Planners walk fine line to
perpetuate Ojai's village feel
by Bret Bradigan
Ojai may be a city in name, but in the hearts and minds of
its residents, it is first and foremost a village.
Defining what it takes to make a village drives debate in City
Council meetings, Planning Commission meetings, ballot measures
and coffeehouse chatter. And the effort to make a village has
gone well beyond bluster into actual policy.
That village concept - with pedestrian-friendly streets and denser
development in the downtown area - was an influential part of
Ojai's General Plan.
The strongest evidence of this assertion came during public meetings
in 1996 and 1997 leading up to the plan's adoption in 1997, said
Dan Singer, now Ojai's city manager and then its director of
general services. Village Mixed Use zoning was seen as a way
to reduce traffic and expand services in the downtown core.
"The more people you have living close to work, close to
services, the more people you have using those alternatives,"
Singer said, whether it is the Ojai Valley Bike Trail, the Ojai
Trolley, or even sidewalks.
Then, as now, consensus on going about this pursuit was not easy
to find, Singer said. "Conflicts have, and will, arise.
It's an urbanized city model; you're taking the same concept
and putting into a rural environment."
Given the way ranch-style subdivisions sprout across Southern
California's landscape like mushrooms after a rain, it's clear,
city planners agree, that homeowners have a natural propensity
for single-family homes on discrete parcels, while commercial
developers seek lower-cost, profit-maximizing strategies such
as strip malls with chain stores.
So, Singer said, this shift in planning strategy has met with
resistance, from both sides of the growth issue.
Recent village mixed use and downtown core developments in Ojai
have had a tough time finding acceptance. Offices at the Pew
and The Emerald Iguana have stirred up protest from neighbors,
while also earning praise from other quarters - Offices at the
Pew won the best new building award from the Ojai Valley Chamber
of Commerce, for instance. And while Emerald Iguana's change
in special use permit from five-night minimum to two-night minimum
stays provoked protest, the stylish inn is widely recognized
as an improvement over the rundown buildings that preceded it.
"Over time, it will probably work and those conflicts will
go away," Singer said.
By the time the new General Plan map was finished in 1997, Ojai
included 60 acres of downtown land under the village mixed use
umbrella, representing 360 separate parcels. VMU parcels are
zoned for up to eight units per acre.
Bill Prince was Ojai's planning director from 1989 to 2002, and
currently occupies the same position for the city of Santa Barbara.
He said that despite the inevitable conflicts people found in
the several years of meetings and discussion it took to build
the general plan, there was remarkable unanimity about what made
"The genesis of that was visionary citizens who wanted Ojai
to be more like a village," Prince said. "It's a return
to the old days kind of thing."
That unanimity guided the entire process of building the General
Plan and its separate elements - land use, circulation, housing,
recreation, open space, conservation and noise - but especially
the land use and circulation elements.
The planning for the General Plan began in 1995 and it was adopted
in 1997. Singer credited councilmembers Suza Francina and Ellen
Hall for "a real push making downtown as pedestrian-friendly
And as a measure of its foresight and the difficulty of the issues
it addressed, Ojai's General Plan won the Comprehensive Planning
Award in 1998 from the California Chapter of the American Planning
Prince said the past was extensively used to shape Ojai's future.
According to the Land Use and Circulation Element, "The
strength of Ojai's town core as a memorable place can be attributed
to the vision of Edmond Drummond Libbey, whose financial support
in the early 1900s resulted in a formalized plan for the town
centered on a civic park and small commercial district."
This informed the process to the extent that "it is the
community's intent to recognize the significant impact that traditional
downtown has had on Ojai's image as a small town by ensuring
that new development be compatible with the area's historic and
architectural features, as well as the civic and cultural focus
the area provides to the community."
By that standard, the new policy concept of village mixed use
zoning fit right in. The General Plan seeks to expand "opportunities
for home occupations to include such uses as cabinet shops, custom
furniture manufacturing, artists galleries, and others ..."
It also seeks, as a deliberate consequence, to exclude strip
mall developments and "big box" stores such as Wal-Mart,
or large-scale tract home subdivisions. Prince said that was
never really an issue as they moved through the process. "Ojai
has always done a good job of driving people away, through deft
use of creative regulation," he said.
In fact, the number of accepted uses for VMU dwindled from 70
to 90 "down to 25," Prince said, by the time the Land
Use and Circulation Element was complete.
Ideally, Singer said, occupants of mixed-use live/work places
should reflect the rest of the neighborhood. For instance, in
a recent conflict, a bar with late-night live music proved not
to be the best neighbor for a yoga studio.
Prince said that many people needed convincing that village mixed
use zoning would present challenges and opportunities, and not
solely obstacles and diminished profits. "It can be successful,"
he said. "But developers have to be weaned away from standard
One such developer and owner is Scott Loomis, who built the village
mixed use property behind the Ojai Playhouse, which now houses
"It was a lot easier than I expected," he said. "The
property (prior to construction) was an eyesore, and (city officials)
made it as easy as it could be."
The building, completed in January 2001, was designed by nearby
architect Marc Whitman, who is also owner and designer of The
Emerald Iguana. Whitman is also the architect for the controversial
Los Arboles project on South Montgomery Street, a 23-unit condominium
complex which includes both residential and commercial space.
Among the first conditional use permits for a village mixed use
property was the Art Workshop on West Ojai Avenue, built in 1998
and owned by Kent and Sharon Butler until last year.
"It worked very well for us. We had no problems with the
city," Sharon Butler said. "It's great for us, to live
and work in the same place, and have one rent. That's really
Besides the obvious advantage of not having to drive to work,
the Butlers also found themselves walking more and driving less
for basic errands. "Everything was very convenient for us,"
whether it was Mailboxes, Etc., or Starr Market, she said. "It's
nice being close to everything."
The Butlers said that having a live-work space near downtown
"does give you more of a feeling of community."
Whitman said that village mixed use properties are more interesting
and challenging to build than a typical single-family home or
a standard commercial development. "It adds a lot more character
and personality," he said.
Village Mixed Use, under other names but with the same basic
design, has a long history. And though it is cited as a way out
of suburban anonymity and toward a stronger sense of community,
it has its origins in war. According to Machiavelli's Arte della
Guerra, from 1521, central planning grids with live-work spaces
were born of medieval military encampments, where all the streets
linked to the center, the better to quickly muster troops to
Instead of the Duke of Parma or Napoleon, the invaders now are
strip malls, superstores, and the cash-and-carry convenience
that splinters the urban core into shards of suburban isolation.
The grid system, from which village mixed use derives its basic
structure, began with Roman engineers and flourished in 19th
century America. According to an article in Periferia, an on-line
urban design journal, called "Preservation, Mixed Use and
Urban Vitality," by Jonathan Cohen, the grid system's "efficiency
and ease of surveying made it attractive to speculators and it
proved well suited to merchant house builders from Baltimore
to San Francisco ... A builder of two or three rowhouses or one
of 200 could build in the same tract simultaneously."
It was no one-size fits all solution, however. If the grids were
too long or too large, community vitality dwindled.
"Compare Manhattan's Upper West Side with Greenwich Village,"
Cohen writes. "On the West Side, the long cross-town blocks
create traffic problems and tend to channel all pedestrian movement
to a few north-south streets. The result is a form of strip commercial
development that is neither lively nor varied. Greenwich Village,
with its fine grain of streets predating the 1811 grid plan for
Manhattan, has a bustling street life and a much greater variety
of shops and restaurants."
Jane Jacobs literally wrote the book on East Greenwich Village
in her 1961 work, "Death and Life of Great American Cities."
A critic of heavy-handed public developments such as freeways
and skyscrapers, Jacobs discovered that those features which
contributed to such vibrant street life were largely accidental.
The density of construction meant that East Village apartments
were too small for much storage, large iceboxes or refrigerators
or washers and dryers. The buildings also lacked significant
setbacks, with their entrances built right out to the sidewalks.
This meant that people had to freely mingle in the neighborhood
to do their shopping and washing. They were thus forced out on
the street and into "accidental encounters," which
spawned informal networks, which, in turn, led to a strong social
infrastructure and healthy community.
Ojai residents, who live in a city where running the conversational
gauntlet of acquaintances means a simple errand - mailing a package
at the post office, for example - can take half a day, can relate
These accidental encounters, however, are no charming inconvenience,
according to Jacobs. They give the city its pulse and purpose.
A complex mix of factors are at play with development in and
around the Ojai Valley, making it difficult to assess the effects
of any one of them independently.
Ventura County Board of Supervisors passed by a 4-1 vote Thursday,
with the supervisor representing Ojai, Steve Bennett, casting
the sole dissent against, the Ahmanson Ranch development. That
makes it increasingly likely a sprawling subdivision with 9,000
people will be built on the county's eastside, and, if the tea
leaves can be read from that vote, increasingly unlikely that
similar projects will be stopped.
The county's Save Our Agricultural Resources initiative, passed
in 1998, does restrict certain types of development in other
areas of the county, but would do little to stop strip mall proliferation
in Mira Monte or Oak View, areas in which commercial zoning is
already on the books.
And then there's the difficulty planners and developers have
in finding a market for village mixed use projects. As Prince
said, there's seldom much middle ground for artists and artisans;
they are either too poor to make a middle-class living at their
pursuits, or their success is measured by the acreage of their
East End estates.
Whitman said a similar scenario worked against the original designs
for Los Arboles, which was planned as live-work spaces for artists.
People's perceptions, shaped by decades of cookie-cutter developments,
guide them away from seeking their homes in a bustling downtown.
"It's not for everyone; they have to enjoy that hubbub,"
Developers also see the litigious spectacle of Los Arboles -
with the Citizens to Preserve the Ojai suing the developers for
building the project and the City of Ojai for approving it -
as a stern warning.
"They're scared to death of getting dragged into court,"
Whitman said, who has had several clients drop plans to develop
mixed-use properties downtown.
It is also tough to find financing, Singer said. "Banks
have not been eager to make these type of investments."
Before the developer begins such projects, they face a minefield
of reluctant lenders, wary neighbors, litigious local groups,
and a small pool of potential buyers or renters.
Despite these obstacles, Singer sees a slow, but inevitable,
movement toward these mixed use projects, even if in an unintended
way. For instance, many of the recent permits being sought for
commercial developments include living space, while residential
properties are seeking commercial permits. Ojai Creates! and
Ojai House, both within the VMU downtown district, are examples.
"We're seeing it from both angles," Singer said.
That's the central paradox of urban planning - the more of it
there is, the less likely it is that its stated goal - a vibrant,
organic community - will result.
Jacobs, a journalist with no formal training as an urban planner,
was met with bitter resistance in the New York City which planner
Robert Moses regarded as a canvas for his ambitions. The Canadian
magazine McLean's, in a 1997 article about a conference on Jacobs'
work in "Death and Life," said, "The lessons from
that one book - that cities are ecosystems that can be smothered
by rigid, authoritarian planning; that busy, lively sidewalks
help cities thrive as safe, healthy places; that good urban design
mixes work, housing and recreation - have influenced a generation
of planners and architects."
Whitman and Singer both believe, that despite the obstacles,
the spirit, if not the exacting zoning standards, of village
mixed use will prevail in Ojai's future. "I see it as an
old European village, with courtyards and meandering pathways,"
Singer said, "I think it will continue, but it will be slow
and somewhat fragmented."
© 2002 The Ojai Valley News
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