Thousand Oaks Planning Commission meeting, 26 April 2021

On the proposed General Plan Update

Shortly after midnight on 27 April 2021, the Thousand Oaks Planning Commission voted 4–1 to recommend to the City Council a General Plan update that allocates nearly 22,500 housing units in targeted areas around the city.

If adopted this would be, by a factor of more than 20x, the most extensive reorganization of housing capacity since Thousand Oaks implemented its General Plan in 1970. The plan also proposes sweeping changes to mixed-use, commercial, and industrial land-use designations.

I was the lone dissenting vote against the overall plan at the end of this marathon session, which stretched past midnight. Before then, commissioners voted, by margins ranging from 3–0 to 5–0, to make several modifications to the plan.

The most significant of these modifications is the reinstatement of the “village center” concept, which seeks to encourage more walkable and better connected living/shopping/working spaces around seven existing shopping centers in residential neighborhoods.

The meeting began with a presentation by Mark Towne, former planning director and now a consulting planner for the city, and Matt Raimi of Raimi + Associates, the consulting firm hired to gather input from the public and selected stakeholders, and to draft the proposed General Plan update. Senior planners Michael Forbes and Iain Holt also fielded questions about the proposal.

Mr. Towne noted the city has never done a comprehensive update in its history. Indeed, when city staff conducted a review of Measure E housing units in 2017–18, Mr. Towne said updates to the General Plan’s housing element were done on a piecemeal basis.

That previous exercise resulted in the reallocation of 1,080 housing units from residential areas, a much smaller amount than the 22,460 units under discussion at this meeting. Mr. Towne, Mr. Raimi, and city staff emphasized that the new number is subject to change — and it likely will, given the modifications the commission recommended during the meeting. I’m unable to say at this point whether these modifications represent a net increase or decrease in the amount of housing to be reallocated from residential neighborhoods.

Mr. Raimi’s presentation was similar to the one he gave to a combined community workshop and General Plan Advisory Committee (GPAC) meeting on April 21. It drew heavily on the quantitative responses to a public survey the Raimi team conducted.

There was at least one case where survey responses varied not only from the current land-use designations but also from recent City Council actions.

That case involves the former Baxter/Verizon/GTE/Prudential office along the 101 in Westlake Village. A majority of survey respondents said that property should be designated for industrial use, despite a recent 3–2 City Council vote to approve pre-screening of a residential project.

During questions period, Mr. Forbes said that although state law requires the city to set minimum and maximum density limits on General Plan designations, zoning would be considered consistent with the General Plan at, and only at, the maximum value of a given designation.

For example, if a General Plan designation allows a range of between 15 to 30 dwelling units per acre (du/ac), and if zoning for a given parcel allows 20 du/ac, a developer seeking to build 30 du/ac would be granted upzoning and a building permit (assuming the application met all other objective standards).

This is significant because (a) a key promise of this entire project is that density of existing residential neighborhoods will be protected and yet (b) the new proposed “neighborhood low” and “neighborhood medium” designations, which cover wide swaths of the city, both actually *increase* density in these areas, compared with current designations.

City staff says there are two workarounds to address this. First, it notes that some areas are already overbuilt above what the existing designations allow. Second, staff says it break out the new designations into “subcategories” so that overall current densities will be protected.

There’s currently no way to assess these workarounds. At meeting time, neither staff nor the Raimi team provided specifics on how density reallocation would work within residential neighborhoods. Staff said it couldn’t work out specifics yet because the amount of reallocation to be done was still in flux.

I’m a bit skeptical about that; while the flux part is true, it didn’t stop Raimi and staff from working out very specific designations within the proposed areas of change.

To make a truly informed decision, citizens and the City Council need to know not only about the areas of change, but also how supposedly protected neighborhoods will be affected. I’m asking staff to show its work or, as someone said, to “trust, but verify.”

After the presentation and questions of staff, 39 public speakers weighed in with comments on the proposed update. Fourteen of these speakers supported the reinstatement of the village center concept, which had been deleted from the draft presented to the commission. Many of the village center supporters said the concept would improve walkability, affordability, and accessibility in residential areas.

Several other speakers representing business interests in the city urged reinstatement of higher-density designations in commercial and mixed-use areas. These included representatives from the Greater Conejo Valley Chamber of Commerce (its president and legislative affairs director) and the Thousand Oaks Boulevard Association (TOBA) (its attorney, executive secretary, and a board member). The TOBA representatives also asked that the panel seek to respect the existing designations drafted a decade ago for the Thousand Oaks Boulevard Specific Area.

A third group of speakers urged development of an area near Borchard Road and the 101 freeway in Newbury Park. Currently, the proposal calls for this property to be split between “mixed-use low” and “neighborhood medium” designations, with the former on the north end, closer to the 101. Most speakers on this topic advocated a single designation for the property. These included Shawn Moradian, whose family owns the property, several residents of nearby areas, and former planning commissioner Kevin Kohan.

After wrapping up public comments, staff offered responses on a few points. Perhaps most significantly, Mr. Towne enumerated the available options to enhance affordability:

1. An inclusionary ordinance requiring an owner to ensure the production of affordable units

2. A density bonus allowing an owner who builds some affordable units to add more market-rate units above and beyond what zoning allows (current state law gives builders a 35% density bonus if 10% or more of units are very low income affordable)

3. Projects in which 100% of units are affordable

4. (in response to my question) Rent-control laws, which Thousand Oaks previously had from about 1980–87

Earlier, in response to a question on how the proposal would enhance affordability, Mr. Towne said the proposal would add housing quantity, which could add options that would include more affordable units. I’m not aware of anything in the current proposal that specifically requires more affordable housing.

After staff responses, commissioners began deliberations by weighing in with thoughts on the overall plan. Commissioner Link said he supported more housing near employment centers and better connectivity between village centers, an idea also endorsed by commissioner McMahon. He added that he was pleased to see the removal of the proposed mixed-use high designation to prevent “canyonization” of city streets by large big-box buildings with limited setbacks. In general, commissioner Link said, he favored keeping existing limits on building heights. He expressed some skepticism about housing affordability, saying “the market is going to dictate rates.”

Commissioner Lanson noted that Thousand Oaks’ economy has changed over time from one involving sales of goods to services to experiences (for this last, he cited newer recreational businesses at Janss Marketplace such as The Mighty Axe application the commission recently approved.)

He also noted that as designed, Thousand Oaks virtually forces residents to drive between places, and has wide streets to accommodate traffic, both features that do little to enhance walkability. Essentially, commissioner Lanson said, “this is a dispute about lifestyle” in terms of how we want to reconfigure the city. He also said there was a better chance for development at village centers than in some other places under consideration.

Commissioner McMahon also spoke in support of a more walkable and more bikeable city. She too backed the village center concept and said she supported better connectivity between centers.

In my remarks, I praised staff and Raimi for some interesting and forward-looking ideas, but also expressed five concerns about the overall proposal:

a. Its scope. The unprecedented amount of density in this project is presented as a done deal, without discussion of whether we need all that density to begin with.

It’s like walking into to a car dealer to buy a car, and the sales rep suggesting you choose between very large, extra large, and enormous versions of a pickup truck.

In my view, we shouldn’t just be thinking about where we’ll park that pickup truck. Our first question should be whether we’d be better off with a Toyota Prius or a Chevy Bolt or a Tesla Model 3 instead.

b. Its legal underpinnings. A running narrative in plan presentations is that Measure E won’t allow us to increase net density and SB330 won’t allow us to decrease it. In fact, neither of these is accurate.

In fact we can add more density without touching a single residential property, and with full Measure E compliance. All it takes is a vote of the people.

Unfortunately the 2018 membership of the City Council was unwilling to go there. Indeed, there were condescending comments made at the time about voters not understanding housing well enough to make informed choices. I put more trust in our citizens than that. I believe a change of this magnitude deserves consideration by the voters. Maybe they’ll approve it, and maybe not — but without a vote, we’ll never know.

As for SB330, it puts severe constraints on what the city can do, but only until it expires in 2025. Making unprecedented large-scale changes now, just at a time when state law tightly limits our options, can result in unwanted effects down the road.

Besides, SB330 is, in the words of Mr. Forbes, a “shell game” in which city planners take zoning rights away from some property owners and give them to others. For example, if you own a single-family house on a lot zoned for four units, the city can reallocate two of those units for use elsewhere in the city. Is it a taking? No, not legally, but it is a reduction of property rights. SB330, with its requirement of no net reduction in housing units, strongly encourages these kinds of encroachments on property rights.

c. Its lack of any discussion about required infrastructure. In discussing wholesale changes in the way we configure residences and businesses around the city, it’s inevitable that there will be many required changes to hard and soft infrastructure — schools, transportation, water, sewer, and city services, to name a few.

Unfortunately we’re not talking about any of this. Staff’s logic is that it can’t present specifics about infrastructure until the City Council nails down the General Plan update and it conducts an environmental impact review (EIR).

That’s an evasion, in my view. As we all learned in middle-school algebra, the first question you ask when evaluating a problem is: What are my variables?

Infrastructure is certainly one of those variables. If we’re going to change building configurations on an unprecedented scale in the city, we should begin talking about how we’re going to support and all the stuff around those configurations — and how public monies will be used to pay for those improvements. (An aside: Roughly concurrent with construction of the Lupe’s project at 1710 E. Thousand Oaks Blvd., the city undertook major street and water/sewer improvements in the immediate area, with a cost of $4 million.)

d. Its over-reliance on a statistically invalid survey. Both staff and Mr. Raimi based many changes in the proposal on findings from a survey that they acknowledged was not a statistically valid representation of citizens’ views.

“There were a lot of issues with it,” was how commissioner Lanson put it, citing a significant divergence between views expressed in about 6,000 written comments with those expressed in about 2,100 multiple-choice responses. (The Raimi team and staff went heavily with the latter in coming up with the proposal before commissioners.) Further, staff responded to critiques of the survey with a defensive memo saying that it wouldn’t change the survey and that criticism of it disrespected survey participants.

I would prefer staff fix the problems both with survey design and with authentication of respondents. I also concur with commissioner Lanson that we treat the survey as “a piece of information” but not the only piece when deciding how to proceed. Much as I appreciate staff’s outreach efforts, much more needs to be done to hear from the other 90+% of city residents not represented in survey responses.

e. Its assumption that density is, by itself, beneficial. In considering any proposal, I always ask who benefits. Here, there are three possible groups: Developers, those in need of affordable housing, and the general public.

For developers, this plan is a gift from the heavens. The likely addition of tens of thousands of rental units represents a very nice annuity business for a relatively small number of apartment owners. (And these likely will be nearly all apartments; governments cannot compel property owners to build condos or co-ops instead of rental units.)

For the large and growing population in need of affordable housing, the benefits are much less clear. Density alone will not enhance affordability. The production of housing units here in the past seven years is testimony to that. This proposal, as currently constituted, does not by itself enhance affordability or equity. For that, additional measures such as measures for inclusionary housing law and/or rent control will likely be needed.

As for the general public, the picture is really unclear. The proposal has some creative ideas that could enhance walkability and accessibility in some areas. It does address employers’ requests for more local housing (though see above about affordability; with the possible exception of a very few low-income units, no one making, say, $35,000/year will be able to afford the market-rate projects being built along Thousand Oaks Blvd.)

And there’s a big unknown about the effect on the rest of Thousand Oaks. One of the guiding principles of this project is that it doesn’t change existing low-density residential neighborhoods.

We don’t actually know if that’s the case yet; neither staff nor Raimi Associates have provided maps showing in detail how densities will change in these neighborhoods. Further, the map they have provided shows, at least at a high level, an *increase* in density in the new neighborhood low and neighborhood medium designations.

After commissioners spoke on the overall plan, we looked at making tweaks in specific areas. We worked our way west and took these votes:

- To restore the village center concept to the proposal (5–0 vote)

- For consistency with the City Council’s earlier vote, to change the former Baxter property’s designation from industrial to mixed-use low (5–0)

- To designate the existing malls on the southern corners of Westlake and TO Blvd. as commercial and not mixed-use, with their current density (4–0, with me abstaining due to my issues noted above with the overall plan)

- To make no changes to the proposal for the central TO Blvd. area (3–0, with chair Buss and me abstaining)

- To designate Janss Marketplace and the Oaks Mall and surrounding areas mixed-use medium. This area would extend north to Wilbur, south to Hillcrest, and east to the boundary of the current commercial properties on the east side of TO Blvd. Notably, the commission received a letter signed by six former planning commissioners endorsing mixed-use development in the Janss Marketplace/Oaks Mall area. (5–0)

- To make no changes to the proposal for the Rancho Conejo area north of the 101 North. The former planning commissioners’ letter also endorsed development in this area. (5–0)

- To make no changes to the proposal for most areas of the Rancho Conejo area south of the 101, except to redesignate the area around Timber School/Kelly Road from neighborhood medium to neighborhood low. (4–0, with me abstaining)

- For the rest of the Rancho Conejo area south of the 101, including the area around the Borchard Road, request that the City Council determine land use designation(s) for this area (4–0, with me abstaining)

- For a parcel north of Home Depot, currently commercial, change from utility/flood control to Industrial. Mr. Towne indicated this was to correct a mapping error, and did not represent a policy change. (5–0)

The final vote of the night was on the overall plan. As indicated at the outset, commissioners voted 4–1, with my dissent, to recommend the plan with modifications to the City Council.

Chair Buss gaveled the meeting to a close a few minutes after midnight. Before then, commissioners gave thanks to the public, staff, and the Raimi team for all their work on this proposal. It goes next to the City Council, which has devoted two meetings in May to its consideration.

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David Robert Newman

David Robert Newman

Photographer, editor, recovering engineer.