Writer Pens Critiques of County Projects : Commentary: Essayist and urban planner William Fulton of Ventura points out the good, the bad and the abominable of local land-use decisions.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

For urban planner-essayist William Fulton, the road from upstate New York to hillside Ventura was lined with barbed commentary and, sometimes, infuriated response.

A Washington sportswriter was so offended by a 1985 Fulton column arguing against a major league baseball team for the nation's capital that he declared Fulton's assertions "the greatest compendium of flapdoodle ever accepted for the written page."

"I felt that if Shirley Povich was writing a column attacking me," Fulton said recently, "then maybe I'd finally arrived as a pundit."

Fulton, 38, a Ventura resident since 1987 but a planner and writer with a nationwide scope, has only recently begun to turn his planner's expertise and sharp pen to communities around him in Ventura County.

And Fulton's perspectives, incorporated in his statewide planning newsletter, California Planning & Development Report, increasingly strike home with local subscribers--professional planners in Thousand Oaks, Ventura, Oxnard and the County Hall of Administration.

"I can't think of another individual who has his perspective on new ideas, new legal decisions and new ways of doing things in land-use planning," said Everett Millais, Ventura's top city planner. "Most planners don't write very well, so his ability to make sense out of some very complex issues is a unique talent. Whenever I see something by him, I read it."

Fulton said that after seven years in the county, he is ready to occasionally turn an eye to local planning decisions. "I've been here long enough now to have an opinion," he said. "People are going to hate me."

A sampling of Fulton opinions:

* Putting a Cal State university campus among lemon groves near Camarillo is the worst planning decision in recent county history. "You're basically busting the greenbelt. The site is a disaster."

* The Ahmanson Ranch mini-city project in the Simi Hills is not a bad deal, since the government could not have paid market prices for the 10,000 acres of parkland in the package and pressure to build on the ranch certainly would have increased.

* Weldon Canyon at the mouth of the Ojai Valley should be approved as the west county's principal landfill. "You can get riled up about saving one canyon, but if we're going to generate trash, we have to figure out how to deal with it."

* A new jail in the agricultural greenbelt near Santa Paula was necessary and its approval responsible. "In order to be true communities, the good things and the bad things have to be together. And a jail is part of it."

Here and elsewhere, Fulton--who holds master's degrees in urban planning and journalism--straddles the line between planning and commentary.

He not only publishes a monthly newsletter, but analyzes development issues for magazines and newspapers nationwide, lectures on urban planning at UC Santa Barbara and recently completed a UCLA-sponsored study on growth along the Ventura Freeway near Thousand Oaks.

He even addressed land-use issues as a government official, serving as chairman of the West Hollywood Planning Commission in 1986-87.

Now Fulton sees himself as a lightning rod for topical discussion.

"It's sort of my job to bring things to people's attention," he said. "In the planning profession in California, there are very few people who can get up and speak their minds without stepping on toes. They either work for government agencies or are consultants for developers."

Millais recalled a scene at a national planning conference where Fulton, a featured speaker, provoked a heated debate.

"He put forward to a group of die-hard planning types that the only effective planning is being done by developers," Millais said.

*

Surrounded by the paintings of his artist wife in his light-splashed office overlooking a green Ondulando-area hillside, Fulton discussed what he sees as the best and worst planning decisions in recent county history.

He cited abominable projects in Ventura and Oxnard but gave the county high marks for its determination to prevent leapfrog development beyond city boundaries.

"What all this adds up to, I think, is we've established a pretty good framework for regional planning," he said. "But when you get down to the projects, it's just a mess."

Success can be measured by the continued separation of the county's 10 cities by farmland and by park agencies' acquisition of scenic ranches in the Santa Monica Mountains and the Simi Hills, he said.

The county can also be proud of efforts to restore the historic downtowns of the west county. And, taken on its own terms as a commuter suburb, Thousand Oaks, especially the Westlake portion, is remarkably attractive and self-contained, he said.

But many key decisions at the city level have been marked by a lack of vision--and by officials' refusal to take an unpopular stand, he said.

For example, government acquiescence to a Cal State campus near Camarillo "was the BANANA solution--Build Absolutely Nothing Anywhere Near Anybody," he said. He took no position on the Taylor Ranch site overlooking the ocean in Ventura, favoring instead a ranch next to the Ventura Freeway near Ventura Harbor.

A core problem of Ventura County's local planning is that "we've never really questioned the suburban (development) model--that any destination you might go to needs to be as close as possible to where your car is parked," Fulton said.

Rather than auto-oriented shopping malls and sterile, segregated housing tracts, Fulton prefers clustering homes, stores and offices in self-contained communities that emphasize travel on bike or foot, not by car.

The traditional small town--where people could eat, work and play within walking distance of their homes--is not a bad planning model, he said. In fact, several such neo-traditional villages have been proposed statewide.

"Communities need to be self-contained on the neighborhood level, yet connected in an effective way to the rest of the city," Fulton said. That helps create a sense of place--an essential element if people are to care about their cities.

Ventura has that sense, for example. Camarillo does not, he said.

Downtown Ventura has a distinct identity. It is marked by notable buildings, especially the ornate City Hall. And it has a variety of shops, restaurants and special events that work well together, Fulton said.

Although Ventura now sprawls many miles eastward, its heart clearly is its historical downtown, he said. And that helps people feel like they live in a real place, not an appendage of Los Angeles.

"People define their communities as narrowly as they can. If they can mentally detach even from their city, they will," he said. "But everybody can identify with the central part of Ventura."

The murder of a Ventura High School senior last year demonstrated the emotional connection of residents throughout the city, he said.

"When Jesse Strobel was killed in central Ventura, east Ventura didn't say, 'I don't care,' " Fulton said. "Part of that is a strong sense of place that helps us to break out of our cocoons."

In contrast, he sees Camarillo as just another suburban city, where Mediterranean-style color schemes are enforced by a strict design code, but which is indistinguishable from the blur of cities in Orange County.

"It's shopping centers, parking lots, an arterial highway and walled-off subdivisions," he said. "It's low-rise, auto-oriented and very suburban. It's like 100 other communities in California. If you put me blindfolded in that town, I wouldn't be able to tell you where I was. And that's the test of whether you have a place."

*

Increasingly, Fulton has jumped into the fray in his home city of Ventura, trying to protect its sense of place.

He publicly challenged the City Council in the fall to resist expansion of Buenaventura Mall unless developers could offer something more creative than "a bunch of stores just dropped on top of a parking lot."

Fulton insisted that developer MaceRich's plan to bulldoze several established neighborhood-oriented stores to bring in more large "anchor" department stores was "a retailing dinosaur" that failed to link the mall with nearby stores and neighborhoods.

He even suggested that MaceRich build senior citizen housing atop the center's proposed new parking garages so that the mall's character would be more compatible with the neighborhood.

City officials have argued that they have little choice but to approve an expanded mall because of competition among Ventura, Oxnard and neighboring cities for a dominant regional shopping center.

But Fulton said that even if it is true that only one regional mall will thrive between Thousand Oaks and Santa Barbara, the winner will not necessarily be the one built first.

"It will be the one that most successfully creates a place where people want to go," he said.

Millais said Fulton's ideas make good sense but that MaceRich holds the trump card, since cities are increasingly dependent on sales taxes to balance their budgets.

"They say, 'Do you want us or not? And if you want us, it's going to be as we're used to doing business,' " Millais said.

He said he knew of only a handful of cities--Santa Barbara among them--that have had the political will to force developers to substantially alter their projects to meld with existing city design.

As things have progressed, MaceRich may cut the size of its expansion for economic reasons. That could produce an expansion that works within the broader fabric of the city, Millais said.

"But that is not because of anything we did," he said. "The planning is being done by the development community."

As Fulton has become more involved in local issues, his positions have drawn fire and his philosophy has been interpreted by some as pro-development.

"I find him interesting reading, but I certainly don't agree with his politics," Ventura Councilman Gary Tuttle said. "He's a bit too conservative for my liking."

Mary Wiesbrock, director of Agoura-based Save Open Space, chastised Fulton for concluding that the 3,050-dwelling Ahmanson Ranch was a reasonable compromise given the dearth of public money to buy the land.

"Is he getting paid by them?" Wiesbrock said. "He has his head in the sand if he calls himself a planner and says it's a good thing."

Fulton said he is sometimes characterized as pro-business because he accepts the inevitability of some growth.

"My agenda is to try to take the growth I think is inevitable and sculpt it to shape a better community," he said. "Sometimes just being anti-growth is the easy way out. . . . The debate gets polarized into whether you are for or against growth, but the reality is a lot more subtle than that."

*

When Fulton considers Ventura County's future, he bucks the conventional wisdom: He does not think that all local cities will one day merge into another Orange County.

"It's important to remember that most of the population growth is behind us," he said. "I don't see a doubling of the population or anything like that.

"Fillmore may be the exception, and Moorpark will definitely grow," he added. "But in Ventura, everybody was arguing (in 1989) over whether the population would be 102,000 or 112,000 or 122,000. And I'm thinking to myself, 'We've gone from 20,000 to 90,000 in 20 years, so we've already made our bed. We have to come to grips with the town that we've created and improve it.' "

Perhaps the most important decision facing this county--the one that will most affect growth--is whether officials eventually approve commercial airline service at Point Mugu Naval Air Station, Fulton said.

The Navy announced last year that it would allow jetliners to use its world-class runways on a limited basis. Business leaders and some public officials quickly endorsed the plan. But air carriers, nearly all losing money in existing markets, have balked so far.

Like many county residents, Fulton is ambivalent about the prospect of an airport, because its approval could prompt a boom similar to Orange County's after the expansion of John Wayne Airport.

"As a businessman, I can tell you that the lack of an airport is the single biggest impediment to doing business around here," he said. "And I think in the long run, this county needs air connection to the rest of the state.

"But I think the lack of an airport is one thing that has kept this area nice," he said.

Whether Ventura County can maintain its high quality of life will be a pressing question over the next 20 years, Fulton said.

"The key to livability is short commutes," he said. So each city must strive to balance jobs and population.

Ventura and Oxnard are unique among the cities in Southern California because they have almost a perfect balance of homes and jobs, regional studies show.

But Simi Valley and Moorpark must continue to expand their industrial base, and Thousand Oaks its job market, if residents are to escape commuter gridlock in 2010, he said.

No matter how Ventura County responds to growth pressure, its proximity to Los Angeles County is an overriding consideration, Fulton said.

"Approval of 40 million square feet of space at Warner Center (in Woodland Hills) may be the single most important planning decision to affect Ventura County," he said. "Camarillo is only half an hour away."

Fulton's List

Best Planning Decisions

* Adoption by cities and Ventura County of Guidelines for Orderly Development in 1969: "It created a rational regional context for land-use planning. It made each of the cities identifiably separate. You usually know what town you're in in Ventura County. It reduced the competition among the cities, so they weren't annexing like crazy. I don't think they suppressed that much demand for growth, and we've been able to channel growth pretty rationally."

* Creation of the Santa Monica Mountains planning process: "The National Recreation Area and the (Santa Monica) Mountains Conservancy was one of the very important and good things. It created a regional framework for what should go where--where stuff should be built and where it shouldn't. The Ahmanson Ranch would have been built long ago without the (recreation area)."

* City support for historic downtowns in Oxnard, Ventura, Fillmore, Ojai and Santa Paula: "They never did what many areas did--use the iron mallet of redevelopment to tear down our downtowns. Everybody can identify with the central part of these towns. People say Ventura did some bad things--the condos on the hills. But nobody said, 'Let's extend the redevelopment area and knock down the Ventura Theatre.' "

* Ventura's restoration of the old county courthouse and its conversion into City Hall: "If there is any one building that makes Ventura a place, that's it. It's everything a beautiful building should be. It's up a hill. It overlooks the ocean. It's just spectacularly beautiful, and it would have been awful to let something happen to it. . . . (Such buildings) go together in creating definable places."

* Expansion of Metrolink to the west county: "The prospect of using Metrolink creatively to link the county together is real. The best example of its creative use is when they started to run trains in reverse to the County Fair. And now it's to the Beach Party. The fairgrounds are a focal point for the whole county. And Metrolink is great for Simi Valley and Moorpark. It will help to make Simi and Moopark more economically connected with the Valley."

Worst Planning Decisions

* Locating the Cal State university campus west of Camarillo: "The site is a disaster. If you think you can put Cal State on farmland away from the freeway and keep the rest of the greenbelt, you're nuts. If they'd picked the Lusk property (in Ventura), they'd knock out one farm right on the freeway adjacent to the city rather than taking out a whole greenbelt. You can argue (the Camarillo site's) central location. From Thousand Oaks, it's not as far to drive. But that's only one point."

* Johnson Drive development in Ventura: "That is my favorite bad-planning decision. It was a large tract of land with one property owner. It is the gateway to the city. You could have done anything with that to let people know, 'You're in a place in the city of Ventura.' Instead, they built a no-brainer. You throw down six-lane roads, a pad for Carl's Jr., a pad for Toys R Us, then across the street a pad for movie theaters. I wonder how many times I have eaten dinner at the Chinese restaurant and then decided whether I should risk my life and run across to the theater. You have to get in your car. And once you're in your car, you can go anywhere."

* Moving county offices out of the Ventura downtown: "That removed from the downtown any hope of Ventura being a true office and government center. It's left to specialty retail. I admit there are so many physical constrictions, it would have been really hard to build in the downtown. They needed a tremendous amount of space. But they could have at least kept the courthouse downtown. I'm not sure in the long run what has been gained. Ultimately, it was a real bad decision, a real growth inducer."

* Oxnard Financial Plaza: "They're huge buildings in a suburban setting. They have the components of a skyscraper office building, a business hotel and a financial low-rise. But to organize it in such a poor way on the ground level so you can't avoid walking across a parking lot is just poor planning. I have a problem trying to figure out even what the front of that place is. That creates cognitive pain. . . . You don't know where anything is relative to anything else. It's an obstruction even to business. The age of throwing up buildings ought to be over. That place really drives me nuts."

* The Radisson Suite Hotel in Oxnard: "It's a dumb location, and it was a dumb deal for the city. They thought, 'Oh gosh, we'll get the Radisson and we'll get the (Los Angeles) Raiders training camp. We'll do the deal as a redevelopment project and we'll be fine.' They thought the team would be a tourist draw. They forgot they were dealing with Al Davis, who immediately put up a wall all around the practice field. Then the city guaranteed payments on the (site improvement) bonds and was hung out to dry to the tune of $1 million a year."

* "Sales Tax Canyon" (near Rose Avenue): "That is not entirely Oxnard's fault because, in part, they responded to state tax law. Look how tempting that was. You have a needy population, and you're able to annex a lot of property adjacent to the freeway, so you just load it up with any retail you can get. Then you have these off-ramps designed for lemon trucks. Oxnard sees itself as getting a leg up on other cities with the auto dealerships, but look what's happened to Oxnard Boulevard. . . . Then the business culture has come to expect tributes in tax breaks. Sales Tax Canyon is a manifestation of that, and it's going to turn out to be a mess forever. There's no way (for traffic) to get through that bend right now."

Profile of William Fulton

Born: Sept. 26, 1956, in Auburn, N. Y.

Education: B A journalism, St. Bonaventure University in New York; M A journalism, American University in Washington; M A urban planning, UCLA.

Career: editor and publisher of California Planning & Development Report, a monthly newsletter; author of the book "Guide to California Planning"; teacher of urban planning, UC Santa Barbara; free-lance writer, numerous newspapers and magazines.

Family: wife, Vicki Torf Fulton, artist and designer; a daughter, Sara, 3.

Hobbies: writing fiction, bicycling.

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