Friday, May 13, 2011

Re-Urban Balance – The Quest for the Future Downtown

I live in a delightful small town twenty-six miles east of San Francisco. The village was once a Spanish ranchero, that beget cattle ranches, that beget walnut and fruit orchards– hence the name Walnut Creek – that beget housing, that beget freeways, that beget BART (regional transit), that beget a regional crossroads, that now has beget one of California’s most successful urban retail and commercial developments. Sounds almost biblical.

I remember during an Urban Land Institute presentation a number of years ago, a past mayor of our village remarking, as a part of a panel I was moderating, about a regional mayor’s conference she attended. “Well, the mayor of Alameda walked up to me all puffed up and said they had just acquired a Trader Joe’s, well I said congratulations, we haven’t achieved anything so large in our down town, we just got Tiffany’s.” Yes, size sometimes does make a difference. Trader Joe’s is a go to and leave store, Tiffany’s is contagious like a plague (the good kind), it will infect every store and building owner. It will bring more buyers to the downtown, all profit.

The difficulty with much new urban (faux-retail) development is its lack of history, variety, and texture. I am always looking for friction in my designs, things rubbing against each other, close by shops, near and available parking – (but not too much - it can push apart uses and lose friction), a broad mix of retailers and restaurants. It’s extremely difficult to achieve this in a new retail center, and almost impossible in the old enclosed mall. We are lucky here in Walnut Creek.

While this is, and all downtowns are, in a constant state of renewal through creative destruction (stores fail, owners lower and raise rents, cities try to nudge land uses around such as restaurants and retail, and developers try to find the best mix for their centers), Walnut Creek is lucky to have a broader rental base and a diverse number of building owners. Ain’t completion great!

The old part of town was a classic California “valley” town. Main Street flanked by mostly one story buildings (most insubstantial), somewhat narrow sidewalks, adequate parking (for 1930), and a low surrounding population. But now the town sits at the intersection of two major freeways and a regional transit center with BART. The streets have trees that stand fifty to sixty feet high and as each old building is renovated, new walks and street improvements are made. The city has built discrete parking garages with retail and restaurants on the street, and, most importantly, supported the expansions of the Macerich urban mall on the south side of the downtown core. There is a symbiotic relationship between the north and south sides of the downtown core, the old and the new, the large floor plates to the south and the privately owned shops and stores to the north. Restaurants are tucked between things, there is the beginning of a good sidewalk restaurant trade, and there is enough of a downtown to make a day of it – not just drive to, shop and leave.

New retail centers try to build in history and texture, it’s almost impossible to achieve. A new car takes fifty years to be a classic, and not all classics are high-end, the ’57 Chevy Belair was the vanilla of its time, it now turns heads. It’s tough to achieve maturity and success. But with an older and very competitive area of the downtown mixed with the draw and high end values of the Macerich portion, the downtown is richer and more exciting. There is now a night life (go find that in your downtown), there is Nordstrom, a new Forever 21, a Neiman Marcus will open soon, an Apple store with its usual customer line outside each morning, and some really, really great food.

I’m reminded of the old Yogi Berra comment, “Nobody goes there anymore, it’s too crowded!” That can be said for our downtown, everyone complains about the traffic and lack of parking, as if that’s a bad thing. Would you want to own a business with no traffic problems and plenty of available parking right outside your front door? I was discussing downtowns with a city planning director of a community near San Jose, he was charged with creating a downtown out a disparate jumble of strip malls, regional centers, and six and eight lane main streets. He had no traffic or parking problems anywhere. “I would kill for a traffic level of F,” he said. “But if I said it, I’d be fired.”

There’s the rub, or lack of it.

Stay tuned . . .

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