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Builders Bring Urban Visions to Freeway’s Rural Corridor

Times Staff Writer

It has been compared to a relaxing soak in a hot tub and called an escape hatch from the day’s accumulation of stress.

To the 80,400 commuters who travel it each afternoon, the scenic portion of the Ventura Freeway that winds through Calabasas and Agoura Hills is more than a road home. It is cheap therapy.

“You cross under Valley Circle Boulevard and Parkway Calabasas and it’s like you’ve left town,” said one such commuter, investment counselor Kenneth Golden.

“It’s wonderful. It’s open land, essentially wilderness beyond the L.A. city limits. It’s the kind of atmosphere that virtually everybody who lives out here moved here for. You drive through the hills and you find yourself unwinding after a hard day.”

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Biting Into Ranch Land

But in portions both large and small, developers are biting into the rolling ranch land that has traditionally insulated Agoura Hills and Thousand Oaks from the San Fernando Valley.

They are coming with visions of car lots and condominiums and corporate headquarters. Development proposals, zoning maps and master plans indicate that, by the time they are finished, they will have claimed almost every foot of the freeway corridor between Woodland Hills and Westlake Village.

The flurry of development applications and tentative tract maps for the corridor has prompted a variety of responses in the 100-square-mile Las Virgenes region--which until now has largely retained the untouched look that its early Spanish rancho name connotes.

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In Calabasas, nervousness over growth has helped fuel a fledgling “City of Calabasas” campaign by homeowners who view incorporation as a means of suburban self-defense.

Agoura Hills Council Split

In Agoura Hills, the corridor development issue has divided residents who incorporated 2 1/2 years ago under a growth-control banner. The dispute has split the City Council and sparked a bitter division between the local business community and environmentally sensitive homeowners.

In Westlake Village, construction plans for the young city’s last two vacant freeway parcels have prompted a fight between the community’s founder and city officials who have heeded homeowners’ pleas to block development. Both sides acknowledge that the dispute could end up in court.

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Corridor growth has sent Las Virgenes Unified School District officials searching for ways to calculate future classroom needs and to pay for campus expansion. It has caused Las Virgenes Municipal Water District leaders to huddle with Ventura County officials about the capacity of their jointly owned--and newly enlarged--sewage treatment plant.

The conflict over the future of the 10-mile-long freeway corridor has been simmering for about five years, since Los Angeles County land-use planners reached two strikingly different conclusions about the area.

On one hand, county planners decreed in a master plan drawn up in 1979 that growth in the western part of the county should be concentrated along the freeway. They said such a concentration would allow the adjoining Santa Monica Mountains to be reserved for low-density development.

On the other hand, the planners recommended in 1980 that the Ventura Freeway corridor be designated a scenic highway, which would require that development along the corridor “contribute to maintaining the character of the area.” The recommendation has not been acted on by county supervisors.

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The debate heated up a short time later when residents of a small subdivision at the northern end of Las Virgenes Road in Calabasas rallied to protest a condominium project proposed there.

The Malibu Canyon Park tract homeowners set out to learn whether the condominiums would overload schools and streets once the proposed units’ residents were counted with newcomers expected from other projects pending or approved.

But homeowners were shocked to learn that no public agency was keeping tabs of such cumulative effects of development, said David Brown, a college professor active in homeowner association work in the neighborhood.

“We found that there is a lag between the time developments are filed and approved and are actually built,” Brown said. “The county was totally ignoring it. They were using traffic and school enrollment projections based on existing conditions instead of basing them on projects that had already been approved.”

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Enrollment-Projection Formula

Although the condominium protest failed, Brown claims that Las Virgenes-area school and water officials revamped their own growth-forecasting techniques after his group calculated its own cumulative-effect statistics and used those figures to fight other development proposals.

The Las Virgenes Unified School District’s new enrollment-projecting formula involves monitoring of improved-tract construction and analysis of past growth, said Donald Zimring, an administrative assistant to the district superintendent.

Along with the new forecasts, the 7,600-pupil, 12-school system soon will begin asking developers to donate land for new schools. Zimring said such donations would be in addition to fees that are now collected from developers on a per-house basis to help pay for new classrooms.

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On Thursday, Las Virgenes school board members also are scheduled to begin investigating a proposed parcel-tax that could be used to finance construction of three more schools that officials think they will need eventually, he said.

Sewer Capacity Discussed

Last week, the Las Virgenes Municipal Water District’s board of directors met with directors of the Ventura County-based Triunfo County Sanitation District to discuss sewer capacity for the freeway corridor.

James Colbaugh, manager of water and sanitation operations for the Las Virgenes agency, said the two districts concluded that the 7% annual growth rate the region has seen over the past 10 years is likely to double over the next decade. He said officials are confident they can handle the increase.

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However, Diane Eaton, a veteran Las Virgenes water district administrator, said such growth predictions have historically been shaky.

“Back in 1969, L.A. County forecast that we’d have population out here of 100,000 by 1980. We have about a 40,000 population now,” she said.

“A lot of things get proposed that never get built. The longer you’re here, the more layers of dreams you see on property around here.”

That kind of uncertainty isn’t shared by corridor developers, however.

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In Agoura Hills, development consultant Steve Richey stood on the crest of a hill overlooking the freeway last week and explained the area’s attraction to builders. His client, Lincoln Properties, has begun grading for a 178-unit apartment project. Work began only after the firm promised city officials that an oak-studded ravine on the site would be preserved.

‘Pretty Fair Trade’

“If you take a barren hill and remove it and replace it with homes and families and landscaped areas, that’s a pretty fair trade in my book,” Richey said.

“These hills that we’re building on have little use. It’s June and they’re already dry, a fire hazard. What good are they if not for building? What better use could you find than to grade them to where you can put families on them?”

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A few days later, Agoura Hills City Councilwoman Fran Pavley paused in front of Richey’s development site and offered an answer.

The freeway corridor’s hills and ridges have an intrinsic, emotional value to residents and passing commuters alike, she said.

“You can’t put a price on hills and natural beauty of the area,” Pavley said. “The environment here is the reason people are willing to live this far out of town and drive as far as they do to work.

“They can deal with the pressure and the dense urban atmosphere of Los Angeles because they live in an area that provides a balance to their life style. They need a mental escape from the dense urban environment.”

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Pavley was the top vote-getter in November, 1982, when environmentally minded Agoura residents incorporated as Agoura Hills and elected a City Council pledged to slow and orderly growth for the eight-square-mile area.

Since then, the fledgling council has watched as builders worked on projects in the city that were approved by Los Angeles County before incorporation. Council members have had total control over only two projects with the potential for major environmental disruption.

They approved the first project, an office complex that will include a Holiday Inn, on a split vote. But when a follow-up vote was required to approve a blasting permit for the the rocky hillside site, the council balked and withheld permission. The project remains in limbo.

The second proposal, for a $75-million, high-technology business park on a 34-acre site south of the freeway at Reyes Adobe Road, will be heard by the council on June 19. The council will then consider a staff recommendation that developer Gerald Katell redesign the complex to preserve an oak-lined stream bed, according to Councilwoman Vicky Leary.

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The blasting permit vote and talk of redesign for the business park have incensed the Agoura-Las Virgenes Chamber of Commerce.

In a flurry of critical articles printed recently in a local weekly newspaper and in a chamber-produced magazine mailed to homeowners, business leaders have condemned the council action as “arbitrary and capricious” and “a disservice to our community.”

Chamber President Steve Gluck, a Calabasas lawyer, blames the council action on what he described in the magazine as “a small minority of ‘self-annointed’ spokespersons (read: obstructionists).”

“The Agoura corridor is not to be left in its natural state,” Gluck said in an interview. “It’s a waste of land. You can’t tell me it’s pleasing to the eye.”

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According to Gluck, growth is needed to provide tax revenue for Agoura Hills. He said major projects can be designed so they do not interfere with residents’ views of the hills.

“When you step back, a five-story building doesn’t detract from the mountains,” he said. And from the freeway itself, Gluck said, “you shouldn’t be looking, you should be driving.”

Wayne Adelstein, an Agoura Hills resident, public relations man and chamber vice president who has represented the group’s pro-development views at city meetings, said businessmen feel the City Council majority is out of step with community attitudes toward development.

“It isn’t realistic to think this land is going to sit in a pristine nature forever,” he said. “The objective is to bring in the highest quality development you can.” A tough city stance will only drive such quality commercial developments to other areas, Adelstein said.

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Others contend, however, that the Las Virgenes area’s proximity to Los Angeles, its scenic setting and plentiful supply of workers makes it enticing enough for companies to make concessions to locate there.

“That area is becoming known as the technology corridor,” said Hal Cook, an office leasing specialist with Grubb & Ellis, a real estate firm that is marketing property along the freeway corridor.

“Basically, you’ve got high-technology companies driven by cheap rents and a good labor pool,” Cook said. “The neatest thing is the quality of the development along the Ventura Freeway technology corridor. It’s clean development.”

Among Cook’s properties is a four-acre hillside site on the south side of the freeway’s Calabasas Grade. Although that two-mile stretch of the freeway corridor is now virtually undeveloped, Cook views his site as “a hot corporate headquarters location.”

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He is not alone in the assessment that the pristine Calabasas Grade is ripe for development.

Close to his property, a 14-acre hillside parcel with a 900-foot freeway frontage near the middle of the grade is in escrow for $1.25 million, according to Mary Ellen Graham, a real estate agent with Merrill Lynch Realty.

Across the freeway, an 823-acre hillside tract that covers more than a mile of the north side of the grade is also on the market. The asking price, complete with a county-approved 1981 tract map allowing 683 condominiums and 72 single-family homes, is $12 million.

Officials of Coldwell Banker, the realty firm handling the property, said the Canadian Imperial Bank of Commerce of Toronto took over the property from its financially troubled previous owner, the Canada-based Daon Development Corp.

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Guidelines More Relaxed

The Calabasas Grade land, like other sites along the eastern part of the Las Virgenes freeway corridor, is under county control and subject to development guidelines that are considerably more relaxed than those of the cities of Agoura Hills to the west or Los Angeles to the east.

As a result, projects proposed for current open space in the unincorporated zone range from graceful to giddy:

The last major remaining open space between Valley Circle Boulevard and Parkway Calabasas is a 52-acre parcel that has been earmarked for a 2-million-square-foot office complex. However, the Calabasas Park Co. last year delayed construction of the 10-building project to negotiate grading plans for the site with nearby homeowners. Because of the experience, some of those residents have helped form the nucleus of the two-month-old “City of Calabasas” incorporation movement.

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On the freeway’s north side at Parkway Calabasas, a luxury residential tract is proposed for the area’s last remaining open space--a hilly area above the Los Angeles Pet Memorial Park. Developers also have asked the pet cemetery to sell an undeveloped part of the animal burial ground to them.

West of Parkway Calabasas, a ravine on the south side of the freeway has been cleared of several dozen oak trees and is targeted to be filled in and used as an automobile sales lot. Nearby, zoning has been approved for a 68,000-square-foot, two-story headquarters for Filmation Studios, a cartoon animation company. At Calabasas and Mureau roads, another two-story office is planned to launch development of three parcels totaling 22 acres.

On the freeway’s north side, longtime Calabasas Grade landowner Charles Mureau is building what he has described as a Victorian-themed recreation center next to the freeway’s Mureau Road overcrossing. Mureau, 80, said the center will feature family-style games such as croquet.

At Las Virgenes Road, a small shopping center, 240 condominiums and 698 apartment units have been approved for construction north of the freeway. The apartments and town houses will be constructed by builder Jack Bravo.

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West of Las Virgenes Road, 1,535 condominiums and homes have been proposed for a hilly area north of the freeway and east of the Los Angeles County landfill. Development requests have not been filed with the county, however.

South of the freeway at Las Virgenes Road, a cluster of gas stations and restaurants will soon be joined by more than 2 million square feet of high-tech manufacturing and office space. Construction has begun by the Johnston Group of Century City on a $30-million, 16-acre business park between Agoura Road and the freeway that will add the first 337,000 square feet of leasable space to the site.

Brad Rosenberg, Johnston Group vice president, said he is helping to form a Ventura Freeway Technology Corridor Assn. that he expects to attract about 30 Las Virgenes-area members.

Next to that site, grading has begun on a 520-acre mixed commercial and residential project south of Agoura Road and west of Las Virgenes Road. Calabasas-based Currey-Riach Co. has approval to build 1,200 residential units and 60 acres of commercial and high-tech industrial buildings. As part of the development agreement, the company has dedicated to the county a 13-acre civic center site next to the freeway at the Lost Hills Road overcrossing.

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Across the freeway from the Currey-Riach site, separate developers have proposed an office building and a carpet warehouse and showroom off Liberty Canyon Road.

On land just west of that, plans for about 1,000 homes and about 1 million square feet of industrial space have been submitted to Los Angeles County. The county Regional Planning Commission rejected the Oren Realty Co. proposal in April; builder Jerry Oren said he will redesign his 475-acre parcel for about 300 luxury homes if county supervisors do not overturn the commission action.

Oren’s property borders the City of Agoura Hills’ eastern limits. On Agoura Hills’ western edge, development plans for two freeway-fronting parcels have been critically reviewed by the Westlake Village City Council.

Both sites are owned by Daniel K. Ludwig, a billionaire developer and businessman credited with creating the Westlake Village master plan in the 1960s. Ludwig has applied to build a residential and commercial project on 131 acres north of the freeway and to turn his 91-acre Westlake Village Golf Course into a high-tech business park.

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Both proposals have been rejected by the Westlake Village council. Among arguments raised during April hearings on the projects were assertions by homeowners that they voted to incorporate in 1981, in part, to save the golf course.

Allen Camp, Ludwig’s Westlake Village representative, said Thursday that his client had not decided on his next move. Camp did not rule out a lawsuit, however.

It probably will not be the last lawsuit threatened over development in the Las Virgenes freeway corridor.


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