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Friday, Feb 23, 2024

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Thousand Oaks knows its main street will never resemble the Third Street Promenade in Santa Monica or downtown Glendale or Santa Barbara. But a version of those hotspots, the city feels, could help breathe life back into a tired neighborhood. Downtown-like apartments, more walkable areas and a bit of a nightlife packaged with a new streetscape design is the vision that the city and its business supporters have for a three-mile stretch of Thousand Oaks Boulevard near the Civic Arts Plaza. And elected officials just approved lighter and looser regulations to help get there. The City Council last month voted to nearly double the number of new mixed-use apartment-above-retail units to about 400 allowed along the boulevard between Moorpark Road and Duesenberg Drive. It also cut in half the number of parking spaces required for small restaurants, while also loosening up other parking rules for existing properties. Those changes were made with the hope of attracting apartment developers and a variety of restaurants. In a related move, city officials also agreed on a roughly $1.3 million streetscape project near the Civic Arts Plaza, a higher-end theater complex, to make the boulevard more appealing to visitors. That investment may spur property and business owners to do the same, officials believe. With the additional apartment units permitted along the boulevard, redeveloper Dave Gulbranson is more optimistic that his plan to build up to 120 apartments or condominiums atop ground-level commercial space at Conejo School Road and the boulevard could move forward. His parcels are across from The Lakes at Thousand Oaks shopping center, a Caruso Affiliated creation, and within the recognized core area. In the past, he would have been approved to build far less than 120 units, perhaps only about 35, which would not be enough to make the cost of construction pencil out. “They did a really, really smart thing because it was the biggest hurdle that we had,” Gulbranson said. “They (the previous allotted number of units) were so tight that there was no sense building on the boulevard because there were not enough units.” Still, he said, building in Thousand Oaks – or pretty much anywhere in southern California – involves lots of regulatory hurdles. “There are probably only four locations where mixed use can be built (along the three-mile corridor,” he said. “As stringent as the city is – and I applaud them – to even get these four sites developed will be a miracle.” Boulevard vision The intent to enliven the boulevard has been around for decades but didn’t become a formal plan until 2011, when property and business owners produced the Thousand Oaks Boulevard Specific Plan. The land-use document laid out the regulations to see that vision into fruition, but since then it has needed changes, the most recent being the additional apartment units and lower parking quotas. Gulbranson, who is also treasurer of the Thousand Oaks Boulevard Association and its Property Business Improvement District, said the property owners and businesses made the investment of more than $300,000 to pay for the plan because they saw tenants and property owners alike struggling as customers migrated elsewhere, such as The Oaks shopping center. Property owners like himself aren’t going to be successful unless their tenants are, he said, and people are leaving the city to spend money elsewhere. “I’ve been here since 1975, and have watched the boulevard die because brick-and-mortar (shops) are going away,” he said. “There’s a transition occurring toward entertainment and dining, as opposed to services.” Rick Principe, chief executive of development firm and real estate brokerage Westcord Commercial Group Inc. in Westlake Village, said one of the indicators of the unhealthy environment is declining commercial rental rates. “We were getting $3 to $3.50 a square foot 10 years ago, but now we’re getting $2.75 to $3 a square foot, and even for real nice space,” Principe said. There was some beautification and improvement to properties after the Specific Plan came out, and the vacancy rate improved, he said. But then the mixed-use development called for by the plan never materialized, and activity stalled. There were reasons, according to Principe. For years after the plan was approved, fees, such as a traffic mitigation fee, and a fee to preserve future park land, which had been tacked onto general residential development projects, were applied to mixed-use development, but shouldn’t, he maintained, because it’s essentially commercial development. Those fees could have tacked $30,000 to each unit, he said. The city has lowered one of those fees and is still working on others, but developers say they’re still a hurdle. There’s also a learning curve for government officials and staff that come with implementing the Specific Plan and all its mixed-use specific criteria, Principe added. The more developers show interest, the more issues arise. “It’s something brand new to the city, and the staff are not 100 percent sure how to handle it,” Principe said. “We’re having to separate what fees should apply (to mixed use) and what shouldn’t.” Principe said he knows first-hand the challenges that still exist to the process. He wants to build about 35 units on a 1.5-acre property on Thousand Oaks Boulevard where two, three-story buildings sit on property he bought because of the Specific Plan. But the fee structures have delayed the process, he said, because they raise the cost to build. The amendments the City Council approved in July help, he said, but other issues need to be resolved for the city’s full vision to be realized. “We would like to do this mixed use. We see the vision, but it has to work both financially and physically.” Principe said. “The last thing we want to do is build units that are so expensive no one can afford to live there.” Gulbranson, however, lauded the city for coming up with a plausible process to attract mixed-use development. The new process reduces the chance of a reduction in the number of units first proposed by a developer. In the past, a developer may have gone through a long and expensive approval process only to have the number of units cut at the end, suddenly rendering the project less feasible. Nightlife The traditional image of Thousand Oaks features the Santa Monica Mountains, oak trees, open space and a history as one of the nation’s safest cities – but not a vibrant, happening nightlife. But city officials say a moderate nightlife presence along the boulevard goes hand-in-hand with new apartments and creating a walkable area, and it’s necessary to make the neighborhood thrive again. One change the city approved last month was to cut parking quotas to entice certain merchants – beer tap rooms and microbreweries, coffee shops, cafes, restaurants and maybe a bar or a comedy club – to open along the boulevard. The change shrunk by half the parking spaces required for smaller restaurants – those 2,000 square feet and under – and allows properties to count on-street parking spaces in their quotas. The change will bring in different property uses, said Haider Alawami, economic development manager for Thousand Oaks, but also reduce some parking so visitors will need to walk a little, hopefully benefiting merchants. “We don’t want people to be just in that (strip mall) square or that box,” Alawami said. “By having people park down that street and walk to that shopping center, they’ll be able to see a lot more than just being in that place. We’re not creating this environment for everybody, but for people who want to do it.” Attracting coffee shops, juice bars and small cafes will also boost foot traffic in the morning hours, he added. Earlier this year, the city also committed to a $1.3 million streetscape improvement project along the boulevard between Conejo School and Erbes roads, Alawami said. Conceptual plans include one or two signs announcing the Civic Arts Plaza Zone; decorative crosswalks at intersections; artistic medallions and bulb-outs, or enlarged sidewalk corners that allow more people to stand on a corner, slow down traffic and shorten the distance to cross the street. Also, the project will extend the median in front of The Lakes shopping center to Erbes Road. Alawami was not too concerned as to how residents may react to the idea of a nightlife in their bedroom community. “We asked the community to just give us this area to create a place that you guys want to go to,” he said. “A lot of people are aware of that, and are OK with that. Some people are not, but that’s OK. If people don’t have a place to go to, they’ll go someplace else.”

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