Considering the past, contemplating the future
Oxnard Village Investments LLC unveils their plans for Wagon Wheel
By Matthew Singer 12/21/2006
Inside the dilapidated lobby of the Wagon Wheel Motel, Vince Daly is presenting his vision of the future to a group of people whose primary concern is preserving the past.
Three years ago, Newport Beach-based development firm Oxnard Village Investments LLC purchased this roughly 63-acre parcel of land directly off Highway 101 in north Oxnard. Later, the company submitted to the city their proposal for the site. And now, Daly, a Westlake Village developer and partner in the project, is trying to convince members of the Oxnard Cultural Heritage Board that their plan not only makes good use of the property but will also honor the Wagon Wheel area’s fading legacy.
And there is a legacy here. In 1947, developer and philanthropist Martin Smith — a man many longtime county officials consider one of the most important figures in Oxnard’s growth during the 20th century — built the motel and its adjoining restaurant, converting World War II Army barracks into guest rooms and hiring a movie set designer to give the architecture an old Western ranch style look unlike any other structures in the city. To top it off, he erected a huge neon sign to attract visitors, and for decades, the Wagon Wheel was a favorite destination for both out-of-towners and the locals. Over time, however, the complex fell into disrepair. In 2000, as part of the Historic Enhancement and Revitalization of Oxnard Redevelopment Project, the community development commission deemed the area blighted, setting in motion the process that has led to this day, with Daly standing in the now-shuttered motel next to an artist rendering of what could possibly replace this more than half-century-old roadside anomaly within two years.
He calls it, tentatively, “the Village.” It includes 1,500 residential units, 15 percent of which would be reserved as affordable housing, with a portion of those units contained in a pair of 16- to 20-story high rises. The commercial component, featuring restaurants, a small market and boutique retailers, would be “very similar to the promenade at Westlake Village,” Daly says. What he and his partners imagine is a walkable, “self-contained community” with a “Main Street, U.S.A. feel.”
But what this handful of historical preservationists really wants to know is how Oxnard Village plans to honor the history of a building so full of lore and legend. In May, the Cultural Heritage Board sent a letter to the Oxnard City Council stating that, as one of the last remaining examples of classic American roadside architecture anywhere in the country, the motel and restaurant are entitled to landmark status and protection. As of yet, the council has yet to act on that suggestion, but board chairman Gary Blum says its not too late.
“In my personal opinion, the building is worth adaptive reuse in the project, even if it’s relocated. None of [Daly’s] plans call for saving any of the buildings,” he says, adding that, outside of the preservation issue, he approves of the proposal. “My only concern is with not addressing the potential historic value of one specific structure on the 63-acre site.”
While Daly and his partners do not plan on keeping any of the buildings intact, they do intend to pay homage to the area’s history by saving and displaying some of the facility’s kitschier decorative elements — such as the famous neon sign — possibly at a proposed Metrolink stop or transportation center. The concept, says Daly, is to honor Wagon Wheel’s onetime standing as a destination for people passing through Oxnard while traveling on the 101. “It had a lot to do with the car being the primary transportation mode in California … One of the thoughts was to, in an iconic fashion, take into consideration newer modes of transportation,” Daly says. “People are more focused on rail and bus services.”
Transportation — and the massive amounts of it the new community is likely to generate — is, however, some people’s biggest concern with the project.
“We have a very serious traffic problem in the city of Oxnard,” says Oxnard City Councilmember Tim Flynn. “The plan as it is now doesn’t go far enough to address the issue of traffic.” Flynn says the project will add approximately 5,000 residents to a city that has already “wildly exceeded general plan estimates.” He suggests opening up half of the first available housing units specifically to people who would use public transportation, such as city employees. Otherwise, “we shouldn’t look at a project of this scale until those problems are addressed.”
Still, Daly says a draft environmental impact report should be ready to be heard in February or March. If all goes how he hopes, demolition would begin in September 2007, stopping at the ice skating rink in the desolate shopping center bordering Ventura Road and the mobile home park, whose residents are required to be relocated two years from the acceptance of the demolition permit. Construction on the Village would begin in the first quarter of 2008, Daly says.