Panic Attack : A citizens panel has developed a visionary development plan for Ventura Boulevard. But some commercial interests on the review board want to rewrite it.

Some business owners caught up in the recession have begun to panic and now want to gut the Ventura/Cahuenga Boulevard Corridor Specific Plan, along with its vision for the future.

The plan governs development on Ventura Boulevard. Adopted in 1991, it was the result of 3 1/2 years of hard work by homeowners, elected officials and business leaders. It established rules for building height, density, setbacks, landscaping and land use for the boulevard's 17 miles.

Both practical and visionary, it establishes five "villages" along the boulevard, each unique.

Studio City, Sherman Oaks, Encino, Tarzana and Woodland Hills are to have their own distinctive characters, signage and design motifs. New amenities are to include wider streets, trees and street furniture.

All this is to be paid for by fees from new developments and assessments on existing properties on the boulevard.

A citizens committee developed the plan by spending many hours gathering facts, studying reports and making field observations.

It hired consultants who prepared detailed traffic analyses before making recommendations such as street widenings at Van Nuys and Laurel Canyon boulevards among dozens of intersections.

The public participated at every juncture. The final plan was supported by virtually all business interests and residents.

It was a compromise that resolved divergent interests, showing how they can work together successfully.

Embodied in a city ordinance, the plan includes a Plan Review Board composed of business people, homeowner representatives and city planners from each of the affected City Council districts. Their charge is to see that the plan is efficiently implemented.

They are to establish a timetable and to flesh out the streetscape envisioned for each urban "village."

Now, however, some members of this board have taken it upon themselves to revise the plan without understanding the compromises that generated it.

The board's function is to recommend ways to achieve the plan's goals. It is clearly not to rewrite the goals, cast aside agreed-upon street improvements, change acceptable uses, redefine the character of the street, drastically change parking restrictions or hire consultants to rewrite the plan.

Yet that is the direction that the board, dominated by a handful of commercial interests and apparently motivated by the recession, has begun to take.

The board has formally requested a two-year moratorium on widening intersections and is considering four other similar recommendations to the City Council.

One proposal would ask the city to redesignate Ventura Boulevard from a regional traffic corridor to a local commercial street during certain hours. Traffic would be deliberately slowed, to the benefit of local merchants but the detriment of motorists.

This issue was thoroughly debated by the citizens committee, and the street is designated a regional corridor in the plan ordinance.

Another motion would ask for renewed study of plans for improvements, for which businesses would be assessed. And one declares that the board lacks "objective analysis of traffic conditions," an absurd claim, and demands that it be allowed to appoint its own "independent" consultant.

Some board members want to reduce trip fees--to be paid by developers to offset traffic growth--and eliminate street widenings at major intersections, substituting a jitney on the boulevard. They reason that eliminating many capital improvements would cut developers' fees in half.

In a newspaper interview, Jeff Brain, who chairs the Planning Review Board, said of the plan: "We're looking at this and saying that we have to rethink it." Brain is president of the Sherman Oaks Chamber of Commerce, and it is clear at the group's meetings that chamber views dominate the panel.

The board, in effect, wants to construct a new and different plan. In the meantime, two years have elapsed and the group has little to show for its efforts.

If the board is unhappy with the plan or its goals, it should ask the citizens advisory committee to reconvene to study revisions.

In our view, sweeping revisions would be a grave mistake.

The basic trip fees and plan structure, including street widenings, must be kept in place and not compromised. A benefit assessment district should be created as soon as possible to spread the economic burden among existing property owners and new projects.

This district should include only businesses on the boulevard, not nearby homeowners as some board members believe, since heavy commercial usage along Ventura Boulevard creates most of the traffic.

The board should do what it is charged to do: sequence projects and implement the urban design streetscape for each urban village. There should be substantial input from residents, not domination by business.

Ventura Boulevard need not become a canyon of Manhattan-like high-rises. There are already some places where one- and two-story buildings are beginning to reappear.

Small shops are returning to places like Encino. Adray's at Gaviota Avenue and Smart & Final at Balboa Boulevard are places where shoppers can pull into parking spaces. Instead of another high-rise office building, a single-story supermarket and retail shops are under way at Hayvenhurst Avenue.

That's progress.

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