Putting Simi's Vision of 2020 in Sharper Focus : Planning: About 200 attend brainstorming sessions, providing grass-roots input on area's long-term development.


Teachers and police officers, merchants and bureaucrats, grown-ups and kids--nearly 200 people in all--huddled in intense knots at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library on Saturday, deep in an ambitious grass-roots plan for their city's future.

Mayor Greg Stratton called the meeting to lay the foundation for Vision 2020--an ambitious plan for guiding this 25-year-old city into maturity.

The brainstormers came up with notions both practical and pie-in-the-sky, on topics ranging from malls and medicine to schools and architecture.

Together, the volunteer policy-makers wrestled with a single question: As the city grows during the next 25 years, what should it become?

Answers emerged in the form of hard-core proposals, fervent wishes and fantastic ideas that were as wildly varied as the people who thought them up:

* A fully equipped teen center to give youths safe, cheap and constructive things to do at night.

* Drop-dead dates requiring developers to either build on optioned property by a certain deadline or forfeit the parcel to the city for permanent parkland.

* A new downtown business district near the civic center, to install a heart in the haphazardly developed city where, as one participant glumly noted, "There's no here here."

* Twenty-story towers to accommodate population growth, with parking in the basement, malls on the first three floors and apartments to the sky.

If anyone scoffed at this last notion, they did so quietly. Vision 2020's coordinators had, after all, encouraged the participants to indulge in "blue-sky thinking."

As a result, talk ranged in tone from hand-wringing, sweat-of-the-brow policy meetings to freewheeling, dorm-room bull sessions.

"There is much more concern in the room than you might imagine," marveled resident Julie Irving, who led a group discussing shopping facilities. "We had a variety of responses, from 'Do we really need a regional mall in this community?' . . . to actually starting to design the mall."

Participants roamed freely among groups during between-session breaks, jumping from topic to topic so that they could weigh in on subjects such as land use, code enforcement, traffic and economic development.

Oscar and Ruth Garcia and sons Christopher, 10, and Carlos, 8, chose to spend the first two of four sessions talking with the schools group.

"If there's no parental participation [in schools], there will be no financial support," Oscar Garcia passionately told participants. "We can't rely on the government for everything. We need contributions; we need to try to figure out a way to bring more funds to the schools."

During a break, Garcia said he worries about the quality of education that Simi Valley schools give to his boys, who are ahead of their math classes because of the five months they spent in better schools during a visit to Peru.

"My kid's always complaining, 'Dad, this is too easy,' " Garcia said. "I'd like to hear my son say, 'Dad, this is too hard.' I'd like to hear that, because that would mean he was learning."

In the group discussing community spirit, Russ Beland suggested that parks and school buildings need more realistic public-use policies, which could strengthen Simi Valley's sense of community.

Beland bemoaned the way park groundskeepers groom the city's baseball diamonds in the morning, then post them off-limits to everyone until league play starts at dusk.

"When I was growing up, the school was the center of the community," he said. "Today, we put up a fence around the high school; we lock the kids up. We've got a trend that we are isolating the population from the services we're providing them."

Other groups' hopes for the future ranged from nuts-and-bolts planning--such as a recommendation to expand Simi Valley's under-utilized public transit system with more routes and smaller buses--to pure ideology:

"The city should have stricter laws and stricter discipline," said Derek Grant, 10. "And I think parents should spend more time with their kids."

Stratton had pushed the crowd in opening remarks "to try to get together and put on the table every possible issue, idea and concept of what we want this community's future to be. We're encouraging everyone to open up and pour forth as much information as possible."

And the ideas that sprang from Saturday's session will be mixed with responses to a questionnaire being sent to 10,000 homes, then hammered into a final policy to help Simi Valley's government guide the city's future.

"It's really important that people get some sense that their opinion is valued," said Dennis Merritt Jones, a pastor who joined discussions on public safety, community spirit and development. "That's where the vision comes in. Out of the vision comes goals."

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