December 14, 2005 - From the December, 2005 issue

City of Ventura Achieves Consensus to Build Smart Growth Into Its Visionary Master Plan

Many cities and many public officials in Southern California have been talking about "smart growth," but no city has embraced it like the City of Ventura. Under the leadership of city manager and former Pasadena mayor Rick Cole, Ventura adopted in August one of the first comprehensive city master plans that goes beyond mere zoning. In this exclusive TPR interview, Mr. Cole discusses how Ventura crafted a comprehensive plan to make Ventura one of the region's most livable cities.

Rick Cole

In August of this year, the City of Ventura adopted its new general plan. Can you give us some insight into what drove that general plan development and its principles?

Our new plan was rooted in the Ventura Vision process. It involved unprecedented community participation and covers all of the elements that go into making a great place, not just land use and transportation. Like most California communities, Ventura was polarized between the extremes of "pro growth" and "no growth." We put aside the divisive issue of building outside the city's existing borders so that the community and the Council could reach consensus on a "smart growth" infill strategy. For the first time, the supporters of Save Open Space and Agricultural Resources (SOAR) and the Chamber of Commerce joined hands and agreed that they had more in common than the peripheral issues that polarized them in the past.

Your answer may startle many of our readers; they might have a difficult time envisioning both the Chamber and SOAR agreeing on landuse. Elaborate on what unites these two interests to support Ventura's plan.

Ventura County is growing. Our Chamber of Commerce wants to accommodate those market forces by encouraging new jobs and new homes for our city's benefit. The SOAR constituency wants to protect our unique ecosystem and the quality of life. It turns out that those are not mutually exclusive. In fact, as our new general plan shows, they can actually be complementary. We can accommodate growth by directing new investment to older urban areas without paving over sensitive habitat and agricultural resources.

The plan has has goals, including: promoting a "well-planned," "prosperous," "accessible," "creative" and "sustainable" community How do the City of Ventura's goals differ from what one might expect in most urban general plans?

I think our goals are what should be expected throughout Southern California. But, unfortunately, what's called "planning" is largely confined to land-use and transportation policy and seldom integrated with vital concerns like culture, safety, infrastructure and parks. This has never made any sense to me. A century ago, the pioneers of city planning took an integrated and comprehensive view of what made great places. It's only in recent decades that we've narrowed the scope of planning to land use and transportation, and even those are seldom linked appropriately. I think that our plan is in the great tradition of American planning – achieving a community vision that ensures Ventura will continue to be a great place to live.

And how does Ventura's general plan differ from this narrow view of planning that you have criticized?

For example: lots of cities are promoting "mixed-use" development -- which is generally a positive thing. But what's often overlooked is you can't introduce housing into commercial areas without also focusing on quality schools, ample parks and safe streets to make those areas truly thrive. Certainly, the residential market is hot in downtown Los Angeles. But as that market reaches critical mass, the constituents of Councilmember Jan Perry are going to be insisting on a whole new level of concern for the quality of residential life in downtown. It won't be enough to say, "Hey you're urban pioneers. Deal with it." They are going to expect a place to live that is safe and complete as a healthy neighborhood. In Ventura, as we change from single-use residential and commercial zones, our plan addresses all the elements that go into making a neighborhood. I don't understand why that isn't considered integral to "planning."

Let turn our focus on growth: to the challenges that the City of Ventura, Ventura County, and all of Southern California face. The demographic projections for the state over the next ten to 15 years continue to predict multi-million population growth. Is local government well equipped with the infrastructure and fiscal tools to cope with and respond to the planning challenges?

I don't think our limitations are primarily fiscal. I think at the heart they are political. Now, some people say our politicians lack the courage to address our infrastructure challenges. I think that is beside the point. Having been a politician, I know that courage is a rare commodity in politics – otherwise, John Kennedy wouldn't have won a Pulitzer Prize for writing a book about it. We don't need courage from politicians; we need political will from the voters. That only happens when the public comes to understand both the nature of our problem and the range of positive solutions. That was the crucial element in having a unanimous city council vote for a groundbreaking smart growth general plan in Ventura.

From the beginning of the Vision process, the community was involved in understanding the challenges and making choices. In the last two months before adoption, we had face-to-face discussions with over 1,600 residents to ensure that the consensus was solid. Absent that kind of meaningful civic engagement you can't even begin to solve Southern California's challenges. But with genuine civic engagement, the possibilities are unlimited.


You've been known since your tenure as mayor of Pasadena, city manager of Azusa, and now Ventura for fully embracing and encouraging civic and citizen engagement in city planning processes. What have you learned from those experiences that the city of Ventura benefited from when doing its general plan?

Well, I'm not sure that's a question I want to tackle. In my mind, the real question is, "Ventura shows that we can rejuvenate democracy at the local level – can that engagement translate to the metropolis and regional scale?" We've shown that people can and will look beyond just their personal interests toward what is best for their entire community. But it remains an open question whether people can and will look beyond the interests of the particular town they live in toward what is best for an interconnected region. It's one thing to get people to look beyond their neighborhood borders and think about how their neighborhood fits in with a city the size of Pasadena or Ventura. It's quite another thing to see if people can envision the role they play in a city the size of Los Angeles or in the Southern California region. That is the next frontier for civic engagement. Challenges like transportation, jobs, air quality and the cost of housing) cross the borders of individual City Council district in LA, individual cities within each county and even individual counties from Ventura to Riverside.

Given the typical quid pro quo arrangement that promises greater infrastructure investment in exchange for higher density, how does the availability of funding for infrastructure improvements affect cities' willingness to adopt smart growth strategies? Is it fair to say that a lack of infrastructure funding has caused cities such as San Diego and even parts of Ventura County to pull back on development?

It's not trivial question, and it's not a trivial problem. Over the past 25 years, we've utterly defaulted on investing in a sustainable infrastructure for California. No level of government is truly accountable for providing new infrastructure, whether it's out at the suburban edge of sprawl or it's reinvestment in existing urban neighborhoods. So, we have to think boldly and realistically about financing mechanisms. But take Ventura as an example. We're an older city. We would need to reinvest in our infrastructure whether we grow or not. Infill growth offers us an opportunity to generate both tax revenue and developer fees that would otherwise not be available. While the linkage is a challenge, we are going to generate new homes and jobs and use the revenue to reinvest in a more environmentally sustainable infrastructure than we have now. We used similar approaches in Pasadena and Azusa, very different communities. I'm convinced that where there's a will, there's a way.

Both the governor and the Legislature seem to be moving towards a major infrastructure bond for next June's ballot. Do you see newfound political will to invest in infrastructure at the state level?

What I'm hearing appears to be more driven by short-term politics than long-term investment. The governor is pandering to everyone's frustration with traffic. But spending billions on sound-bite solutions is not going to create a sustainable transportation approach for the 21st Century. I get tired of those who ask why we can't repeat Governor Pat Brown's success in building freeways. If you read Ethan Rarick's inspiring biography, it's clear that Brown's enduring legacy isn't tied to building freeways. The relevant question isn't, "What did he do then?" It is, "What would he do now?" Today, Pat Brown would be thinking about creating a sustainable 21st century transportation approach for the world's sixth largest economy. He was on the cutting edge to make California the most populous state in the union. Filling his shoes means we should be on the cutting edge to make California the most prosperous and sustainable state in the union.

This issue of TPR includes an interview with John Shirey, the executive director of California's Redevelopment Association. He comments on the U.S. Supreme Court's Kelo v. City of New London, Connecticut decision affirming eminent domain. Has the decision impacted your work?

I would hate to see local governments lose that power as much as I would hate to see local governments abuse that power. It's a very powerful tool, which in the wrong hands can do a great deal of damage. I know that in Old Pasadena it was critical, although, we only had to actually use it once. On the other hand, its abuse has seriously undermined the credibility of redevelopment. It shouldn't be a tool of first choice, but it's important to have it available in the tool case.

As you know, the cities of Los Angeles and Santa Monica are both in search of planning directors and, in the case of L.A., also a community development agency director. What advice and counsel would you offer to the Mayors and the councils on this personnel matter?

Fifty years ago, Time Magazine put the late Ed Bacon of Philadelphia on their cover. He represented an era when the art of making great cities was celebrated as a noble calling. Our society has changed. The planning profession has changed. But, it's time to think big again. The work of city planners is more important than movies stars, athletes, and, frankly, most politicians. It's time for planners to think big and it's time for people hiring planners to think big about the kind of planners that they hire.


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