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Developer Looks Skyward

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Developer Looks Skyward

By Tony Biasotti
Ventura County Star
February 11, 2007

Harvey Champlin has downsized just about everything in his life and business over the past six years.

Once an executive for some of the world’s largest real estate development firms, he now works for himself in a tiny office on the ground floor of his new condominium complex in west Ventura. He’s gone from building massive resorts in the Caribbean to developing projects like the one above his office: a 32-unit building with some of the cheapest market-rate homes in Ventura. His commute — for years, a weekly flight from his home in Santa Barbara to a resort site in Costa Rica — is now a quick drive down Highway 33, from his new home in Oak View to his office on Ventura Avenue.

He still thinks big, though.

Big as in a high-rise project near the beach in Port Hueneme that would be 46 stories and perhaps 700 feet tall.

Champlin and his partner on the project, Ventura builder Ray Mulokas, have been talking to the city of Port Hueneme for nearly two years about building a condominium and hotel tower. The city owns the Surfside Drive property and would sell development rights to CPH Tower, the firm owned by Champlin and Mulokas.

Champlin and Mulokas now say they’re ready to present details of their proposal to the public and then officially submit them to the city.

In the meantime, the pair are investing further in Port Hueneme. Champlin said CPH Tower is in escrow to buy the Surfside Motel, a property a few blocks from the proposed tower site. Champlin says he and Mulokas will demolish the motel and build the affordable housing the city will require if it approves the tower project.

Putting down roots in Ventura

Champlin moved to Ventura in 2001 at age 56, ready for a professional and personal reinvention. A year earlier, he had finished developing Los Suenos, a $500 million resort in Costa Rica, for Braemar Homes.

The project took eight years to plan and build, and during that period he spent more time in Costa Rica than at home in Santa Barbara.

That was the end of his career in international real estate finance and development. “I just got tired of it,” he said. “It really took its toll on my family.”

His wife filed for a divorce, which became final in 2002. Champlin started looking for a new home — a place he could “sink some roots” — something he never really did in his 10 years in Santa Barbara.

He found Ventura. It was close enough that he would be near his two children, and it had plenty of opportunities for development.

Champlin moved to town and bought a few properties on Ventura Avenue. The Avenue, the backbone of the city’s west side, had been plagued for decades by blight, crime and poverty.

But starting around 2000, developers like Champlin bought property in the hopes that the Avenue would mimic the success of Ventura’s downtown and become a thriving residential and commercial area.

“I saw a tremendous opportunity here,” said Champlin, who moved to nearby Oak View last year. “The city had the welcome mat rolled out for potential investors to participate in this renaissance.”

The renaissance is moving slower than Champlin had hoped. The real estate boom is over, the city is changing its development codes, and both combined have clogged the development pipeline.

Champlin’s first project on the Avenue, a condo development called Pacific Pointe, seemed almost cursed. A neighboring property owner fought it tooth and nail. The building caught fire while under construction, setting the project back further.

The 32 condos finally hit the market last May, “the worst possible time,” Champlin now says.

The real estate market had flattened out, and no one was buying. Things are better now, Champlin said, but he’s still sold just 10 units. The one-bedroom condos start at $369,000, a rare example of new homes priced for entry-level buyers.

“We’re selling; it’s just at a slower pace then we anticipated,” he said.

“There’s a real need for this kind of housing.”

Condos and soup kitchens

Champlin made both friends and enemies on the Avenue. He’s a member of the Westside Community Council, and through that advisory group, he met many of the area’s residents and business owners.

“The impression I got the first time I met him was he was invested, emotionally and financially, in the community,” said Josh Addison, the founder of the Bell Arts Factory on the Avenue and a Community Council member.

“I get the feel of a local developer from him, not a big out-of-town guy. … He’s sensitive to the needs of the community in which he’s developing.”

Champlin has donated at least $10,000 to the Bell Arts Factory, a nonprofit operation offering artist studios and education. The donation puts him in the top tier of sponsors, according to the group’s Web site.

His relationship hasn’t been so friendly with another neighbor. Just across the street from Pacific Pointe, in a building owned by Catholic Charities, is Family to Family, where volunteers feed the poor and the homeless.

Champlin said he’s been trying for five years to convince the charity to move. He’s offered many times to buy the building and put Family to Family in another property he owns.

“It’s a conflicting land use,” he said. “You can’t sell new market-rate housing next to a soup kitchen.”

So far, the nonprofit group has resisted. Family to Family volunteer Marjorie Cole, a Port Hueneme resident who’s also an activist fighting Champlin’s tower project, said he should learn to live with the charity next door, because it was there when he bought the property.

“We know they want to renovate the Avenue, but we don’t want these people to starve,” Cole said.

Champlin said he doesn’t want anyone to starve, either.

He said a close family member has experienced homelessness, and Champlin serves on the board of the Turning Point Foundation, a nonprofit group that serves the homeless.

“I don’t want to shut it down; I want it to relocate,” he said of Family to Family. “There’s a big difference.”

Expected some opposition

In Port Hueneme, his prospective neighbors are also divided. When the tower project comes up during a City Council meeting, there’s almost always someone there to blast the idea, and someone else to compliment it.

Cole is a member of a group called No Towers, made up of Port Hueneme residents dead-set against the project.

In their eyes, there’s nothing Champlin can do to make a high-rise palatable.

“It’s totally out of character with Port Hueneme, and I think we have a right to keep our small-town feel,” Cole said.

The group also is angry that the tower design was unveiled at a housing conference in Thousand Oaks, not in Port Hueneme.

Now, the group is accusing Champlin and Mulokas of dragging their feet in holding public forums.

Champlin said he expected some opposition. Height is an emotional issue, he said, and 46 stories is an eye-catching number. It would be the tallest building on the coast between Los Angeles and San Francisco.

The building, however, needs to be that tall so it can be narrow enough to avoid blocking the views of people who live behind it, Champlin said. He’s also committed to the idea of a high-rise as the ultimate expression of “smart growth.”

“The question is, how serious are you about protecting ag land and protecting hillsides?” he said. “If you’re serious about those things and you recognize the need for housing, it just follows that you need to build up, go vertical.”

The hotel portion of the tower brings the project back into Champlin’s comfort zone: resort development.

He’s happy, though, to leave the other trappings of his previous career behind.

“I’ve been a senior executive with large, publicly traded companies, with the corner office and the perks,” he said.

“I love being small. I don’t know if you can appreciate how liberating it is.”

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