Ventura's Manager Demands 'Smart Growth'

Times Staff Writer

"A city, like a living thing, is a united and continuous whole."

Greek essayist Plutarch, quoted in Ventura's new General Plan


After reshaping Pasadena and reviving Azusa, urban design guru Rick Cole is helping transform Ventura by demanding that developers follow a new growth plan for this once-sleepy seaside community.

City manager since April 2004, Cole startled even Ventura City Council members by insisting that builders of three major projects think again about proposed new neighborhoods he saw as either "incoherent," bland or inaccessible to the public.

"Rick made a decision to come in and grab three projects in midlight and turn them all around," Councilman Bill Fulton recalled.

"Some of us on the council had mixed feelings about that," said Fulton, a planning expert and author. "But Rick thought it was important to send a message that this was what we would demand from now on. And he was right."

From the historic downtown to Ventura Harbor and the suburban east end, Cole has pressed developers to provide a variety of homes and stores that not only fit together as neighborhoods, but complement the city.

"We tapped on the breaks and said now we're going to build them right," Cole said recently at City Hall, pointing out perceived flaws in the old projects and noting virtues of the new ones.

"Design matters enormously in the making of great places," Cole said. "We have to design for what fits the land and its surroundings. That's my passion."

Cole, 52, has become one of the nation's best-known advocates of so-called smart growth -- the clustering of homes, stores and offices in pedestrian-oriented communities -- and new urbanism, which promotes denser housing in self-sustaining cities as an alternative to suburban sprawl.

As mayor and city councilman in Pasadena during the heart of its economic revival in the 1980s and '90s, Cole is credited with helping to save the historic Old Town business district and pulling together divergent groups to plot a long-term strategy for growth.

Then, as city manager in Azusa for six years, Cole gained attention for breathing life into a tired blue-collar San Gabriel Valley community by persuading developers to build the city's first new stores, houses and industrial parks in decades -- and for including hundreds of residents in the planning process.

Now, in Ventura, the self-taught expert in urban redevelopment, has continued to involve residents as he presses the City Council's desire to become a model of smart growth and his own precise vision of what a great city should be.

The city's General Plan for development, in the works since 1999, was completed last summer after Cole set a firm deadline.

He kept it by emphasizing the "infill" development in vacant city areas that all council members agreed was good, and sidestepping council conflict over future growth on surrounding farmland.

The city's detailed plan for revitalization of downtown, also years in the making, is due this month.

But it's the General Plan, in particular, that reflects Cole's philosophy, quoting great thinkers on how to build a balanced city and life:

* "Every increment of construction should be done in such a way as to heal the city," architect Christopher Alexander, professor emeritus at UC Berkeley.

* "Cities should be designed to serve the cycle of the day and the cycle of the lifetime," Miami architect Andres Duany, a town planner.

* "Restore human legs as a means of travel," Lewis Mumford, author of "The City in History."

Cole's flair for communication has won over Christy Weir, one of two council members who originally favored a more experienced manager.

"He's a big-picture, visionary thinker," she said, "and he gets things done."

Jim Monahan is the other convert. After 27 years on the council, the pro-growth veteran said he decided to run again partly because he enjoyed working with Cole: "I don't have any negatives I can think of about Rick. He's very attentive to all the council members."

Planning aside, Cole has gained praise from social services advocates for helping to relocate homeless people from Ventura River camps, while cracking down on panhandling and street vagrants with a tough-love approach.

Arts patrons also say Cole has supported the city's push to become a regional center for theater and the fine arts. He backed construction of an artists' colony downtown, and the 62-unit live-work project was approved with shops and a community gallery.

But if Cole's diplomatic skills and sharp focus have won over his bosses, not everyone is sold on this passionate New Urbanist who trained as a journalist and matured as a community activist, but whose sharp tongue and political daring sometimes get him into trouble.

Developers of a gated 300-apartment luxury project planned for years at the harbor sued the city after Cole ordered a redesign for more public access, a greater variety of buildings and a village center.

"Now it's less of an apartment complex and more of a neighborhood; it's unique for multifamily projects," Los Angeles developer Mike Sondermann said.

In the end, Sondermann said, he thinks the luxury project will cost more, be harder to build and make less money. But it probably will be a catalyst for harbor-area activity, as Cole intended.

"Was it a change of the rules? Yes," he said. "Is it something we're prepared to do? Absolutely."

Yet, residents of east end subdivisions are still furious that Cole disregarded 18 months of community meetings to put his stamp on a 232-home project near them.

"My personal view is that the project is better now," said Graham Dawson, spokesman for a community group. "But the vast majority of members were very upset. What they saw was Rick Cole coming in and saying my way or the highway."

Cole acknowledges "blundering" in his handling of controversy around the new subdivision by the Olson Co. of Seal Beach, the state's largest builder of houses on infill land.

"It was not my finest hour," he said. "We went through a fairly awkward three-corner struggle between us and Olson, which said they'd do whatever we wanted, and residents who said, 'Who the hell is the city to tell us different; we are the city.' "

But Cole said he had to stand up for good design principles: five types of housing instead of two; duplexes and triplexes spread across the project, instead of farthest away from existing houses; narrow streets and alleys, deemphasizing the car; and a central park.

"We ended up with a much richer variety," Cole said.

Paul Dashevsky, point man for the Olson Co. in Ventura, said Cole's arrival has cost his firm time and money.

But he said both the east end project and a showcase 172-dwelling downtown development are better because of it.

"What the city wanted wasn't always clear before he arrived," Dashevsky said.

The downtown project -- which incorporates three styles of Spanish architecture -- has undergone several revisions. It now includes a subterranean parking garage, a new street over the garage and a host of design changes that emphasize city life, such as front doors and windows all facing the sidewalk.

"They tried to sell us on the architecture, but the design was an incoherent mess -- fountains and bougainvillea," Cole said. "We weren't getting their best work, so we said, 'OK, guys, let's raise the bar.' "

Was it worth all the effort?

"Our architects are extremely proud of this project," Dashevsky said. "One put it on his Christmas card."

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