Frustration and Waiting Accompany Downtown Renovation

Originally published in Ventura County Star, October 19, 2008

By Mark Storer
Sunday, October 19, 2008

Ventura Boulevard in the Old Town section of Camarillo is entering its final phase of redevelopment, a dozen years after the project began, city officials say.

Business owners along the boulevard laud the landscaping and other street improvements that have been put into place, but they’re frustrated with a 12-year process that has yet to yield the economic turnaround that both city officials and business owners envisioned.

“It’s the slowest redevelopment project I’ve ever seen,” said Antonio Williams, owner of Enoteca Toscana, a wine bar and trattoria at Fir Street and Ventura Boulevard. “It’s frustrating for business owners who invest time and money only to still see empty lots and abandoned storefronts.”

Across the street from Williams’ business is a vacant lot surrounded by a chain-link fence. “It’s ugly and it’s not very welcoming,” he said.

Officially known as the Camarillo Corridor Redevelopment Project, the renovation of Old Town got under way in 1996.

“We had a goal of not forgetting about Old Town,” said Bob Burrow, community development director for Camarillo. “At that time, the City Council made it clear that they believed Old Town was a unique place and needed attention.”

“The first plan was for streetscape improvements,” Burrow said. “That has been successful, and we’re getting a lot of positive feedback on it.”

The plan involved narrowing the boulevard and providing wider sidewalks to allow for fewer cars and more pedestrian traffic. The renovation also included using colored concrete, turn-of-the-century-style streetlights and new statues at various spots along the boulevard.

“I’ve gotten tremendous feedback,” said Cammie Hardy, owner of the Old Town Studio Gallery on the boulevard. “Everybody loves the look of it all.”

“Everybody’s happy with the streetscape,” said Tom Kelly, CEO for the Camarillo Chamber of Commerce. “But parking in the long run is the issue, and we need more.”

City officials point out that parking is on the agenda for this next phase of redevelopment.

“We only have limited funds, and we can’t get everything done at once,” Burrow said.

“We’ve got a lot of plans for the boulevard, including parking improvements as well as owner participation in private property improvements,” he added.

“We still feel that Old Town needs more renovation. The action plan that’s in place isn’t quite good enough yet.”

Burrow specifically cited the following as targets for more renovation: the old fire station at the Lewis Road offramp, Dizdar Park, the old Los Primeros School site and the old courthouse.

When it comes to the condition of Old Town, Camarillo resident Charlie Festerling shared the feelings of other residents at the Saturday farmers market in the courthouse parking lot.

“It all has to do with the abandoned school and this courthouse,” Festerling said. “They sit right in the middle of the boulevard and kind of break it up. They ought to bulldoze the both of them and create a parking area. That would allow people to walk around and enjoy the shops.”

Williams concurs: “If Old Town is really going to become a destination, it’s going to have to have an anchor, a theater or something, and it’s going to need more parking.” He also said that a sound wall should be reconsidered as well.

“Have you ever tried to sit out in front of Ola’s for example and eat? You can’t hear anything but the freeway.”

The project’s 12-year history reflects some hurdles. First, city officials had to change the zoning for Old Town to allow the remake they envisioned.

“We recognized it had potential, but we saw a need for new kinds of shops and stores,” Burrow said. “The old resale shops, for example, didn’t draw in a lot of economic activity,” he said.

“The rezoning allowed for a lot of uses that aren’t available in commercial areas,” said Edward Burns, Camarillo’s redevelopment director. “We wanted to be certain that the character of Main Street in Old Town was kept. The rezoning laws allowed for restaurants to have outside seating, for example.”

But after the rezoning, another time-consuming delay popped up.

“We couldn’t act until Caltrans came in and redesigned the ramps and connection between the 101 and Lewis Road,” Burrow said.

Despite the progress, Jeff Walker, managing partner for J.J. Brewsky’s and the chairman of the Old Town Association run by the Camarillo Chamber of Commerce, wants to keep the project in the forefront of city officials’ minds.

“Old Town is still an undiscovered section of Camarillo,” he said. “We’re making a concentrated effort to glam the place up a little bit and get it back on track.”

Walker pointed out that when redevelopment began, there was talk of making it the central feature attracting students from the new CSU Channel Islands.

“None of that happened,” Walker lamented, “but we’re not giving up yet.”

Businesses have faced their own problems. Camarillo Plumbing and Painting’s venerable old storefront draws constant complaints and praise, from visitors and business owners alike, about the state of its circa-1915 building.

According to the company’s vice president and co-owner, Kevin Nunn, “We were hoping that when they put the new freeway onramp in, they’d take us out. But that didn’t happen.

“We drew plans for a redesign, but the city didn’t like them. When we went back for a second set of plans, the cost was $475,000, and we said, Forget that,’ ” Nunn said. “Our latest plans call for a change of the facade, and that cost is around $225,000.”

The Chamber of Commerce’s Kelly, who has been involved in recruiting new business for Old Town, is optimistic about the future.

“Where there are empty storefronts, we are looking at in-fill development,” he said. “The Old Town Association’s job is to work with the city to provide solutions to the problems we’re facing.”

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