Oxnard Offers Joint Mall Plan : Taxes: In return, Ventura would scrap Buenaventura center's expansion. It's the latest twist in a long dispute.

TIMES STAFF WRITERS

Oxnard leaders will try to persuade the Ventura City Council on Monday to scrap a $50-million expansion plan for the Buenaventura Mall and opt instead to jointly develop a regional shopping center in Oxnard that would funnel sales-tax revenues into both cities' coffers.

The proposal--the latest in a rancorous struggle between two cities for sales-tax dollars--is a last-ditch attempt by Oxnard to save its only major department stores from fleeing The Esplanade in favor of the rival Ventura mall.

"Those are the only two major anchors we have," Oxnard Councilman Andres Herrera said. "If they leave, what are we going to do now? That's the clearest way I can state our concerns."

The neighboring cities have feuded for a decade over competing plans to build regional malls, but the current dispute is the hottest in years, as Ventura is set to approve an expanded 1.28-million-square-foot shopping center next month.

Ventura leaders say Sears and Robinsons-May are committed to relocating to the Buenaventura Mall. Those stores would join existing tenants J.C. Penney and Macy's to create the largest regional mall in western Ventura County.

Ventura leaders, fresh from a trip to Dallas and St. Louis to meet with the retailers' senior management, said any attempt by Oxnard to derail their expansion plan would be futile.

"I think the city across the freeway is feeling economic pressure and they are willing to try anything," said Councilman Jim Friedman, who is also president of the Ventura Chamber of Commerce. "They [retailers] said, without question, they are leaving The Esplanade."

Oxnard leaders are not the only ones opposed to the expansion, which hinges on a tax-sharing deal between Ventura and the mall owners. A group calling itself Citizens Against the Sales-Tax Giveaway has placed an initiative on the March ballot that would prevent Ventura from engaging in any agreement to split future sales-tax dollars.

In a remarkable disclosure, the group's co-chairman, Jere Robings, acknowledged Friday for the first time what Ventura leaders had long suspected: The owners of The Esplanade paid professional signature gatherers to qualify the measure for the ballot.

"I think it is obvious The Esplanade has an interest in it," Robings said. "They paid for the signature-gathering."

Professional petitioners were paid 75 cents per signature and they and a few volunteers turned in 14,105 signatures, according to Kelley Kimball, whose Agoura Hills-based company was hired by the committee to perform the work.

Attorneys representing The Esplanade's owners did not return phone calls Friday.

Under the expansion proposal, MCA Buenaventura Associates, owners of the Buenaventura Mall, would pay in advance for $12.5 million in street improvements, which Ventura would repay, with interest, over 20 years. The money, which would come from an increased share of sales-tax revenues generated by the larger mall, is expected to total $32.3 million.

Oxnard Councilman Tom Holden said the two cities are being taken advantage of by the retailers, and need to join forces to stop the mall madness.

"This is a classic case of retailers pitting one city against the other, and the residents are the losers," Holden said. "When you take away the battle between the two cities, you have retailers extorting money."

Oxnard officials and The Esplanade's owners have both appealed an environmental report on the Buenaventura Mall expansion. Ventura officials are recommending that the City Council deny the appeals on Monday.

In a special meeting, the Oxnard City Council will convene Monday night at Ventura City Hall to demand further environmental review of the mall proposal, and again Tuesday night before Ventura's Planning Commission to discuss the project's effects on traffic.

Holden and Herrera said they will use Monday's meeting to explain to Ventura leaders that their proposal would cause blight in Oxnard by plundering the city's sales-tax base.

They also plan to make this pitch: Let's jointly build a regional mall at the Oxnard Town Center site, next to the Ventura Freeway at the Santa Clara River, and share the sales taxes.

"I think it's an option that they may want to consider," Herrera said. "But I don't have any concrete details [on the tax-sharing plan]. It's still the same tax base we're talking about."

But Ventura City Councilman Ray Di Guilio said the time for such negotiations has long since passed.

"My first reaction is that I personally don't support a third or fourth step back in the process in the eleventh hour," Di Guilio said. "That's muddling the waters on the path we are on right now."

The Lundin Development Co., a Huntington Beach-based builder, is proposing to build a large regional mall at the Town Center. Herb Lundin, the company's top official, claimed it would eventually surpass The Oaks as the county's biggest shopping center.

But Lundin said the only way his mall would stand a chance against Ventura--and the only way he would proceed with the plan--is if the initiative to stop the sales-tax sharing plan passes. He is awaiting its outcome, he said.

"Department stores have basically told us to back off because Ventura is offering them such a great deal," Lundin said. "We're just waiting to see if Ventura can actually do what they are saying."

Lundin said he has spoken to several large retailers on his plans, but declined to specify which department stores he has contacted. He did acknowledge, however, that he has spoken to Sears and Robinsons-May through an intermediary.

When it was initially proposed in the mid-1980s, the Oxnard Town Center was expected to be a $500-million, 265-acre project--the largest office complex and regional mall in Ventura County.

The failure to build the Oxnard Town Center was largely because of a 1985 lawsuit by Ventura, contending that the development would cause traffic problems on the Ventura Freeway. Oxnard settled the suit and agreed not to develop the regional mall until the Santa Clara River Bridge was widened and other traffic improvements were made.

"The lawsuit in Oxnard had to do with the city's complete failure to do an analysis of the impacts beyond the city of Oxnard," said Ventura City Atty. Peter Bulens. "The city [Ventura] sued and said the world doesn't stop at the Santa Clara bridge."

Friedman said the new plans for the Oxnard Town Center were merely an attempt to slow the Buenaventura Mall expansion.

"What is happening now is definitely a delay tactic," he said.

Times staff writer Kenneth R. Weiss contributed to this story

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Buenaventura Mall Expansion

The owners of the Buenaventura Mall want to add two new anchor stores to the 30-year-old shopping center--Sears and Robinsons-May. The plan angers Oxnard officials, because the stores would leave The Esplanade shopping center in Oxnard to go to Ventura. The Ventura City Council will discuss the proposal Monday and the Planning Commission will consider it on Tuesday.

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