City Center Plan Budget Is $55.6 Million : Jungleland: Thousand Oaks wants to convert a former animal theme park site into a government center that critics call extravagant.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Thousand Oaks officials unveiled a $55.6-million budget Friday to convert a former animal theme park called Jungleland into a new city government center that some critics view as an unnecessary extravagance.

The budget--twice the amount estimated by city officials four years ago--includes funds for a new civic center, city hall, theater, civic auditorium and a five-acre park.

A major cause for the dramatic increase from the $28-million estimate made in 1986 is the addition of a $12-million government center and a $3.3-million council forum, Mayor Alex Fiore said.

The proposed budget--which does not include architect and consultant fees or funds for land acquisition--is expected to be voted on Tuesday night at the City Council meeting.

The city has already paid $12.75 million to take possession of the property, which was condemned in 1987. But the former owner, Assadollah Morovati, has challenged that amount in court, saying he is entitled to $22 million.

Morovati says the $22-million figure represents the true worth of the 20-acre site as well as its potential value if he had been allowed to develop it. The issue is expected to be resolved in court this fall.

The vacant site at Thousand Oaks Boulevard and Conejo School Road once contained a small, privately operated zoo and an animal-training facility until it closed in 1968. When the city bought the land in 1987, it approved preliminary plans to build a public park and an 1,800-seat civic auditorium and lease about eight acres to a private developer for offices and a hotel.

Since the project was proposed, a group of residents have criticized local officials, saying that the city was setting itself up for a financial disaster. County Supervisor Madge L. Schaefer, an outspoken opponent of the project, said Friday that the increased budget lends credibility to citizen concerns.

"It's a gigantic money guzzler," Schaefer said. "The question is should Thousand Oaks be using tax money to build a cultural center? I think private money is the way to build it. You've got to be practical."

But city officials insist that the civic auditorium, along with the rest of the project, can be economically viable. It also could be the centerpiece of the city, bringing to life the slowly deteriorating old town area, they say.

"I've asked the city staff if we are tying up funds forever now," Councilman Frank Schillo said at a press conference Friday. "The answer is a very loud, 'No.' We're not tying ourselves down to something that is going to tie the city in knots for the next 20 years. It's something we have the money for now."

According to Schillo, funding for the project will include: $27.7 million in redevelopment agency bonds; $23 million from the sale of the city's former and current city hall sites; $800,000 from a developer's donation; the recently completed sale of surplus city land for $950,000; $4.1 million for the use of the facilities by the Conejo Recreation and Park District and interest income of $6.45 million.

"None of this project . . . will interrupt or have any impact on normal city" operating expenses, Fiore said.

Schillo added: "No one is going to pay any extra money in real estate taxes."

But Schaefer disagreed. She argued that more tax money will be needed to subsidize the project, taking away from other obligations.

"There's not a civic cultural center around that's operating in the black," Schaefer said. "It's going to be a beaut. It's so far beyond what government should be doing."

Meanwhile, several activists who are longtime critics of the project are threatening to file a lawsuit unless the city discloses details of its negotiations with Lowe Development Corp., which has proposed building a hotel-office complex next to a new city hall and civic auditorium. The citizens, led by Heinrick (Corky) Charles, also are asking for details on how much the project will cost the public over the years.

So far, Charles said, the city has ignored their request.

One of the residents, Joan Gorner, said Friday that she still wants to put the issue before the voters.

"Now that it's $55 million, there might be grounds to put it on the ballot," said Gorner, whose first attempt to place the issue before residents was rejected by the city two years ago. "We should find out what folks want."

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