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Public to weigh in on OUSD development plan Nov. 17

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Grant Phillips, Ojai Valley News reporter

Ojai Unified School District has teamed up with SVS DEV LLC to propose a large-scale development plan for Ojai, known as the Ojai Town Square Project, that would serve as a source of funding for the school district while altering the downtown landscape. The potential development site is the district office headquarters and Chaparral property at 414 E. Ojai Ave.

OUSD started accepting project proposals for alternative funding sources back in 2018. A meeting was held at the Boyd Center between OUSD and city staff in September 2019 that featured several potential plans.

In January 2021, OUSD partnered with SVS DEV LLC, which designed an initial concept review for what is now known as the Ojai Town Square Project.

The ambitious 8.34 acre proposal consists of:

— A 203-room hotel with a spa, pool and courtyard

— Restaurant and cafe

— Commercial retail space

— 63 residential housing units, with 15% designated with an affordable rate

— Pedestrian-friendly gardens

— An activity and event center designed to host special events

— Revitalization of historical structures

— 295 parking spaces for commercial, residential and hotel (estimated at 181,500 square feet)

— Restoration of the bell tower to its original 48 feet

— Solar panel roofing

— New structures that would abide by the current 35-foot height limit.

“One of the consultants working on this referred to it as the most important project in the history of Ojai and I don’t think that’s hyperbole, in either the development, or the decision not to develop,” said OUSD school board member Kevin Ruf.

The plan entered the application process with a master plan, concept drawings, and an initial review by the city Planning Commission set to take place Nov. 17 at 6 p.m. at the Boyd Center in Sarzotti Park.

A presentation will be given by developer SVS DEV LLC and feedback from both the public and Planning Commission will be collected and provided to OUSD board members at a later date.

“I don’t know yet what the Planning Commission is going to share with the developer that’s going to make the developer adjust; then, what the developer is going to come to us with when we really have to make a decision,” said OUSD Board President Jane Weil. The OUSD has its regularly scheduled board meeting on Nov. 17 as well, and while an agenda for the meeting will be posted Nov. 8, board members said they believe the subject of development will not be brought up.

While the project is comprehensive, its initial goal was to secure additional revenue for the school district.

“All of this came out of the original conversations about what to do with the bond money and where to spend it,” said OUSD school board member Michael Shanahan.

The extent of funding provided to OUSD from the project still remains in question. SVS DEV LLC is estimated to help finance the move and potential repurposing of buildings, resulting in early initial revenue from the site retroactively paying back their estimated $2 million contribution.

The change of use for the site would result in potential relocation of the transportation hub, A Place to Grow Pre School, Chaparral High School, and the district offices.

“I’ve been persistently skeptical that the benefits would outweigh the costs,” said Ruf. “We would give this project an opportunity to be vetted and develop and then see, when the moment came, whether we would or would not support it. That moment is coming soon.”

While initial school board conversations on relocation have cited San Antonio Elementary School as a potential destination for the OUSD offices, no vote or final decisions have been made related to relocations and repurposing.

“The choice to proceed with the group we’re currently working with was based on the amount of money that the various proposals were willing to put up front to move the district elsewhere,” said Ruf. “The idea is whatever the amount they’re going to be paying for the lease, they’re going to recoup up front in credits against that lease.”

The Ojai Avenue district office site was designated “Historic Landmark Site No. 24” by the Ojai Historic Preservation Commission in 2017, citing the Nordhoff Grammar School’s aesthetic elements that unify the community, such as its Spanish Revivalist style designed by architect Roy C. Wilson in 1927. Wilson is also known for having designed Ojai landmarks such as Bill Baker’s Bakery (formally Azu) and the original Ojai Festival Bowl (now Libbey Bowl).

Any potential development on the site would require approval from the Historic Preservation Commission.

Preservation of the location is a concern among OUSD board members, the Planning Commission, and members of the public that will be taken into consideration.

“To me, the development of the project is potentially falling into a trap that other places have fallen into,” said Ruf. “Over time, you develop the less-developed spaces because it’s enticing on multiple levels to bring in whatever extra income you might find. For the city, more development means more taxes, means a bigger budget. For the school district, development can bring some, albeit modest, stream of income for the future. But then you have to ask, what amazing ideas might there be for more full use of this property in the future, particularly if we don’t do a relatively conventional development on it?”

Concerns over resources such as traffic, water and parking have also sparked conversation among Ojai residents.

“This is by no means the final design,” said Shanahan. “Early on, we set some conditions, and sensitivity to community needs was one of them.”

The developer announced plans to prepare a parking and transportation plan with Associated Traffic Engineers of Santa Barbara that would include:

— Maximizing ride share and transit stops

— Providing easy access to bicycle and walking paths as alternative to Single Occupancy Vehicles

— Allocating supply and demand through realistic parking prices

— Time-limit parking to limit traffic-inducing activities on Ojai Avenue

— Public bike parking

In terms of water, the development company also proposed potential mitigation measures including:

— Site-wide drought-tolerant landscaping

— Water-efficient and low-flow fixtures for hotel rooms

— A rainwater collection system

— A grey water recycling program.

Questions over the proposed hotel’s proximity to the El Roblar Hotel, formerly known as The Oaks, also raised questions among the community and Planning commissioners.

The El Roblar Hotel is currently undergoing a redevelopment design, but concerns related to parking have caused rescheduled meetings with the Planning Commission.

The inclusion of a new hotel within the school district plan was due to its potential source of ongoing funding.

“The hotel is really the revenue generator,” said Shanahan who cited the project as a “desperately needed potential source of ongoing revenue for the district that’s not based in additional taxes.”

“If we don’t close a school, we need to think of other things,” said Shanahan.

An increase in traffic has not been directly addressed by the developers, briefly citing future innovations such as “self-driving electric vehicles,” with the project prioritizing Ojai “100 years in the future,” within its early concept.

OUSD board members have clarified that the district has included what it calls “off-ramps” to the project to allow the board flexibility in its decision-making about the proposed project.

“We’ve been reassured by council in public meetings that there are off-ramps for the board,” said Ruf. “Even if the board were to collectively support or vote in favor…there are other significant off-ramps for the community, including the Planning Commission and, of course, City Council itself.”

Of the 63 proposed residential units, 15% would be allocated at an affordable rate, but no specific rate has been provided.

According to the city of Ojai’s recently submitted Housing Element, affordable has a variety of definitions and can include anybody with an annual income between $47,775 and $117,000+.

The OUSD board recently voted to cede authority to OUSD Superintendent Tiffany Morse to continue with the early application process, which includes document signing and other ministerial paperwork, but the board did not cede authority on any final decisions related to design or approval.

“The developer is going to come and say, ‘here is our idea,’ ” said Weil. “And they get a read from the Planning Commission as they discuss it. It’s not a vote, they’re not going to give them a yes or no, they’re just going to hear from the developer and the community.”

Following the Nov. 17 public hearing, the city will schedule a Concept Review Hearing at City Council, which will include comments and feedback from both councilmembers and the public. Following the discussion, the project team will submit a more detailed design required for a formal planning submittal. This will also include a design workshop for the community to provide additional input. Then, the project can submit for formal planning entitlements which will include potential:

— General Plan amendments / zone changes

— A tentative parcel map

— A Design Review Permit

— Development Agreement

— Density Bonus Request

— Conditional Use Permit (if necessary)

If the project makes it through these steps, it will go in front of City Council for an additional formal review. Any future decisions will also be vetted by OUSD board members.

“For the board, I believe we will have a moment in the next month or two where we will have to vote on whether or not we are going to approve what really amounts to, I believe, a 99-year lease,” said Ruf.

The public is encouraged to attend the Planning Commission meeting either in-person at the Boyd Center (510 Park Road) or via Zoom at: https://bit.ly/3qCQF50

Written public comments for the city Planning Commission can be submitted no later than 6 p.m. Nov. 17 to: This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

“It seems like the community has really started to engage it, some for, some against, which can only be a good thing,” said Ruf. “That’s a wonderful aspect of Ojai, that people will engage certain issues like this.”

 

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