Merchant sidewalk displays focus for commissioners
By Nao Braverman
With a weakening economy nationwide, and a number of visible commercial vacancies downtown, planning commissioners agreed that Ojai’s small businesses need as much help as they can get.
That could mean re-examining the city’s regulations regarding the outdoor display of goods.
“One thing that downtown Ojai is lacking is the sight of festivities,” said local resident and developer Ron Polito at Wednesday night’s Planning Commission meeting. “Our local merchants need everything including hooks to draw people into their stores.”
Introducing himself as a representative of the local business community, Polito pleaded with commissioners to consider easing up on their regulations of outdoor displays in town. He cited Westridge Market’s colorful fresh fruit and vegetable stand as one exemplary display that is aesthetically pleasing and entices people to come to the store.
Historically the city has entirely prohibited local businesses from putting anything out onto their storefront sidewalks. However, a recent amendment allows them to do so, provided that the business owner obtains a conditional use permit.
But since it is so recent, the city still does not have a defined policy in place to process such requests. Planning commis-sioners discussed various options, primarily a tiered approach which would allow businesses to get a permit to display some items, such as flowers and fruit at the first tier, without having to plead their case in front of the Planning Commission. The second tier would be for other items such as mannequins and apparel, and would require Planning Commission approval. The third tier would prohibit certain items from outdoor display that are not aesthetically pleasing and clutter walkways, such as pallets of water and bags of pet food.
A number of local merchants asked commissioners to allow struggling local stores some forms of outdoor display.
City manager Jere Kersnar even suggested the possibility of creating an additional sidewalk alongside the Arcade Plaza to allow for outdoor seating and displays in Ojai’s central walkway, currently too cramped for such use.
Commissioners acknowledged that a portion of the chain store ordinance would also have to be re-examined regarding the use of vending machines. As dispensers of pre-made “junk food,” they would probably be prohibited under the recently passed ordinance regulating formula retail.
Most commissioners agreed that they were not particularly concerned about soda machines, but would not want to lose water dispensers.
Commissioners were collectively displeased with the look of a proposed design for a six-unit condominium project at 601 Pearl St. Currently a single-family home near the Ojai Valley Trail, the new development would turn into six two-story structures facing a central circular garden.
“It is in a nice small neighborhood and I would like to see more interaction with the community,” said Planning Commissioner Tucker Adams. “Right now this design makes it seem like they are cutting themselves off from the rest of the neighborhood.”
Fortunately at the design review stage, the project was the exact antithesis of what Ojai’s planning commissioners generally like. With driveways facing the street, a rigid design that was more auto-centric than pedestrian friendly and essentially excluded the rest of the neighborhood, planning commissioners didn’t think the design fit in Ojai.
Planning Vice Chair Susan Weaver asked the applicant to return with a design that was more innovative and aesthetically pleasing, more pedestrian friendly and energy efficient, and had better access to the bike trail.
Commissioners also voted to consider implementing a form-based planning policy. Form-based planning is intended to create the antithesis of suburban sprawl, explained Katrina Schmidt, city planner. Instead of emphasizing the use of buildings, form-based codes focus on the facade, features, type and dimensions of structures. Overall they are intended to improve an area’s quality of life by structuring neighborhoods to encourage community involvement, pedestrian activity, and decrease the need for people to commute to work.
Commissioners said they would welcome a consultant on form-based planning to educate the commission in the future. The ideas seem to provide a framework for the concepts that Ojai’s planning commissioners are constantly trying to present to applicants, said Weaver.
“I wish the man who presented the concept for the Pearl Street condominiums were here for this discussion,” she said.