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Aerial view of downtown Ojai, courtesy of David Byrne/Focus Flight

Aerial view of downtown Ojai, courtesy of David Byrne/Focus Flight

Goode’s News Part II — Plans Emerge for Key Downtown Site

By Mark Lewis

When The Ojai Quarterly posted a story on Facebook about a new proposal to redevelop the school district’s downtown property, we evidently struck a nerve. The story (from our Summer 2015 issue) was shared on several Facebook community forums, generating long threads of commentary that added up to a Town Hall debate about the future of Ojai. The proposal comes from Eric Goode, a longtime East End homeowner and a high-profile New York hotelier, and his friend Jonas Svensson, an independent investor who lives west of the Arbolada. Their idea is to build a boutique hotel of 50 to 75 rooms somewhere on the 7.5-acre property, while preserving and repurposing the historic Ojai Elementary School buildings that currently house the district offices, Chaparral High School and Chaparral Auditorium. (The skate park and the park-and-ride lot would not be affected.)

Their plan is still in the formative stages and has not yet been presented to district officials, who in any case are not actively seeking proposals for developing the property. But the mere suggestion that a chic hotel might be planted in the heart of downtown Ojai dismayed some longtime residents.

“This would be another nail in the coffin,” Wendy Barr Franklin wrote on one Facebook thread. “A delight for those wanting a little Palm Springs closer to L.A. and a sad, sad day for the rest of us. I don’t expect a return to the good old days when we didn’t need a single stoplight but it’s disheartening to see my hometown disappearing one rock wall chunk at a time. And please don’t cite this as ‘progress’ unless you consider the inability to make a left turn onto Ojai Avenue progressive.”

The negative comments drew a vigorous rebuttal from Paul Leon, an Ojai native now in his third term as the mayor of Ontario. Leon is a regular visitor to Ojai, where his mother still lives, and he noted that many streets badly need repaving. To Leon, that indicates that the city is underfunded and needs the tax dollars new development projects would generate.

“I understand the desire to maintain the ‘old’ feel of Ojai, the town I grew up in, but there has to be some compromise,” Leon wrote on the same thread. “Ojai depends on tourism. That is the major industry there. It does no good to deny it; embrace it, and plan for a better way to capitalize on it … If you develop correctly and quickly, you can maintain your character while building your city’s income.”

That in turn drew a response from Craig Walker, who serves on Ojai’s Historic Preservation Commission.

“No one resents the tourists; we just don’t want tourism to dictate the character of our town,” Walker wrote on the same thread. “There has to be a balance … in favor of those who make their homes here. Especially since tourists come here because of our Ojai way of life.”

Walker cited the protracted struggle in the 1960s and ‘70s to prevent a proposed freeway from coming through the valley, as well as the activities of the Ojai Valley Land Conservancy, as examples of how the community has fought to retain its small-town flavor in the face of relentless development pressure.

“The people of Ojai have worked hard over the years to limit growth and preserve our quality of life,” he wrote.

As it happens, both Eric Goode and Jonas Svensson are supporters of the Ojai Valley Land Conservancy, and both say they like Ojai the way it is. But, echoing Leon, they contend that in preservation as in football, the best defense is a good offense. They pitch their hotel project as a pro-active move that would help to preserve the town’s ambience, by pre-empting outside developers who might some day swoop in and foist something inappropriate on the site.

But what would be appropriate for this site? The question is well worth asking, because the site is so big and so strategically placed that whatever is done with it will have a profound impact on Ojai’s future. It already looms large in Ojai’s past.

 

SCHOOL AS  JEWEL

“Growth” and “development” were things to be celebrated in the Ojai Valley of 1895, when the two-decade-old community found that it had outgrown its original one-room brick schoolhouse on Matilija Street. A new Nordhoff Grammar School was built that year at the corner of Ojai Avenue and North Montgomery Street – an imposing, two-story, wood-frame building comprising four classrooms and an auditorium, crowned by an impressive bell tower that loomed over the downtown business district.

For the next three decades, this was the most important building in town. Its Assembly Hall served the community as a dance hall, a theater, a concert hall and a place to hold meetings. It was where people came to vote on Election Day, and where they gathered at Christmastime to light the communal tree and watch Santa Claus pass out presents to the children. The Assembly Hall hosted the town’s first Roman Catholic services and its first motion picture show. It was the epicenter of village life.

But by 1927, the town had once again outgrown its grammar school. The school district jacked up the old one and moved it out of the way, and hired the distinguished Santa Paula architect Roy Wilson to design a new, Mission Revival-style school on the same site. The old school was retained for its Assembly Hall until 1937, when a new auditorium was completed and the 1895 building finally was demolished. All that remained of it was its bell, which was transferred to the new school’s bell tower.

The new, Mission-style auditorium also was designed by Roy Wilson, who was a busy man in those days. He also designed a new building for the San Antonio School on Carne Road, and a new Mission-style campus for Nordhoff High School on El Paseo Road. All are still in use today. (The former high school campus now houses Matilija Junior High School.) Wilson also designed Bill Baker’s Bakery, directly across the street from the downtown grammar school. Today, the former bakery is a restaurant called Azu, where people sit and gaze across Ojai Avenue at Wilson’s 1937 auditorium, unaware that both buildings were designed by the same architect at roughly the same time.

In 1953, Nordhoff Grammar School changed its name to Ojai Elementary School. In 1954, due to seismic safety concerns, its bellfry was removed, and the old bell was placed on display in front of the building, where it remains today. But Ojai Elementary School is long gone; it closed in 1976. The building’s North Montgomery Street wing now houses Chaparral High School, an alternative program for at-risk students. Its Ojai Avenue frontage became the Ojai Unified School District offices, including the boardroom where the property’s ultimate fate may be decided.

 

CHANGE COMES TO OJAI

School enrollment in Ojai has plummeted since the ‘90s, putting financial pressure on the district. Its downtown property is potentially of great value to a developer, so the district from time to time has contemplated various ways of cashing in on it. The current board is not interested in selling the property, but has left the door open to possibly signing a long-term lease, if a developer were to come forward with a compelling concept that would significantly boost the district’s income.

Cue Eric Goode and Jonas Svensson, who revealed their interest in the property in June. But they have not yet made a formal proposal. Meanwhile, the City Council has expressed interest in designating the former Ojai Elementary School a historic landmark, which might further complicate the redevelopment process. The school board is wary of the city’s idea, but whether the building is landmarked or not, it could not be redeveloped without the city’s cooperation.

“Our plan is to continue to meet with people who want to hear about our thoughts for the site, as well as engage with people from both the city and the school board,” Svensson told the OQ. “What we currently are working on is to prepare for the formal process we have to go through to realize the project, and planning to find a constructive way to engage with the community to get input and ideas that could be useful.”

In that spirit, the OQ conducted an informal and unscientific survey to see what ideas might be out there. Among the more popular suggestions: affordable housing, a retirement community, a performing arts center, a community swimming pool, and a bowling alley.

Some people say they would welcome another townhouse-style condo development, like Los Arboles on South Montgomery Street. Others cringe at the thought of another upscale condo cluster.

Marc Whitman, the architect who designed Los Arboles, favors a different approach for the school district property. He sees it as the site of an “artists village,” perhaps along the lines of the Working Artists Ventura project in Ventura, where market-rate condos support affordable living and working spaces for artists.

“I also see an extension of the downtown commercial district in that location with shops, restaurants and things for people to do, such as art and music studios,” Whitman told the OQ. “The existing courtyard could be made into a European style courtyard surrounded by restaurants and music venues. In other words, it could be a great epicenter of creative activities in our downtown that could enhance our lives and make Ojai the richer for it.”

A similar idea was offered by Hallie Katz, co-owner of the Human Arts Gallery in the Arcade. She points to the Torpedo Factory Art Center in Alexandria, Va., which is an old munitions factory repurposed into a complex of working artists’ studios and galleries. Why not do something similar with the former Ojai Elementary School buildings?

“Man, that would be cool,” Katz says.

Despite all those negative comments on Facebook, many people would welcome a boutique hotel on that site — especially one created by Eric Goode, who is known for developing well-designed projects like New York’s chic Bowery Hotel.

Steve Edelson, who owns the Ranch House restaurant and other Ojai Valley properties, says he supports Goode’s project. In fact, Edelson says, he would support just about any development proposal for the school district site.

“There is a growing demand for retail and housing here in beautiful Ojai,” he says. “History has shown over and over that restricting growth only leads to prices that exclude the lower and middle class, and herein  Ojai we need to be accessible to all. It seems wrong that you should have to have enough money to stay at the Ojai Valley Inn or afford a million dollar house to be here.”

To Ojai resident Cindy Convery, however, the Goode-Svensson project might compromise the town’s viability as a small-town community where people still feel connected to their neighbors. She fears that a successful hotel on that site might push Ojai past the tipping point on its way to joining Carmel, Solvang and Sedona as communities that have sold their souls to the tourist industry.

“Even a small hotel, say 75 rooms, means about 150 tourists per night on one of the already busiest corners in town,” Convery says. “Plus the 75 or so employees. Good for that business? Sure. Good for a real town where we have perhaps one of the last connected communities in Southern California? No way.”

Instead of leasing the downtown site for a hotel, she says, the school district should rededicate it to serve the public, “with a wonderful and affordable community preschool for qualified families, after-school programs and maybe an indoor farmers market on Wednesday afternoons in the auditorium. Keep Ojai a town, not a money machine.”

Money of course remains a long-term issue for the school district, which is why this valuable property may yet be put in play. And that would be a good thing for Ojai, says Nicholas Deitch of Mainstreet Architects in Ventura.

About seven years ago, Deitch worked on a preliminary proposal for this same site that was similar to the Goode-Svensson plan, in that it too involved a boutique hotel. The school board did not embrace that earlier plan, and it may or may not embrace a Goode-Svensson proposal. But at least Goode and Svensson have reopened the conversation about what might be done with the property – 7.5 acres of prime real estate that Deitch describes as “sitting just about at Ground Zero in downtown Ojai.”

“Those kinds of parcels represent a huge opportunity for the community,” he says, because they provide a rare chance to define the future in one fell swoop.

“The reality is that there is no such thing as a ‘no change’ option,” Deitch says. “Things are going to change.”

The choice, he says, is to try to control the process, or to just let it happen.

Which brings us back to Mayor Paul Leon of Ontario, who attended Ojai Elementary School in the ‘60s and whose name is inscribed in concrete near the old school bell on display outside the district offices.

The Ojai he grew up with is gone, he says, but the Ojai of the future is still up for grabs.

“Get creative,” Leon wrote on that Facebook thread. “Set a vision. Protect your way of life for the future of Ojai. It can be done right.”

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