate that. The Ranch has tried to stick to a process, not in terms of politics, but in terms of the process or science. Until there's an ability to have those decisions not be so easily challenged, we're going to continue to have these types of difficulties in approving projects as they move forward.

I guess my recommendation would be that if projects meet certain guidelines there should be more of an expedited process and that there not be the ability as there is today to revisit or litigate the same issues on an ongoing basis.

What lessons have you learned looking at the California's large scale projects, whether they're the Catellus projects in San Diego or San Francisco, Tejon Ranch, Newhall or Playa Vista? When you survey those handful of very large-scale, arguably well-planned projects, what can you apply to the Ahmanson Ranch developmental process?

There are no shortcuts. We have taken as comprehensive an approach as any development company in Southern California. What we learned is that you have to be very cognizant of the high probability that your project will end up in litigation and that you anticipate that in your schedule. Because of the planning and long-term investment that a company must make in a project such as The Ranch, we might be the last project of comparable scale to be achieved in Ventura or L.A. County.

And what do we lose if Ahmanson Ranch project is the region's last large-scale development?

You lose both the advantages of the public-private partnership that the Ranch created in terms of providing the amount of open space that we did and you miss an opportunity for balancing both the needs of the environmental goals with the needs of what the public realm could be.

There's a lot of discussion about infill housing being the only type available. In some cases that type of project is even more difficult to construct than a project like Ahmanson Ranch.

Large-scale projects such as the Ahmanson Ranch project provide housing and community structures in areas where they're needed. By avoiding or complicating that process, you merely undermine the solution. Growth continues to occur on the fringes and certainly creates a huge burden in terms of the quality of life issues for the people who have to live in Palmdale and commute to Warner Center. There's a misperception that by stopping projects like the Ahmanson Ranch that you somehow eliminate a transportation burden on the freeway system.

Lastly, what's the timeline for this project realizing its overall goals? Are we talking in our lifetime?

Absolutely. We expect to see the SEIR in December and then with that, go through the environmental planning processes in Ventura County and hope to get the Phase A approved by Ventura County in June or July of 2002. Thereafter, if there's any litigation, that would take approximately one year to process after the trial court level and we would then begin construction in mid- to late-2003. The construction period would be about one year's worth of initial backbone infrastructure, and then the project would take approximately 7-8 years to complete.


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