California Coastal Commission sent the Fisherman’s Wharf project back to the drawing board, leading the county to hire a team of urban planning consultants to create a new plan for redevelopment around Channel Islands Harbor.
OXNARD—JoAnna Steele has seen restaurants and other retailers come and go from Fisherman’s Wharf in Oxnard since its opening more than 40 years ago. Steele opened My Studio Gallery 42 years ago, when the Cape Cod-style buildings were first leased on the east side of Channel Islands Harbor. She said at its height, it was a thriving waterfront community of specialty retailers and restaurants serving the local community, visitors and boaters. Over the years, businesses have left for various reasons and a lack of upkeep of the buildings has left the area with peeling paint, high vacancy rates and little foot traffic.
“I think it should be fixed up and filled up,” Steele said.
Discussions about reinvigorating Fisherman’s Wharf have been around since about 2005, but after recent disagreements between Ventura County and the city of Oxnard over how the property should be used, it is now back to the drawing board.
In 2015, the county Board of Supervisors approved an agreement with Channel Islands Harbor Properties for the development of Fisherman’s Wharf. Channel Islands Properties Group planned a mixed-use development with a multi-story apartment building rising as high as 55 feet, 36,000 square feet of commercial space, boat slips, a public promenade, park and refurbishment of the lighthouse. The residential aspect of the project faced criticism from some community members as well as the city of Oxnard and a political back-and-forth ensued.
In 2019, the Oxnard City Council voted to deny the county’s plans to rezone the area to allow for residential uses. The county then challenged the city’s rejection. In August, the California Coastal Commission rejected the county’s request to override the city of Oxnard’s decision to not allow a rezoning for residential uses.
A few weeks after the decision, Ventura County came back to the drawing board, announcing the hiring of Sargent Town Planning, a team of urban planning consultants, to lead a public visioning process for the future of Channel Islands Harbor and a new plan for Fisherman’s Wharf.
“In recent years a number of new development proposals in the Harbor have encountered challenges due to community concerns,” David Sargent, Senior Principal of Sargent Town Planning, said in a released statement. “We are working closely with the steering committee to refine and conduct an open and transparent process to develop a long-term vision for the Harbor, a vision supported by the community, the county of Ventura, the city of Oxnard, and by economic realities.”
The steering committee will oversee the process and is made up of a dozen county and Oxnard city officials, harbor residents, harbor business owners and harbor neighborhood officials. Community members will also have the opportunity to participate in the planning.
“That’s what we’re embarking on, is this vision for the harbor, what should we do in this harbor, what should it look like, what should it feel like,” said Ventura County Harbor Department Director Mark Sandoval, who is a member of the steering committee.
Sandoval is hopeful this visioning process will push forward some type of mutually beneficial project and soon.
“Focusing on those areas that in the short run, in the next five years, can be developed and figure out what to do and make sure everybody is supportive of it,” Sandoval said.
He said he is hopeful an idea for Fisherman’s Wharf will be presented in the next six months.
The visioning will also include other parcels around the harbor, which Sandoval said include Anacapa Boatyard, the former Whale’s Tail restaurant and a small undeveloped parcel on Harbor Boulevard known as X3. He said plans might also include finding a building for the harbor department and administration, improvements to the Channel Island Sportfishing building and docks and more boater serving uses, such as dry stack storage.
The county will also need to find a developer interested in taking on the project. Channel Islands Harbor Properties still has development rights to Fisherman’s Wharf and Sandoval said they will be involved in the visioning.
“We have to create a vision that a developer will want to develop,” Sandoval said.
Supporters of the proposed Fisherman’s Wharf project felt there had to be some kind of anchor tenant – a big retailer or apartment complex – in order to make other kinds of specialty retailers and waterfront activities viable.
“I think the association was persuaded by the Fisherman’s Wharf developer or proposer that those activities in today’s market cannot create a financially feasible project and that some component of residential is needed in order to create an income stream to support the other kinds of uses and in order to attract the capital financing,” said Steven Kinney, a steering committee member and Executive Director of the Channel Islands Lessee Association, a coalition of private investors who hold the long term ground leases around the harbor front. “We’re kind of open to what other suggestions might come and a demonstration that those other uses can be financially feasible.”
The idea of dense residential housing was not accepted by everyone.
“An Urban 4 Story, 390 Unit Enclosed ‘Lifestyle Complex’ (LA Style) is just way too large for the Fisherman’s Wharf area,” Dotty Pringle penned in a letter sent to The Log first in 2017 and again in recent months. “This complex would be placed at an already dangerous intersection and an unreasonable location that has one way in and one way out of Silver Strand/Hollywood By the Sea. It could possibly put thousands of lives at risk in a natural disaster, would make it harder for emergency crews, and also block our local majestic mountain views over the Harbor.”
The land around the harbor is owned by Ventura County with a majority operated by private investors that have been granted long-term ground leases by the county Board of Supervisors. In the harbor’s early years, developer Martin (bud) Smith held nearly half of the harbor properties in his portfolio, including Fisherman’s Wharf.
“If other parts of his portfolio like the restaurants in Fisherman’s Wharf or small retail stores in Fisherman’s Wharf or hotels or even marinas weren’t doing as well as hoped, if he had other parts of his portfolio like the apartments that were making money, then he could have parts of his portfolio that weren’t doing as well, like the restaurants, which always have turnover,” Sandoval said.
According to a Los Angeles Times article, Smith sold off his portfolio in 1995. Sandoval said he sold it to an investment company, which in turn sold it off in pieces.
“Fisherman’s Wharf, who Bud Smith could subsidize, all of the sudden had to hold its own,” Sandoval said. “At the same time the buildings were starting to age and at the same time there were other competitors that were being developed, like North of Victoria.”
He said it created the perfect storm for the decay of Fisherman’s Wharf.
Despite vacancy rates standing around 17 percent, according to a website for the Fisherman’s Wharf development project, business owners like Steele push forward, hoping the waterfront site will get the refurbishment and marketing it needs to bring in new business tenants.
“The harbor is my community,” Steele said. “If you can adapt to the needs of the community you can be successful.”
As evident in other waterfront communities, such as Redondo Beach and Dana Point, harbor development can be slow moving projects and it can be challenging to get everyone to agree on what is best.
Dana Point Harbor has been angling to revitalize the waterfront since 1997 and was just recently granted a permit from the California Coastal Commission to replace and reconfigure the harbor. Meanwhile Redondo Beach has spent the past several years wrapped up in litigation with CenterCal Properties, a developer the city had a contract with for a waterfront redevelopment project. The project was halted after voters approved a ballot measure aimed at restricting development on the waterfront. Criticizers of the project described the proposal as a “mall by the sea.”
“We support a very aggressive and rapid move on the part of the county to develop a planning process that will lead to a project that can be approved,” Kinney said.
To follow the visioning process and find opportunities to participate in upcoming meetings and engagement opportunities visit channelislandsharbor.org/visioning/. Channel Island Harbor boaters who would like to provide feedback for future Log reporting on Channel Islands Harbor and Fisherman’s Wharf revitalization can email staff writer Lindsey Glasgow at firstname.lastname@example.org.