Two hotels proposed for the Malibu Canyon corridor in western Calabasas have come under heavy fire. Calabasas City Manager Tony Coroalles spoke with The Acorn and answered questions about the projects.
Acorn: There has been a lot of concern about the hotels recently. Can you give us some background?
Coroalles: Among other things, the purpose of the city’s 2008 General Plan is to lay out a vision and guide future development. In the Community Design Element for west Calabasas, the General Plan outlined a vision for the Las Virgenes Road and Agoura Road corridors. The Land Use Element specified zoning for every parcel in the City. The vision for the commercially zoned properties at the intersection of Las Virgenes Road and Agoura Road was for a series of retail and commercial buildings with multifamily housing behind the commercial buildings. The idea was to create a village center in the west side. There was also a parcel next to freeway on the east side of Las Virgenes Road that was envisioned to be hotel.
Acorn: How large was this Canyon Oaks commercial project at Las Virgenes and Agoura roads supposed to be?
Coroalles: The Land Use Element zoned 155,000 square feet for planned development, a zoning category that allows various commercial uses, and zoned 9 acres at 20 units to the acre, which would allow for 180 multifamily housing units. The Community Design Element went so far as to include a conceptual drawing that shows three commercial/retail buildings, each three stories high, and a parking structure at this site.
Acorn: So this area was not supposed to be totally open space?
Coroalles: No. Since before the city incorporated, the parcels in this area have been zoned for commercial use. This is important to note because the individuals or corporations that bought these parcels bought them with the expectation to someday develop them in accordance with what the underlying zoning and city ordinances would allow. The development option for any zoned parcel is not a project or nothing. It is one project or another project. So, the question should be: “In today’s environment, what is the best project for this area?”
Acorn: Why did the city zone the 9-acre parcel at such a high density?
Coroalles: We had to accommodate the state-mandated housing requirements in order to have our city housing requirement certified. The Calabasas Planning Commission and City Council looked at every single parcel in the city and selected this site as the one most appropriate to accommodate the requirement.
Acorn: So what are the owners of these parcels proposing?
Coroalles: They are proposing something much less intense than the General Plan envisioned: One hotel on about 66,000 square feet, rather than the three retail/ commercial buildings and one parking structure, and 70 single family homes rather than the 180 multifamily units. Additionally, 61 acres, more than three-fourths of the project, will be designated as permanent open space.
Acorn: Won’t a hotel bring more traffic to the area than a similar sized commercial building?
Coralles: It will bring far less traffic than the envisioned 155,000 square feet of commercial/retail buildings and generate less car trips per day than a similarly sized commercial or retail building. A hotel is one of least intense commercial uses. Customers come in at night and leave in the morning. Very few cars move in and out during the day. Compared to the MacDonalds across the street, or a medical office building where people go in and out all day, a hotel generates very little traffic.
Acorn: Are hotels a good source revenue for the city?
Coroalles: Our city needs reliable sources of revenue to continue providing high quality services for our residents. Here is an interesting tidbit: From the 1 percent that property owners pay in taxes, the city receives only 4.27 percent. That means that from a home assessed at $1 million, the city’s share of the $10,000 paid in taxes is $427. The Calabasas Oaks neighborhood has 557 homes. If the average home were to be assessed at $2 million, the city would get around $500,000 per year in property tax. The Hilton Garden Inn Hotel near The Oaks provides roughly $600,000 to the city in annual bed tax. So, from one small parcel on which the hotel sits, the city receives more revenue than what comes from the entire Oaks development.
Acorn: And what is going on farther down Las Virgenes Road?
Coroalles: This is the Paxon project and it offers a good example of what I mentioned previously when I said that something ultimately will be built on these undeveloped commercial parcels. In 2004, Standard Pacific Homes proposed a 40-unit single family home project that would have looked very much like The Colony development adjacent to it. They believed that the community would welcome a less dense, higher value, single family project rather than a denser condominium project. Since the parcel was zoned for commercial use, the developer needed a General Plan amendment and a zone change to construct the project. When the project came to council, members from the surrounding communities and HOAs overwhelmingly opposed the project and asked the city council to disapprove the needed amendment and zone change. Council did so. A few years later, the developer came back with a denser condominium project of 86 units that met all requirements and did not need a General Plan amendment or zone change by the council. Under the advice of the city attorney, the council approved the project. In my opinion, the original project was far superior to what is now being built.
Acorn: Back to the hotels, does the city need more, and on this side of town?
Coroalles: The short answer is yes, but again, background is important. The city’s role in deciding what should be built on specific parcels occurs when it zones parcels for specific uses: residential, commercial, mixed use, open space, retail, etc. If the zoning allows a use, the property owner can develop his property in the manner of his choosing. Meanwhile, private owners of properties put their capital at risk and build on these parcels what they believe will provide them with the greatest return on their investment. That said, there are many reasons that two more hotels on this side of town will provide a greater benefit to this area than more commercial office buildings or retail. First, one only needs to drive down Mureau Road or Agoura Road to see how much commercial office space is currently for rent. Second, the retail space at the Summit shopping center is yet to be fully occupied after four years of operation, and to compound the situation, a new commercial retail center will soon open below Mont Calabasas. Third, we have the headquarters of The Cheesecake Factory, IXIA, DTS and Harbor Freight and Tools, and others in this area and there are no business hotels on this side of town to accommodate their needs. Fourth, as we are all aware, we have had many restaurants come and go in this area. An additional 200-plus hotel room occupants each night will certainly mean more people dining at nearby restaurants. Fifth, two more hotels, rather than similarly sized commercial or retail office buildings, will have less of an impact on traffic. Finally, the entire City of Calabasas can use the revenue generated by the bed tax from these properties. We recently lost a significant source of revenue when Spirent moved out of the city and we are taking on a significant new expense with the opening of our new senior center.