Intent on becoming part of the political process after feeling overlooked for decades, Ventura Avenue community members hosted a debate Thursday night that pitted developers against area business leaders.
With investors planning to build more than 100 homes and businesses along the mostly industrial North Ventura Avenue, merchants are complaining that the homes would be too close to their noisy, 24-hour operations.
The debate failed to resolve the disagreement. But it will alert members of the City Council that the Westside Community Council--barely a year old--has arrived as a political force, organizers said.
"We want to be at the table to discuss developments of any nature being considered for the west side of Ventura," said Lauri Flack, the council's treasurer and spokeswoman.
Later this month, the City Council will decide whether to approve sprawling annexation and rezoning plans that would pave the way for the residential and commercial development.
Executives at Kinko's Corp., one of the area's largest employers, are plotting for the eventual expansion of their corporate headquarters. The fast-growing company said it needs another 60,000 to 100,000 square feet of office space at its Stanley Avenue complex.
Meanwhile, nearby landowners Vetco and the Neel and Huntsinger family trusts are proposing a sweeping commercial and residential project just behind Ventura Avenue.
The project stalled last summer, when Ventura Avenue business owners realized they were included in the rezoning and annexation plan. They said that commercial and residential projects should not be allowed in an industrial neighborhood.
Since then, project supporters have redrawn the boundaries, excluding the opposing property owners and downsizing the plan from 77 to 58 acres.
But a group of Ventura Avenue merchants calling themselves Citizens to Preserve Industry has formed to challenge the annexation plan and the homes and businesses it would allow.
"The city has traditionally encouraged manufacturing and industry on the Avenue," said Glen M. Reiser, an attorney hired by the business coalition. "Why? Because it's the best place for it."
The existing businesses "make noise, sometimes they smell and sometimes they emit smoke," Reiser said. "By putting residents in the heart of this economic area, battle lines will be drawn."
But Bill Neel, a member of an old Ventura family that has owned Ventura Avenue property for more than 80 years, said the project would pump millions of dollars into a depressed and neglected neighborhood.
"This is privately sponsored redevelopment for an area that has not seen any significant investment for a number of years," Neel said. "West Ventura needs a major shot in the arm."
Jeff Kirby, a partner at Tek Engineering just off Ventura Avenue, said that the area's businesses generate far more in economic activity than any walled-off subdivision would.
He also said that an industrial area is no place for children to grow up.
"There's some great places to put houses in Ventura, but there aren't that many places to put industry," he said. "The Avenue is one of them."
But Tom Neel, another member of the old-time Ventura family, told the 50 or so people attending the forum that he spent many boyhood summers exploring the area.
"It is simply not unsafe for children to be on that property," he said.
Councilman Jim Monahan, one of two council members who attended the two-hour debate, said he would support the annexation and rezoning plan if it excluded houses.
Monahan also credited the Westside Community Council for promoting the public forum and bringing the issue to the neighborhood.
"That's what I've been working for as an Avenue business--that we have more political impact," said Monahan, whose family has owned a welding company at 1040 N. Ventura Ave. for years.
"It was an actual marriage between commercial, residential and industry people," he said.