Land Swap Endangers Huge Project : Oxnard: Talks break off on a crucial trade for a county-owned parcel that blocks completion of the $500-million Town Center.

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Ventura County officials and developers of the largest commercial project in the county have broken off negotiations for a land swap that is critical to the completion of the massive $500-million project in Oxnard.

Over the past decade, a succession of builders have tried to acquire a county-owned maintenance yard that blocks completion of the Oxnard Town Center, a 4.4-million-square-foot office-and-retail project at the Santa Clara River and the Ventura Freeway.

The aging 14-acre county facility is critical to the development of the center because it lies in the path of a new freeway interchange that must be built before the development can be completed.


After years of sometimes bitter negotiations, the River Edge Development Co., the current developer of the project, seemed ready last year to swap a 20-acre parcel that the firm owns off Vineyard Avenue to the county in exchange for the land needed for the Town Center. Before the deal was final, however, River Edge officials added an escape clause in the contract that county officials would not accept.

In a letter last month to River Edge President Lawrence Lahr, county Public Works Director Arthur Goulet said “the time was not ripe for coming to an agreement.

“Whether or not you and your company put forth your best efforts is really moot, since we were unable to fashion a final agreement satisfactory to both parties,” he said.

Since then, the two sides have not communicated, they said.

The 265-acre Oxnard Town Center project would include a million-square-foot shopping mall, 1,034 hotel rooms, a cultural center, restaurants and a bank. It would have a high-rise core of 12- to 24-story office buildings. One six-story tower has been completed.

River Edge cannot, however, build more than three-fourths of the project until a new freeway interchange and several road improvements are built, according to an agreement signed by the cities of Oxnard and Ventura. The road improvements are designed to ease traffic congestion generated by the project.

The proposed deal between River Edge and the county had included not only the land swap but $10 million in improvements by River Edge at the county’s proposed new maintenance yard on Vineyard Avenue.


County officials say the land swap was rejected primarily because River Edge officials added a provision that nullified the land swap agreement if financing for the road improvements fell through.

Goulet said county officials do not want the land swap linked to conditions outside of the county’s control.

“Every commercial development in any city benefits everybody,” he said. “But we don’t jump through hoops for that.”

Representatives of River Edge, a Buellton-based development company, said they are not asking too much from the county because the maintenance yard must eventually be moved to make way for freeway improvements anyway.

“If we drop dead tomorrow these improvements are still going to have to be put in,” said Ronald Roberts, a River Edge vice president and project manager.

Paul Denis, another River Edge vice president, said the company wants to guarantee the financing for the road improvements and freeway interchange before agreeing to the land swap.


“The deal is contingent on the financing,” he said. “You can’t buy something you don’t have the funding for.”

County officials believe that a downturn in the economy has dampened the developer’s enthusiasm to complete the huge center.

“They altered the terms of condition,” said county Chief Administrative Officer Richard Wittenberg. “I believe the economic situation turned for them. It was the recession and they simply walked away from the basic agreement.”

“I think the market is such that they may be in no rush,” Goulet said.

But Roberts said his company is moving forward with the project without a slowdown.

The $44-million cost of the freeway interchange and other road improvements around the project are to be split among the state, River Edge and the cities of Oxnard and Ventura.

While River Edge and the state have agreed on their share of the cost, Oxnard and Ventura officials are still debating over their split, putting the future of the entire project in doubt.

“Many things have to come together for the land swap to take place,” said Supervisor John K. Flynn, whose district includes Oxnard. “Ventura and Oxnard have to get together for this to happen.”


Oxnard Assistant City Manager John Tooker said Oxnard wants to see the project completed and has been meeting regularly with Ventura officials to try to agree on a split.

The company has estimated that $5.3 million in sales, hotel and property taxes would go to Oxnard annually after the project is completed in about 2005.

The county also would eventually receive about $1.6 million each year in property taxes, and about 11,000 jobs would be created, the company has estimated.

Wittenberg said he is disappointed that the land swap agreement has fallen through. But he said county officials have not totally given up on the deal.

“We are always willing to come back to the table,” he said.