One of the largest residential projects in downtown Ventura history has changed hands, and the city is putting the owner on the fast track for approval in a bid to infuse the urban core with new white-collar housing.
Los Angeles-based developer John Ashkar already has two large-scale housing projects in Ventura in the pipeline. He recently added the 3.5-acre residential project formerly known as Renaissance Walk to his portfolio, buying it from Seal Beach-based Olson Co.
The property, bordered by Thompson Boulevard and Santa Clara and Junipero streets, encompasses almost an entire city block and would be the first new privately developed housing in downtown Ventura since 2004.
Ashkar will seek brand-new approvals to build as many as 230 retnal apartments, rather than the 176 for-sale condominiums already approved. He also wants to build a recreation center and possibly retail space.
Ventura Community Development Director Jeffrey Lambert said the city has been in preliminary talks with Ashkar’s Westwood Communities Corp. and wants to work with the developer to speed it through the approval process in as little as eight months. “We have a very detailed downtown specific plan. We’re very clear about the project type and quality that we want and we hope can move through and expedite the process for a project that fits,” Lambert said.
Lisette Verelst, a project manager for Ashkar’s development companies, told the Business Times that Westwood is still working out many of the details and hasn’t submitted formal plans to the city yet, but that the city has “promised us that they will work with us on this.”
“There is a lot of demand for housing in the area,” she said. “But instead of doing condos, we feel apartments are a lot more needed downtown.”
Westwood currently has a 164-apartment complex, dubbed Pacific View, at Alameda Avenue and Eight Street that’s in the city planning process. It has full approvals for Parklands, a 499-unit single-family home and condo project at the southwest corner of Wells and Telegraph roads, where Ashkar wants to transform 67 acres of farmland on Ventura’s east side into a dense residential community.
“John has worked with the city for 27 or 30 years,” Verelst said. “He’s very familiar with the process. And we think the city is just a great city.” She said Ashkar is confident that he’ll be able to gain construction financing once the new approvals are in place.
Olson Co. gained approvals to build 172 condominiums, including 26 affordable units, in the city’s downtown in 2005, but put the project on hold when the real estate market collapsed. The project stalled as the company waited for market conditions to improve, and in December 2011, Olson Co. sold the property to Westwood. Verelst declined to disclose the purchase price.
Lambert said that in recent years, market conditions have changed such that downtown pencils out better for rental apartments — aimed at white-collar workers — rather than for-sale homes.
Per city requirements, housing priced for low- to moderate-income households would still have to make up at least 15 percent of the project, but with Gov. Jerry Brown abolishing city redevelopment agencies, the city’s funds to subsidize that portion is no longer be available, Lambert said. The city previously had said it would consider putting about $7 million of its cash toward the Olson project.
Ventura has spent years revitalizing its downtown and has started to brand itself as a startup hub complete with a technology incubator.
Lambert said city planners believe new housing will be a catalyst for further downtown development. “Housing is an important asset for downtown. With more people living downtown, it becomes a more vibrant downtown,” he said. Whether those properties should be for-rent or for-sale is always up for debate he said, but city planners believe “a high-quality rental project attracts young professionals.”
He said that based on its preliminary talks with Westwood, it believes the conceptual design phase can be completed in about four months.