Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Ojai landmark to get face-lift

Cottages Among the Flowers owner seeks more time, as fire concerns at nearby Mallory Way project heat up

By Nao Braverman

Richard Colla, owner of Cottages Among the Flowers, one of Ojai’s cherished historic properties, returned to the Planning Commission on Nov. 19 to request more time to renovate and expanded his antiquated structures.
About a year after this property had been discussed by planning commissioners, Colla asked to break up the project into four phases, with a year and a half between each. This would be a major extension of the project timeline, according to city staff, as the municipal code standard is generally 180 days for a construction phase.
“Adding all this up, it looks like this could take about six years,” said Commissioner John Mirk. “We have had experience with people abandoning projects midway.”
But Colla insisted that he had purchased the property because he fancied their historic charm, and because he cared for the cottages.
“I am not going to abandon them,” he said.
The seven structures were built as winter cottages by John Burnham, who developed Country Club Drive in the late 1920s, according to local historian David Mason.
“They were quite popular during the time that Ojai was known as a winter resort,” he said.
Colla wants to renovate the seven structures that house eight rental units, and build two more, then sell the whole batch as condominiums. He needs all the time he can get to do a decent job on the project, he said.
“I work in the film industry and there’s saying: ‘You can do it quick, you can do it cheap, and you can do it well, now pick two of those.’ I would like to finish them well,” he said.
Marc Whitman, architect for the project, added that the property owners wanted to allow tenants to stay in the cottages as long as they could, as city staff had indicated they wanted to keep the much-needed affordable rental units in the community as long as possible. Colla was requesting an elongated timeline so that he wouldn’t have to install all the underground utilities at once, which would probably result in ousting tenants.
One neighboring tenant, Vickie Peters, who lives in a cottage owned by a different owner, said that she was concerned that Colla employees were dumping branches from landscape maintenance in the nearby creek bed. Peters said she is concerned that the Collas are not being responsible about maintaining the property for the tenants that live there now.
“I had to pick branches out of the creek bottom that are a fire hazard and flood hazard,” she said.
The commission approved the timeline extension for turning Cottages Among the Flowers into condominiums, and asked for the project to be reviewed once more before the final phase, as it would be years away.
In other planning news, commissioners approved modifications to their proposal to renovate and construct new units on 1314 and 1326 E. Ojai Ave. Part of the property to be developed and improved is to be sold to The Day Spa of Ojai. To properly accommodate it, owners asked for a 6-foot-high privacy wall around the spa garden.
Though commissioners were sympathetic to the privacy of spa clients in their bathrobes, they did not like the idea of a wall in pedestrian view.
Very few pedestrians are currently seen along East Ojai Avenue, but commissioners hope that the new construction will help change that. A high wall facing the street detracts from a friendly pedestrian atmosphere, said commissioner Susan Weaver. The modifications were approved, with a condition that the front wall be redesigned to incorporate an attractive pedestrian entrance.
Later at the meeting commissioners mulled over the definition of a vending machine. When commissioners and councilman passed the ordinance restricting formula retail businesses in Ojai, they expected some unintended consequences. Apparently prohibiting vending machines was one of them. City attorney Monte Widders had indicated that vending machines that sell food would fall under the category of formula fast food, according to the ordinance, and would consequently be prohibited entirely.
That could mean that all the Glacier water machines would have to go, a consequence that could be grave, planning commissioners agreed.
But the definition of a vending machine could veer far from formula retail to include an ATM machine, a gas pump, a newspaper rack, or an ice machine. It could also mean a chain restaurant, as technologically advanced Japan has entire meals that are dispensed from vending machines, said Commission Chair Paul Crabtree.
Commissioners said that they want to keep the water machines, if possible, but have other vending machines come before them for approval. They asked staff to look into whether they could exempt vending from the formula fast food ordinance, so that they would not be prohibited entirely. They would not want vending machines exempt from the formula business code, however, so that they would still need to obtain a permit, and be reviewed before they are placed on city streets.

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