Leon Worden




What Are City Planners Thinking?

By Leon Worden
Wednesday, May 15, 2002

T
wo big commercial development projects hit the Santa Clarita Planning Commission last week and they warrant comment.
    One is The Newhall Land and Farming Co.'s proposal to line four new car dealerships along Valencia Boulevard.
    Planners have long understood that "downtown Valencia" will one day be at the geographical center of the developed part of the Santa Clarita Valley. It's on the west side of town now, but the build-out of Newhall Ranch west of the freeway will move the Valencia Town Center and the approximate intersection of Valencia Boulevard and Magic Mountain Parkway closer to the middle. That's why it's a good location for City Hall, the county Civic Center, the major banks and auto row.
    The city also understands the importance of maximizing our sales tax dollars. The Mayor's Committee for Managed Growth recently released its report showing we must have a fundamental shift in our thinking when it comes to generating revenue for public improvements.
    We've relied greatly on developer fees to pay for things like schools, roads and fire stations, but the truth is, we can't build new homes forever inside city limits, and we need to do a better job of developing alternative revenue sources— like sales tax generators.
    Car dealerships are huge generators of sales tax, so it makes sense to bring more to the valley. But Creekside Road is essentially built out, and bringing new dealerships to Santa Clarita means expanding the footprint of the auto mall.
    Does that mean new dealerships must front Valencia Boulevard? Perhaps. But I wish they could be kept to the side streets.
    Part of Valencia's, umm, charm, lies in the fact that its major boulevards are landscaped, tree-lined, and they have few curb cuts— limiting dangerous cross-traffic. True, the part of Valencia Boulevard where the four new dealerships are going is less neighborhood-like than other Valencia streets. But adding dealerships to this main Santa Clarita thoroughfare is going to make it Van Nuys ugly.
    At least there won't be on-street parking like there is on Creekside Road. Still. You think traffic's bad now? Just wait until Valencia Boulevard is the true heart of town.

* * *

    The second big development proposal on the planners' plate last week was the Gate-King project, aka Needham Ranch. It's a proposed business park, sort of like the Valencia Industrial Center, roughly bounded by San Fernando Road on the east, Pine Street on the north and Sierra Highway on the south— above and behind Eternal Valley Cemetery.
    I've tried real hard to remain neutral on the Gates project (as most people call it), in part because I represent a couple of different organizations that are interested in it.
    One is the Newhall Redevelopment Committee, which I chair. The committee has endorsed the project for two reasons. First, some 20 acres are inside the redevelopment project area, and the new construction will add dollars that can be used to revitalize Old Town Newhall. Second, several thousand people will work in the industrial park when it's built out over the next 15 years, and chances are, they'll patronize Newhall's shops and restaurants, uplifting the neighborhood economy.
    The other organization is the SCV Historical Society, which hasn't taken sides but has been in talks with the developer about the historic properties that his project encompasses.
    Some of the most significant historic sites within city limits are surrounded by the Gates project. Chief among them are the Pioneer Oil Refinery— the first commercially productive refinery in the American West and the oldest existing refinery in the world today— and the San Fernando Railroad Tunnel, which was the fourth-longest tunnel in the world when it was completed in August 1876. There are other places of historic interest on the Gates property, but I'll limit this discussion by saying the developer is proposing to help with the refinery, and place markers along a passive interpretive trail that would meander near the tunnel.
    My neutrality was tested by last week's Planning Commission meeting. Frankly, I can't quite figure out where city staff is coming from.
    You'd think the major sticking point would be the developer's plan to remove about 1,000 of the 11,000 oak trees on the property. (Many are fire damaged and he's growing saplings to replace the trees he'll remove. As one redevelopment committee member noted, when complete the project would actually have more oak trees than when it started.)
    But that wasn't the hang-up. The city would need to declare the project "innovative" in order to skirt the city's ridgeline preservation ordinance. Planning staffers said, as the project stands, no way.
    Maybe the city is gun-shy after all the heat it took when it declared a Jack Shine housing project "innovative" not too long ago. It wasn't. The city gave Shine the exemption in exchange for a bunch of amenities.
    But the Gates project is actually fairly interesting. He'd tuck his buildings into the hillsides, with rooflines below the peaks, and with trees to cover the buildings so they won't stick out.
    Sure, the project could probably use some tweaking. All projects can. But if there's a better example of "innovative" use of a hillside in Santa Clarita, well, I don't think I've seen it.
    Neutral or not, I hope the city doesn't blow it with this developer. The alternative isn't too pretty. He could always take the easy way out and sell off his property in sections, leaving us to deal with a bunch of new landowners and junky little development projects that don't mesh.

    Leon Worden is The Signal's city editor.

    ©2002 LEON WORDEN — ALL RIGHTS RESERVED
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