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Calabasas/garcia/24″/LK1st/mark2nd By SHELLY GARCIA Staff Reporter Winning approval for development projects in Calabasas has never been easy, but L.A.-based developer Continental Communities is facing a particularly uphill battle. Continental wants to build a $58 million, 204-acre retail and residential development on a hillside west of Los Virgenes Road. But residents and government officials oppose the project, arguing that the terrain is too steep and that the area lacks the necessary infrastructure of roads. “This is a 700-foot-high mountain, and then there is some sloping land,” said David Brown, a planning commissioner for the city of Calabasas. “It’s not the kind of land you would put a shopping center or residential development on.” In November, the L.A. County Planning Commission deadlocked over the proposal, sending a message that it would consider a smaller commercial project if there were no residential component. But the developer says that a smaller center won’t produce the revenues the company needs to build the roadways that would be required to support development. Continental Communities has appealed the decision to the county Board of Supervisors, which could rule on the development by February. “They’re stuck between a rock and a hard place,” said Jerry Neuman, a partner with Allen, Matkins, Leck, Gamble & Mallory LLP, the law firm representing Continental Communities. “If they make it smaller they can’t support the cost of the infrastructure they have to build.” The developer’s dilemma goes back to 1989, when Robert Zuckerman, the principal shareholder, bought the land from comedian Bob Hope. The area, which is situated in an unincorporated area of L.A. County, is not zoned for commercial development, but because county policy toward zoning changes at the time was lax, the developer assumed he would have little difficulty securing the necessary permits. The recession of the early ’90s delayed development, and by the time Continental returned to the project, the political winds had changed. The city of Calabasas, in revolt over what residents considered to be overdevelopment of the area, had incorporated into a separate city, and Zev Yaroslavsky replaced Mike Antonovich as the district’s county supervisor. Calabasas city residents have maintained a vigil over land use in the area, and, under Yaroslavsky, the county has shown little interest in straying from the master plan without good reason. “From my point of view, what really colors this case is that this property is not zoned for commercial use,” said Ginny Kruger, assistant chief deputy in the county supervisor’s office. “So the burden of proof is very high to demonstrate why the county should give him a zone change.” Continental Communities’ latest proposal to the Planning Commission included a 260,000-square-foot shopping center with a supermarket, movie theater, restaurants and retail shops, along with a residential complex of 40 townhomes on a 204-acre site just north of the Ventura (101) Freeway. But the company recently said it is willing to amend its proposal. “What we really want to get approved is the shopping center,” said Jeff Kaplinski, project manager for Continental Communities. Continental would consider scrapping the residential portion of the development if it could build a somewhat larger center of 280,000 to 290,000 square feet. That way, Kaplinski said, the project would generate enough revenue to pay for an east-west connector road the county would require for the project. Officials at Continental Communities argue that the development will provide a much-needed market and entertainment center for the residents. “The market has been real hot for retail,” Kaplinski said. “The closest shopping center is the Commons at Calabasas or Agoura Hills. It’s quite a distance to go.” But those opposed to the development say that a large shopping center would only further tax roadways that are already insufficient to service the community. “You get more money to pay for improvements, but at the end of the day do you really have a significant circulation system if you’ve overdeveloped the site?” asked Kruger in Yaroslavsky’s office. Besides, opponents say, there is no need for a center so large. They point out that the newly opened Commons at Calabasas, a 180,000-square-foot shopping center that includes a supermarket, restaurants and movie theaters, is only about three miles away. And another movie theater with restaurants in neighboring Agoura Hills is just five miles away. “They’re definitely overlapping areas,” said Ricardo Capretta, the principal of Westrust America, a Calabasas developer. “I think the area could support a grocery store, but I don’t think it could support a major shopping center.” Added Mark Persico, director of planning and building services for the city of Calabasas: “The city’s concern was not just suitability, but really the need for a large-scale commercial development. Now that the Commons has opened, we don’t believe there is a need for a project of that size.” Indeed, the incorporated city of Calabasas has a population of 20,000, and the Las Virgenes area is sparsely populated. “People would have to go to the movies every night to make that theater work,” said Brown. What Calabasas residents would like to see is a local center of about 100,000 square feet, with a supermarket, a pharmacy and a dry cleaner, Brown added. Some believe the two sides may be able to work out a compromise. “This is not the typical no-growth issue,” said John Schwarze, L.A. County zoning administrator, of the community reaction to the Continental plan. “I’ve never gotten the impression that they had a closed mind. They always gave me the impression they would accept some compromise.”

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