TJ Sullivan is a literary author, investigative journalist, photographer and college instructor whose work has been published in a myriad of newspapers and magazines, including the Los Angeles Times, Chicago Tribune, and The Detroit News, the latter of which he delivered while working as a paperboy during his childhood in the City of Detroit. Sullivan's writing has received many top national honors, including the Sigma Delta Chi Award, the second oldest journalism award in the United States after the Pulitzer Prize. Other state and national accolades include first-place awards from Best of the West, the American Association of Sunday and Feature Editors, the Associated Press News Executive Council and the Los Angeles Press Club. In 2006, Sullivan was commissioned a Kentucky Colonel, the highest title of honor bestowed by the Commonwealth of Kentucky, the home of his alma mater, the University of Kentucky. Sullivan's years as a full-time newspaper reporter were spent at several esteemed publications, including the Santa Fe New Mexican, The Albuquerque Tribune, and the Ventura County (CA) Star. Sullivan has also written for NBC Universal, The Dallas Morning News and the preeminent public affairs website LA Observed. Sullivan is frequently sought as an informative and entertaining speaker on the craft of writing, the art of investigative reporting, and the intricacies of state, county and municipal government. His presentations have been featured at professional development conferences conducted by both The Poynter Institute and the national Society of Professional Journalists. Sullivan has taught journalism courses and coached writers at UCLA's award-winning student newspaper, The Daily Bruin. He has also taught as a part-time faculty member in the Journalism Department at California State University, Northridge. And, in 2006, he was an adviser to SPJ's The Working Press, an internship program for college-level student journalists. Sullivan is currently at work on his third novel, [working title "Howard is Home from The Loop"]. He lives in Chicago, Il.
Some Say Mixed-Use Projects Only Way To Ease Housing Shortage.
By TJ Sullivan
Ventura County Star
When Guillermo "Memo" Garay's family of four first moved into its affordable, two-bedroom apartment in downtown Fillmore, friends and family members unwittingly wandered past the front door as they searched for it between hardware stores, beauty parlors, a movie theater and a coffee shop.
Eyes swept across the plainness of the stoop on Central Avenue downtown, surely expecting something more closely resembling the stereotypical California apartment building — doors with gold-painted numbers, repeated rows of balconies and those same old sliding glass patio doors.
Even the pizza delivery guys needed help finding the place in 45 minutes or less on the main, block-long drag of downtown Fillmore.
"They usually call me back and say, 'Where exactly do you live?'" said Garay, 23.
Fillmore's "City View Apartments," built in the middle 1990s, just blend in, as they were designed to do. But lately, projects such as City View, and others like it, are standing out and getting noticed by California planners, financiers and builders as they struggle to find a way to relieve the state's growing housing crisis.
There are several such projects in Ventura County that have recently been built, or are under construction. In downtown Ventura the newly constructed Poli Oak Pavilion has been captivating home shoppers with its provision of office and living spaces, one of several examples of mixed-use —a term that refers to the combination of multiple uses such as retail, office, parking and living in the same structure.
Some hold it up as a significant stride in the quest to build more housing without devouring farmland and open space, or in some cases without consuming any land at all.
The idea is of particular interest to planners and builders in Ventura County, where the passage of growth-control laws known as S.O.A.R., or Save Open-space and Agricultural Resources, has essentially hemmed all new development into existing cities. That, combined with low interest rates, high prices and widespread resistance to construction, has contributed to a shortage of rental and owner-occupied housing that is affordable for existing residents, as well as to workers who currently commute from outside the county.
To make matters more dire, several Ventura County cities are approaching what's referred to as "build-out," which means they're near capacity. Thousand Oaks, for example, has a stated capacity of 50,000 units, and already has 46,200 units built.
Ventura has built about 90 percent of its planned capacity.
Marvin Schachter, a retired Southern California developer turned affordable housing activist, describes mixed-use housing as though it's housing that can be built on land that doesn't exist.
For example, in Santa Monica a municipal parking structure replaced a city parking lot, and affordable senior apartments were built on top of the structure.
"When you build housing, particularly affordable housing, what you need essentially is money and land … and land is expensive in California," Schachter said. "Exercising air rights above parking lots is one way."
Santa Monica and Schachter's home of Pasadena have many examples. Pasadena's new Paseo Colorado development, an outdoor mall, was topped with more than 350 luxury apartments and lofts. A grocery store, a movie theater, and restaurants are all beneath the housing and serve the residents, as well as the community.
Not a single city commissioner or council member voted against Paseo Colorado, said Bill Trimble, a Pasadena city planner. However, Trimble said, it's the only such project he can think of that can make that claim.
Even though Pasadena has built a great deal of mixed-use housing, it hasn't helped keep prices down.
"We're facing, as every community is, the issue of affordability," Trimble said.
Pasadena Mayor Bill Bogaard said many residents are concerned about the stability of the community since the city has embraced the construction of so much high-density, mixed-use rental housing. More than 50 percent of the city's homes are rentals.
"To the extent that Pasadena is building an exciting and urban environment, I would hope that could be continued," Bogaard said. "At the same time, there is some limit to the number of housing units.
"There are some people, maybe more protective, or more alert, to the implication of it all who are saying 'enough is enough.' "
Garay said he and his wife, Susan, love their two-bedroom downtown apartment in Fillmore, a town whose population is about half that of every other community in Ventura County, except the even-smaller artistic enclave of Ojai.
Their unit and the five others in their building are all rented under affordable guidelines — a two-bedroom goes for about $800 a month. Each has a private, single-car garage that fronts on the alley, a shared laundry room, and a rooftop courtyard, which provides a safe, secure area for Garay's 1-year-old and 5-year-old to play.
"My kids can play outside, and I don't have to worry about them running in the street," he said.
If anything needs fixing, the landlord owns the furniture store one flight down and is often working the sales floor during business hours.
Ron Stewart, the building's owner, said the rent payments by the tenants have helped him make the mortgage payment on the entire structure during months when sales of furniture and Thomas Kinkade paintings have been slow.
As for crime, the only question seems to be whether the average ne'er-do-well could find the place, let alone be tempted by it.
"It's safe," said Garay, who not only walks to his job with the city just a block away, but also to the grocery store, the post office and the movies, most of which are in the same block as his building's front door.
Like anyplace, he said, there is a downside.
The lack of a back yard with grass is a sacrifice, and weekend festivals can test a resident's patience. Because Central Avenue is the fire station's main route to many calls, the siren sometimes blasts them out of bed.
"That's just something you learn to sleep through," said Vance Johnson, another city employee who was among the first residents when the structure was completed in 1996.
"You've got to decide whether this is for you," Johnson said. "Not everybody wants to live downtown."
A growing need
Builders and even some bankers are starting to change their mind about the definition of the quintessential American home. They're deciding that the post-World War II model of urban sprawl — street after street of single-family homes with lawns and fences, porches and pools — is not the only acceptable version. Smaller, less-expensive living spaces can be built in closer proximity to each other without so much as a blade of grass, or a square-inch of yard, and, if done well, can serve to complement a community.
Throughout the Ventura County Regional Housing Summit held in Oxnard this past spring the rally cry by speaker after speaker was for mixed-use housing.
Johannes Van Tilburg, a world-renowned architect who teaches at the University of Southern California and Harvard University, told the assembly of planners, bankers, builders and elected officials to "allow housing everywhere, no exceptions."
"If somebody wants to build an office building and put a penthouse on top of it, let them," he said. "It's one more residence."
Van Tilburg suggested many alternatives to the current practice of putting six housing units on a single acre. For example, he said, building three-story houses that are just 17 feet wide allows for 24 units on that one acre, four times more housing. From there, his examples increased, showing ways some communities have put more than 160 units on a single acre.
But getting people to support it in their back yard — even when it's out on a boulevard — is something else, especially at a time when words like "high density" and "urbanization" draw fierce opposition from suburban dwellers who left the big city to escape those very things.
"There is this lack of trust because you look at much of what was developed in Southern California during the past30 years and there's not much you point at and say 'ooh, ooh, I want more of that,' " said Nick Deitch of Main Street Architects and Planners Inc., in Ventura.
Perhaps that is what's driving residents in many places where such projects have been opposed. Public and private planners say it's just NIMBYs, using the initials of the decree "not in my back yard," which is shouted from podium to politician in response to building most anything anywhere near anyone. But some say that description is not fair.
Thousand Oaks City Councilwoman Claudia Bill-de la Peña, who lives in the tony Westlake Village portion of the city, said she thinks people move to suburban communities because they like low-density neighborhoods, and to change it would be to lessen the appeal.
"I can say with near certainty that the people who live in Thousand Oaks … want to live in an area that is semi-rural," she said. "Mixed-use will turn it into an urban area … and that is not what people want. It will urbanize Thousand Oaks."
Bill-de la Peña said she believes Southern California communities are trying to play catch-up as they strive to employ such concepts.
"Europe planned for mixed-use so well that they planned for everything including transportation, and that is not the case, especially in Southern California," she said.
'Any stupid thing'
David Sargent, of Sargent Town Planning in Ventura, disagrees. Cities need to have vision and the commitment to allow the time necessary for change to take place, he said.
"Just building something with a mix of uses isn't going to change things the next morning," said Sargent, who has earned much professional recognition and praise for his work building a 1,000-unit, mixed-use community on the site of an abandoned dynamite plant in Hercules.
"One of the main reasons that California is 10 or 15 years behind certain other parts of the country (in terms of building mixed-use structures) is that the unmet demand for housing here is very high," he said. "So basically, you can build any stupid thing and people will buy it. So the incentive to build quality isn't there."
Affordable housing advocates, developers and environmentalists, however, are joining forces with increasing frequency to promote that kind of quality.
"Some environmentalists are just so anti-growth that they can't begin to see the good stuff in this kind of development, but some of us do see it, and we've supported it for a long time," said Ron Bottorff, founder and chairman of Friends of the Santa Clara River and a member of the Davis-based Institute for Ecological Health. "A lot of people still have the idea that density is bad, and yet they don't want any farmland used up. They're just not thinking right. Some growth has to be accommodated."
"High-density infill, more compact designs and mixed-use zoning — that's the way to live within the S.O.A.R. boundaries."
Ventura County is already employing the concept.
Rows of recently constructed apartments and two-story townhomes, some as small as 1,320 square feet, already have been built at California State University, Channel Islands. Once completed, the campus neighborhood will include a town center that combines apartments with a market, a deli and other shops.
"If you look at the campus, there's no commercial around us anywhere," said George Dutra, associate vice president of operations, planning and construction at CSUCI. "If you don't have facilities (faculty, staff and students) are going to come here and leave and come back and leave. The idea is to keep them here."
The Rachael Apartments are expected to soon begin construction near downtown Fillmore. The three-story building will feature two stories of residential atop street-level commercial space.
Simi Valley is working with a horizontal mixed-use project that combines homes and a shopping mall.
Location will be the key to success, or failure, said Paul Silvern, a partner in the consulting firm of Hamilton, Rabinovitz and Alschuler Inc., who has been a part of many mixed-use projects in Southern California.
"They're only going to be successful if they're in places people want to be," he said.