25 years from now

On its silver anniversary the News & Review envisions the Chico of the future

The map above, provided by the city of Chico, is notable most of all for its indication of possible and probable future growth areas (shaded) and the city’s proposed enlarged sphere of influence. The city envisions expanding its sphere of influence—the area over which it exercises some control in land-use planning, even if the land is outside city limits—north to the Tehama County line, west to Meridian Road, east to the PG&E transmission line, and south to Durham-Pentz Road. Growth is expected to take place in outlying areas, with an inevitable reliance on the automobile for transportation.

The map above, provided by the city of Chico, is notable most of all for its indication of possible and probable future growth areas (shaded) and the city’s proposed enlarged sphere of influence. The city envisions expanding its sphere of influence—the area over which it exercises some control in land-use planning, even if the land is outside city limits—north to the Tehama County line, west to Meridian Road, east to the PG&E transmission line, and south to Durham-Pentz Road. Growth is expected to take place in outlying areas, with an inevitable reliance on the automobile for transportation.

When the first issue of the Chico News & Review appeared, on Aug. 30, 1977, fires were raging in the mountains. All summer, it seemed, the forests had been ablaze. The air in the Sacramento Valley was hazy with smoke.

The paper’s first cover story was about a fire burning above Lake Almanor. But it didn’t just describe the extent of the fire and how many firefighters were battling it and when they might have it under control. It also sought to answer a much larger question, one conveyed in the cover headline: “Why are our forests burning up?”

Today the answer is widely known: Too many years of Smokey Bear-style fire suppression have allowed too much underbrush to build up, making fires much worse. Back then, though, only forestry officials understood the problem, and they weren’t doing much about it.

With its story, the News & Review signaled that it was practicing a different kind of journalism, one that tried to see the big-picture story behind events. It was going to point out problems and then suggest solutions. It was going to look at the past and present with an eye toward the future.

In 1977, Chico was about half the size it is now. There was no Chico Mall, no Whitman Avenue with its Costco and Food 4 Less, no Best Buy or Target or Raley’s or big Wittmeier Auto Center out on the east side. There were no houses in California Park and few north of East Avenue.

Change happens, as they say. Some of it’s good, some not so good. The question commonly asked over the years, by us and many others, is whether Chico will keep growing until it is no longer a pleasant place to live. Can it grow and still remain the attractive, welcoming place that drew us to it?

The answer, we’ve learned, is a qualified yes. Chico is fundamentally sound. Its downtown remains vibrant, thanks to the presence of the university, and it has become the retail and health care magnet for the central Sacramento Valley. And of course the constant and steadying economic influence of one of the world’s strongest agricultural regions has played a huge role. It’s not a rich town, but it’s not poor either, and that’s good. It’s a mostly white town, but it’s becoming more diverse every day, and that’s good, too.

Chico has in many ways grown well, as opposed to just grown. Twenty-five years ago there was no East 20th Street Community Park, with its acres of playing fields. In fact, Chico had few parks other than Bidwell at the time. There were no bike lanes or bike paths, no protected creekside greenways and no Greenline protecting agricultural land on the town’s west and south sides. Chicoans care about their town, and they’ve insisted—and, in many cases, worked hard to ensure—that it grow wisely.

But the negative consequences of growth, while mitigable to some extent, are inescapable. The town is noisier than it was 25 years ago. Traffic is worse. The air is dirtier much of the time. There’s more crime, and gangs have moved in. Our water supply is polluted in places and threatened by overdraft. Sprawl is replacing open space to the north and east of town.

But Chico’s still a fine town, a wonderful place to live and work. After publishing newspapers here for the past 25 years, more than 1,300 issues altogether, we look back with pleasure and satisfaction at watching Chico grow and evolve. We’re proud of our role in helping its citizens make good political decisions and enjoy life in their community and expect to continue doing so for the next 25 years and beyond.

We start this week by taking a long look ahead, to the Chico that will exist 25 years from now, in the year 2027. What shape will the town have? How will it be different than it is today?

We’ve talked to planning experts in many fields and consulted master plans and other documents designed to prepare Chico for the future. We’ve tried to present what’s most likely to happen, given past and present trends, though in a few instances we’ve speculated (often hopefully).

Some things are unpredictable, of course. That first issue of the CN&R also contained an article on brewing beer at home. It included an interview with a man named Ken Grossman, who then operated a tiny shop tucked away in downtown’s Upstairs Mall, where he sold home-brewing equipment. Who could have known then that Grossman’s passion and savvy ultimately would lead to creation of the Sierra Nevada Brewing Co., the country’s ninth-largest brewery and an exemplar of quality and craftsmanship of which Chicoans are inordinately proud?

With that in mind, imagine it’s 2027, and you’re a former Chico resident who moved away in 2002 and are flying in to visit for the first time since you left. This is what you’re likely to find.

In Los Angeles, you were pleasantly surprised to discover you could hop a small jet and fly non-stop to Chico, and that the price wasn’t bad. In the old days you had to go to San Francisco first, and the short jump to Chico was pricey.

The plane, which comfortably seats 50 and is two-thirds full, has begun its descent into the Chico airport. You look out the window for an aerial view of the town you remember so well. On the east side, houses along Highway 32 and Humboldt Road stretch up into the foothills, and the northeast side of town is similarly built out.

As the plane banks north of the airport and comes in southward for a landing, you see that houses have filled in much of the space on both sides of the airport, but that plenty of open land has been left to allow for safe landings and takeoffs.

The runway is longer than you remember it, and the terminal building is twice as large as it used to be. Inside the terminal, you have a choice of three car rental companies, not just one. You rent one of Chevrolet’s 70 m.p.g. hybrid coupes and head into town.

You don’t have far to go. Town, it seems, has come to you—or rather, to the airport. Cohasset Road is now four lanes, and the land between it and the foothills is filled with houses and other developments that go all the way out to Mud Creek.

Back to the present: The Chico Municipal Airport is just finalizing a new master plan that will serve until 2018, but many of its projections go to 2030 or further. By 2030, Butte County is expected to have 352,700 residents, about 130,000 more than today, and greater Chico will have 170,000, about 75,000 more than today. Similar rates of growth will occur in neighboring counties and cities whose residents use the airport.

In 2001, there were 25,295 passenger enplanements at the airport; the plan estimates that by 2018 the number will increase to 143,000—but only if the increase in passengers results in better service and lower prices. By 2027 it will be even higher, of course.

In any event, says Airport Manager Bob Grierson, the plan calls for extending the runway to enable it to handle larger planes and minimize noise impacts. Grierson also expects that the terminal will be rebuilt, the parking area increased substantially, and many new industrial/commercial buildings constructed at the airport.

E. C. Ross, the city of Chico’s public works director, notes that the city already has allocated $6-$7 million to widen Cohasset to the airport.

Northeast Chico
Once you arrive at East Avenue, Chico starts to look familiar again. North Valley Plaza is still there, and you remember that it was in the process of being reconstructed in 2002. Today it’s a large neighborhood shopping center anchored by a supermarket and a multiplex.

You have time to kill, so you drive out East Avenue toward Pleasant Valley High School. The road is still four lanes here and crowded. It’s lined with retail outlets. It wasn’t very pretty when you left town 25 years ago, and it’s not much better now.

You notice there’s a lot of traffic crossing East Avenue at Floral and, especially, Mariposa. Looking down those streets, you see that they run on for miles, into the built-out area to the north.

The high school is much improved, however. Long gone are the portables, and Valhalla, the old multipurpose facility, has been completely rebuilt.

You continue on, past Wildwood Avenue and the entrance to Upper Park, the road four lanes here too. Memories of blissful afternoons exploring the park’s trails and swimming holes bubble up. But you’ll save it for another day, confident that it’s still as beautiful as it was when you left.

At Vallombrosa you stop for a red light. So much for the roundabouts the city had decided on back in 2002—apparently, at some point, they no longer did the job.

Big Chico Creek’s still pretty, you note, despite the widened road and bigger bridge. Seeing it, you suddenly feel you’re home again, and you wonder why you ever left Chico.

Driving up and over the little rise near California Park, however, you’re shocked by the expanse of houses spread out before you. The area was filling in when you left, but now it’s nothing but houses. In the distance, the Sutter Buttes are barely visible through the haze and smog.

The good news is that many of the new houses are equipped with solar panels, a response apparently to soaring power costs brought on by dwindling supplies. Because of global warming, snowpacks have decreased greatly, and with them the amount of available hydropower.

Just on the other side of Highway 32 is Canyon View High School, just east of Marsh Junior High. They finally got it built, you think. It’s a pretty school with bright-colored roofs. A massive performing-arts center dominates the central campus. Enough trees have grown up on the site to make it seem almost bucolic. The school day is just ending, and students are spilling out on their way home.

By 2027, states Mike Weissenborn, the facilities planner for the Chico Unified School District, Canyon View High School will have been up and running for many years. In fact, by that time the district is “going to be seriously looking at another comprehensive high school,” if current population projections (see chart) hold true. It will most likely be located on the north side of town because that’s where much of the growth will take place.

Overall, the number of students in Chico’s schools is expected to decrease slightly in the next 20 years, despite increases in population. That’s because the birth rate is going down and also because many of Chico’s new residents will be retired people drawn here by the good life and Chico’s excellent medical services. Retirement, says Weissenborn, is Chico’s “silent industry.”

Despite the flat enrollment figures, the district probably will build a couple of new elementary schools. It owns 12 acres at Henshaw and Guynn avenues, in the Bell-Muir area north of East Avenue slated for development, and also owns adjacent land for a park site, similar to the situation at Emma Wilson Elementary School. The location of the other school “will depend on where the growth goes,” Weissenborn says.

According to the city’s General Plan, several areas stand out as future growth sites. One of the largest is the grazing land between Sycamore and Mud creeks, east of the airport and north of East Avenue (see map). Development has been moving in that direction for years. Another is the Bell-Muir area in northwest Chico. It and the adjoining Mud Creek area, both once good farming land, will build out with a mix of homes and apartment units.

The way things are going, these areas will amount to almost featureless sprawl. At this point, anyway, developers are being given virtual carte blanche to do what they want in these areas.

Air pollution levels in the Sacramento Valley have remained fairly steady in the past 25 years, thanks to control measures taken and better technology, says Gail Williams, of the Butte County Air Quality Management District. But population growth, especially in the Sacramento area, is certain to create spillover effects in our area.

“We’re not yet as bad as Sacramento, but we could be if we’re not careful,” she says.

Currently, Chico State University has no plans to grow to full capacity, 17,213 full-time equivalents. Student enrollment is expected to peak at about 16,000 FTE, which means about 18,000 actual bodies. It now has 16,000 live students. (Chart courtesy Chico State University)

Going downtown
You follow the four-lane Bruce Road south, stopping to check out the Doe Mill Neighborhood, the “new urbanism” project that was just going in when you left. Trees have grown up around its New England-style homes, giving its narrow, winding streets a charming look.

You stop to talk with a man sitting on his front porch. He tells you the neighborhood has been a great success. There’s a little retail center than everyone can walk to, and on warm evenings folks sit on their porches and visit. Several other newer neighborhoods in Chico have emulated this one, he says.

Driving on, you turn right on the Skyway toward the freeway. This whole area has built up with a mix of houses and, along the Skyway, commercial properties. Here and there you see patches of open area, presumably set aside to protect vernal pools and the endangered Butte County meadowfoam.

The Raley’s shopping center is much as you remember it. You take the freeway north, noting its six lanes and remembering that Chico friends have told you that the highway between Chico and Sacramento is now six lanes all the way.

Here the highway is busy. Apparently CalTrans didn’t buy the argument that it would be better simply to slow traffic down to 45 miles per hour in this stretch and keep it at four lanes. You liked that idea when it first surfaced back in 2002. It was so Chico, you thought.

You turn off at Highway 32 and head down East Eighth Street toward downtown. This street has hardly changed—a few more businesses near the freeway and more apartment complexes, but the big trees are still there, as are the tidy Tudor cottages near Pine and Cypress streets. You turn north on Cypress, enjoying the sight of these familiar, and largely unchanged, homes set among the trees. Quality lasts, you think.

At the entrance to Bidwell Park, you turn down Third Street toward downtown. You always loved coming downtown, and you’re happy to see that it’s still surrounded with beautiful old homes and a thick, shady urban forest. Chicoans have been taking good care of this neighborhood.

Downtown looks much the same, though of course the businesses have changed. The four-story Waterland-Breslauer is still the tallest building. You park and walk around.

You notice that the area along Big Chico Creek just east of Main Street that had been mostly parking lots before has been completely restored and now is filled with stylish storefronts, restaurants and even some urban apartments. A wooden walkway runs along the creek, and restaurants offer creekside patio dining. What a nice change, you think.

Collier Hardware is still going strong, you see. What a wonderful connection to the town’s past.You’re sad to note, however, that the El Rey Theatre is gone, torn down and replaced by a storefront with offices above, but delighted that the Senator somehow has survived and has continued to be a community center for the arts.

Walking south on Main Street past the theater, you notice that this area has changed greatly. The downtown core, with its restaurants and bars and bike shops and trendy boutiques, has moved this way, and spiffy new buildings echoing downtown’s eclectic range of styles have popped up, replacing the tire stores, muffler shops and pawn shops that once were here. The streets are filled with pedestrians.

You circle back, toward the university, noting as you pass through the Downtown Park Plaza that the trees put in to replace its grand old elms many years ago are now almost as high and stately as the originals. The park has been remodeled and, with its fountains and flowerbeds, is even prettier than before.

“I don’t think the local roadways will be dramatically different” in 25 years, says Jon Clark, executive director of the Butte County Association of Governments.

Many roads in the city will be widened to handle increased traffic and there will be more signals, but the only major new road planned is the Eaton Bypass connecting Highway 32 and The Esplanade “to take some of the load off of East Avenue,” says E. C. Ross, Chico’s public works director.

At this point the city doesn’t know what it’s going to do with the lack of roadways in southwest Chico, an area that includes the old Diamond Match property and is slated for development.

Speaking about downtown Chico, city Planning Director Kim Seidler says, “I don’t see it expanding east and west. I see it going south of Fifth Street if there is a demand for retail uses.”

Downtown’s health is vital. “We have to maintain the validity of the downtown,” Seidler says. “There is nothing more critical.”

Back on campus
You’re happy to be back at Chico State, your alma mater. You always enjoyed being on this beautiful campus. And you’re glad to see that it hasn’t changed much since you left.

There’s a no-longer-new four-story Student Services Center where Sutter Hall used to be. And a block away is the Wildcat Activity Center, built in 2007 on the site of the old Reynolds Warehouse, former home of CAVE, after students finally approved a fee increase to pay for it. It’s already looking a little rundown from so much use.

The biggest change, though, is that the Whitney Hall dorm, once the tallest building in Chico, is gone—torn down and replaced by a group of four smaller, integrated dorms and a new parking structure. Just down Warner Avenue, the houses in the old College Park neighborhood are gone, replaced by university buildings. Everybody knew that was coming.

The university has a long wish list of improvements, says Greg Francis, its director of facilities planning, but overall it does not expect to grow much in coming years. That’s because it has decided not to exceed its master plan capacity of 15,800 full-time-equivalent students. Currently it has 14,000 FTE students, which translates into 16,000 actual bodies, so it expects to add about 2,000 more students. To do so it needs more student housing, which it’s hoping to build.

The biggest project now on the board is the Student Services Building, whose funding depends on a statewide bond measure on the November ballot. If it passes, construction will begin in February 2003. Most other anticipated projects involve remodels (Taylor and Butte halls) and demolition and replacement of aging buildings (Aymer J. Hamilton, Siskiyou Hall).

Otherwise, the university’s goals are to acquire more land and provide more parking, Francis says.

The hospital
You walk back to your car and drive up The Esplanade to Fifth Avenue. Enloe Medical Center, you see, has changed dramatically. You turn and drive around the new hospital.

The first thing you see is that the main hospital building has spread to the west, crossing Magnolia, which is now closed to traffic. A whole new building has been added, and the hospital’s main entrance is now on Sixth Avenue near The Esplanade. Across from it is a two-story parking garage.

In fact, Enloe’s buildings occupy a much larger area, all but two blocks of the area bounded by Seventh and Fourth avenues and Arcadian and The Esplanade.

Walking around the hospital, you see that there’s a new Women’s Center, a new Surgery Center, an expanded Emergency Department and an Imaging Center, and many other units have increased significantly in size.

Enloe is now working on a new master site plan, called Vision 2020. Based on projected population growth and the aging of the baby boomer generation, says Ann Prater, Enloe’s publicity director, the hospital has planned significant expansions of its physical plant, at a total estimated cost of $92 million.

It will nearly double in size, from its current 188,000 square feet to 351,000 square feet, by 2020, adding 72 acute-care beds (to 276), seven operating rooms (to 18), 24 observation rooms (there are now none) and eight emergency exam/treatment rooms (to 33).

It will also add a new Women’s Center offering single-suite labor, delivery and recovery services, improve efficiency by consolidating surgeries to a larger, single location, and construct a 200-plus-space parking structure.

The growth will have a definite impact on already concerned neighbors, but it’s necessary, and the hospital is doing all it can to use space efficiently. “We need to have beds to care for the people we’ll see in the future, not the people we used to see,” Prater explains.

Farm country
You drive west on West Eighth Avenue, heading for the orchards. You want to see whether Chico has continued to be one of the few valley towns to keep growth from gobbling up prime agricultural lands.

Eighth Street is a surprise. It’s been redesigned, with curves and roundabouts and other devices added to calm traffic. Colorful flowerbeds give it a festive look. It seems to work: Traffic moves at a leisurely 25 miles per hour, and nobody seems in a hurry.

You drive out to Glenwood Avenue, the historic Greenline separating urban and farm land here, and begin exploring, and you’re happy to see that the land on its west side is still planted in orchards. The area on the urban side has filled in completely, however.

There’s every expectation that Chico’s Greenline, a unique experiment in ag preservation, will still be going strong in 2027—most of all because most Chicoans strongly support it.

On the other hand, it’s due for a reappraisal to see if there are areas along it where development has made continued farming impractical. It may well be, and indeed is likely, that in coming years the Greenline may be adjusted slightly—along Dayton Road just south of town, for example, or on the northwest, near Highway 32.

Two days later, after visiting with friends and spending some time in Upper Park—Salmon Hole was as gorgeous as ever!—you catch your plane out of town.

Your impression of Chico is that it has changed significantly in the last quarter-century, and not always for the better. Poor or non-existent planning in the new growth areas was obviously the biggest failure. They are largely a hodge-podge of unimaginative subdivisions and auto-oriented commercial strips.

Indeed, you realize, the biggest problem Chico faces in 2027 is the same one it faced in 2002: how to diminish the impact of the automobile as the dominant force in development. Chico has done no better than most other California cities in answering this question. And now, with a population moving quickly toward 200,000, it is confronting the consequences of its inaction.

Yes, it’s got more bike paths than most towns, but now it takes a cyclist a good 45 minutes to go from one side of town to another, when it used to take 20 or 25. And most of the new neighborhoods do little to encourage people to get out of their cars and walk. Almost none of them offer the kind of conviviality and sense of community the older neighborhoods bestow so easily.

But it’s still a wonderful town. Downtown remains lively and prosperous, the arts scene is even better than it was before, there are more sports leagues and camps, and the quality of the schools remains high. Which, of course, is why it continues to grow. You try to imagine what it will be like in another 25 years, when its population is 225,000 or 250,000, but then you give up.

You just hope the people of Chico make wise decisions in the coming years. This is too nice a town to mess up, you think.

Research assistance provided by CN&R staff and interns.