Part two of a two-part series on efforts to link Ventura’s Downtown with nearby beaches

Now that designs are taking shape for pedestrian improvements to Ventura’s California Street bridge, transportation planners are setting their sights on plans to move a freeway off ramp from there to Oak Street. That move could lay the groundwork for a still-conceptual plan to cap the freeway between Front and California Street. Such a cap would provide a space for a park or other linkage between the beach and Downtown that has been lost since the freeway was built.

“It’s a drag that the state chose to put the freeway through the heart of the downtown,” said Jerry Breiner, a realtor who also serves as the chair of the design and operation committee of the Downtown Ventura Organization. Breiner said he is in favor of anything that can be done to link the two areas, including a cap on the freeway. He said that estimates he has seen show that building new land over the freeway would cost 75 percent of what it costs to purchase existing parcels in Downtown.

Capping the 101 is still little more than a vision, however. On the other hand, Tom Mericle, a traffic engineer for the city of Ventura, said officials are already going forward with a plan to move the northbound offramp of the 101 from California to Oak.

To date, motorists have had trouble navigating the stretch of California spanning the 101 between Thompson and Harbor boulevards. The uncontrolled freeway off-ramp means motorists enter California Street at high speeds. Those driving north on California must endure long waits at a stop sign until they can safely merge with the exiting traffic and pedestrians are forbidden from crossing the freeway on the side nearest the off-ramp.

Mericle said the city already received the $12 million it needed to fund the offramp transition before the 2003 budget crisis caused the state to shift away transportation funds. The money has now been restored, Mericle said, and the city is working with the California Department of Transportation to complete a project report and an environmental review. It will take nine to 12 months for the state to review those reports, he said.

Another 14-16 months of design work would ensue if the state’s transportation commission accepts these plans. Only about $750,000 has been spent so far, Mericle said, but all of the delays could mean that the project could exceed original estimates by as much as $3-5 million.

“Part of the problem is it has taken so many years we believe the construction will cost more than we had originally anticipated,” Mericle said. Either the city will need to pony up more cash, or it will need to convince the state to set aside more money for the project. But none of that will happen until plans are approved.

Breiner also supports moving the offramp.

“Everyone knows that exit is just a mess,” he said. “It’s almost always a mess. It hardly ever works right. You never know what’s gong on no matter where you’re coming from.”

But at least one downtown business owner said she won’t be excited if the offramp moves to Oak Street.

Seana-Marie Weaver owns Weaver Wines on California Street. Although a new exit might generate more investment near Oak, she said, the social services agencies on that street (which she said the city needs) are unlikely to move. Combined with nearby pawn shops, the street may not be a scenic tourist draw.

“I don’t know that’s where I want my tourists to be greeted,” she said. “[California] has been an exit for years. We’re in California. It leads to our gorgeous city hall. What’s left of our beautiful historic architecture is there.”

Breiner pointed out that California Street isn’t much more attractive currently, with a vacant storefront immediately across the street from the offramp and a tire shop, gas station, and empty lot on three corners of a nearby intersection.

“If the freeway is changed to the Oak Street offramp there are going to be major improvements,” he said.