The $800-million RiverPark mini-city, the largest mixed-use project in Ventura County history, is set for official groundbreaking Tuesday with the dedication of a new elementary school and a fire station, and the unveiling of a smaller, redesigned business core.
East Elementary School, scheduled to open in a year, and a joint city-county fire station are the first buildings under construction in a project planned for 7,500 residents and 1.2 million square feet of shops and businesses.
At Ventura Freeway and Pacific Coast Highway, the 700-acre RiverPark site is among the most prized undeveloped locations in the county.
“RiverPark will be a shining star for Oxnard,” City Manager Ed Sotelo said. “It’s like building a little city with all the upscale amenities. It’s important for our image.”
But even as developers announce the “commencement of RiverPark,” they’ll unveil plans that reflect a development blueprint changed from the one approved by the Oxnard City Council in 2002.
With 2,800 homes, the project is expected to take fewer than eight years to complete, instead of 15, as originally estimated.
“The market is good and we want to take advantage of that,” said project manager Steve Seemann.
The amount of commercial space in the project has been cut in half, mostly through the elimination of office buildings. Even so, it will have nearly as much retail space as the Pacific View mall in Ventura or The Oaks mall in Thousand Oaks.
The design of the community’s town square has been changed from an old-fashioned main street to a tonier shopping promenade. And a food-and-wine exposition that was supposed to showcase farm products probably won’t be built.
Developers and city officials said the commercial project was too large for the retail demand and that the new design is aimed at luring shops such as Pottery Barn, Ann Taylor and Restoration Hardware. And since RiverPark was approved, another developer has proposed building office towers just across the Ventura Freeway, which could flood the market with office space.
City officials, who have been working closely with developers, say the changes make sense. They say that high-end retailers are eager to move to Oxnard, especially after the success of the new Esplanade shopping center nearby and the sale of some new houses in the area for about $1 million. “A lot of [prospective] tenants have looked at the Esplanade’s numbers and at all of the home sales in Oxnard to an upscale clientele,” said Curtis Cannon, community development director. “There’s a lot of interest. So we think everything is going very well.”
Already, about 100 yellow earth-movers are rearranging the landscape, digging utility trenches, plowing roadways and setting foundations for the first buildings. Construction of homes and the retail center is expected to start in about nine months.
Backers say the project stands out not only for its size but for what it will provide to local governments, water agencies, the Rio School District and low-income housing interests. And that is why it moved so rapidly from concept in 1999 to construction today.
Taken together, developers have pledged well over $100 million in public benefits: three schools, a fire station, a county maintenance facility, a vital sewer extension into El Rio and a hiking trail along the Santa Clara River. They also plan to upgrade nearby roadways, convert three huge gravel pits into water recharge basins and build 392 affordable or low-income housing units.
In return, the city has agreed to return $18.5 million to developers from the RiverPark area’s increased property taxes over the next 30 years.
“There’s something in this for everyone,” said Seemann, manager of RiverPark Legacy, a group of three home-building companies that bought the rights to most of the project earlier this year. “We just wrote a check for $10 million for sewer connection fees.”
RiverPark is providing a sewer trunk line that will reach a mile into El Rio, an impoverished area where septic tanks have degraded the groundwater that is part of Oxnard’s municipal supply.
Shea, Centex and Standard Pacific homes are partners in building the project’s infrastructure and principal elements -- the commercial Town Center, a hotel-and-convention center and 1,800 homes centered on 14 parks. Original RiverPark developers, including Los Angeles builder Paul Keller and David O. White of Oxnard, retain control over construction of 1,000 apartment or condominium units. The project’s original financial backer, Oak Tree Capital Management, which oversees billions of dollars in pension funds, has sold its interest.
Developers had hoped to break ground on RiverPark in 2002, but negotiations with the original set of builders foundered. Construction of a new freeway interchange and the widening of the adjacent Santa Clara River bridge to 12 lanes also fell behind schedule because of environmental concerns and delays by Caltrans.
The most significant remaining concern about the project is traffic. Nearly 79,000 vehicles are expected to flow from it each day onto local streets and the Ventura Freeway. That includes about 10,000 during the evening rush hour.
Even before bridge construction tie-ups, the Ventura Freeway was so clogged during peak hours and on weekends that cars backed up for miles. Now delays are longer and more frequent.
The city of Ventura, which for years blocked construction of an even larger project on part of the RiverPark site, raised the loudest protest but eventually gained about $4 million from developers to improve nearby intersections in that city.
Under a 1998 lawsuit settlement with Ventura, Oxnard won’t allow RiverPark to be occupied until the bridge’s northbound lanes are increased to four, which officials say should occur well before homes or businesses are completed in 2006. The full bridge project should be done in 2007, Caltrans now estimates.
Ventura City Manager Rick Cole said the city still has reservations about RiverPark, partly because of its effects on traffic flow.
“A project like RiverPark, no matter how positive its attributes, creates unintended consequences that need to be addressed regionally,” he said.
Community development chief Cannon said Oxnard thoroughly considered the effects of RiverPark.
“We believe its effect is positive regionally,” he said. “The traffic congestion on the 101 and Oxnard Boulevard will be completely resolved with the completion of the bridge widening and the new Oxnard Boulevard overpass.”
Despite potential problems, RiverPark has been praised by many early critics whom developers have satisfied along the way.
RiverPark’s most costly and unusual accommodation is its agreement with the Rio School District. Educators were concerned that the project’s 1,900 school-age children would jam already crowded campuses in nearby neighborhoods of unincorporated El Rio.
So instead of donating land or paying for one-third to one-half of the construction costs, as developers typically do, RiverPark investors agreed to immediately build and equip three campuses, and set aside 37 acres for them.
After turning over the keys to 600-student East Elementary next September, RiverPark has committed to delivering an intermediate school in 2006 and another elementary in 2007, school officials said. And Rio Supt. Patrick Faverty said he’s convinced RiverPark won’t scrimp.
“They understand the quality of a school is a big part of their real estate value,” he said. “They want to make this a quality project, so they’ll put their money where their mouth is.”
Based on construction contracts for the first school, Seemann said developers now expect to spend $75 million for the three campuses even after the state reimburses $28 million. Faverty said the developer’s estimate sounded too high by at least one-third.
An immediate benefit of a completed East Elementary campus, Faverty said, will be that about 375 students from an old elementary school nearby can transfer there in September, allowing the school district to refurbish the other campus. When houses in RiverPark are sold, students from there will fill the school, he said.
Affordable housing advocates also say that RiverPark will provide its share of worker housing by setting aside 15% of dwellings for low and very-low income households.
White and Keller have deeded land for 140 low-income apartments to Cabrillo Economic Development Corp., and Seemann’s group will turn over parcels for about 150 single family homes to the same affordable housing group. An additional 100 affordable dwellings will be sprinkled through the rest of the project.
“This is significant because it continues to show that responsible developers are beginning to do more of their share to house working families,” said Rodney Fernandez, executive director at Cabrillo.