A sense of empowerment
Avenues neighborhood embarks on historic planning journey
Chico’s new planning director, Steve Peterson, has been on the job for less than a month, but already he’s participated in a historic planning event: the city’s first grassroots, charrette-style neighborhood planning workshop.
City officials and neighborhood activists hope it will mark the beginning of a new era in Chico’s planning process, one in which residents play a major role in creating their neighborhoods’ futures.
The multi-day event, which began Saturday (Nov. 11) at the Enloe Conference Center, was the culmination of two years’ worth of effort on the part of the oldest and most established neighborhood group in the city, the Chico Avenues Neighborhood Association.
In 2005, CANA gathered signatures and petitioned the City Council to create a plan for the neighborhood, and the council agreed to do so. When completed, the plan will become part of the city’s General Plan.
In September 2006, the council went further, allocating $7.5 million in redevelopment funds for improvements to the neighborhood.
More than 100 Avenues residents turned out for Saturday’s all-day session. In his introductory remarks, Chico Mayor Scott Gruendl noted that CANA’s pioneering work has encouraged the city to begin working on another neighborhood plan with the Barber neighborhood south of Little Chico Creek.
It’s all part of a new focus on neighborhoods. As Gruendl noted, the city’s monolithic Community Services Department is being broken up into four smaller departments, one of which, Housing and Neighborhood Services, will focus directly on meeting the needs of neighborhoods.
Peterson, a genial man in his 40s with sandy hair and a moustache, has taken his new job right in the middle of this transition. Saturday, despite being a Chico newbie, he gamely took on the job of facilitator and leader of one of the charrette’s small working groups. “I know very little about the neighborhood,” he told the group, “so I’m going to be learning from you.”
There was much to learn, as the teams quickly discovered when they set out in a light drizzle to explore different parts of the neighborhood on foot. The advantages of such an approach quickly became evident, as the eight members of Peterson’s group pointed out good and bad features that ordinarily are overlooked.
Walking along The Esplanade, they noticed the various architectural styles, from classic Victorians to boxy, rough-stucco apartment complexes. They praised newer buildings that blended with the neighborhood and lamented others that blighted it. They noted traffic problems—especially on First Avenue—and possibly illegal second units built in former garages.
They shared stories of run-ins with drunk college students and garbage dumped in alleys. They praised the Red Tavern restaurant for being a community asset and wondered what was going to happen with the now-vacant Veterans Memorial Hall. They upbraided Enloe for gobbling up the heart of the neighborhood and Chico State and its students for nibbling at its southern edge.
Back at the conference center, participants regrouped for a topic session in which teams sought to identify the biggest positive and negative issues the neighborhood faces, identify available resources, define the elements that contribute to the neighborhood’s “sense of place,” identify barriers to that sense, identify places that present “special” development opportunities, and so on.
The workshop continued in this vein until 4 p.m. On Sunday (Nov. 12), participants met for a “bikeabout” through the neighborhood, on Monday and Tuesday they toured neighborhood schools, and Tuesday evening they held a transportation workshop. Team production continued Wednesday into today, concluding with a team presentation and neighborhood discussion tonight (Nov. 16) from 6:30 to 8:30 p.m.
Several planning and design experts are assisting in the process, led by representatives of Mogavero Notestine Associates, the Sacramento architectural, planning and development services firm that designed the new 1200 Park Avenue seniors apartment complex in Chico.
The process is nothing new to Peterson, who spent 18 years as a planner in Sacramento before coming to Chico. That city has “more than 100 neighborhood associations,” he said in a later phone interview, and most have been involved in neighborhood planning.
The advantage of such planning, he said, is that it “fundamentally develops a partnership between the city and the neighborhoods, helping the city to provide the services the neighborhood needs and establishing ongoing communication.”
Many associations, he added, begin in reaction to something—as CANA did in response to Enloe Medical Center’s expansion plans—but then evolve to become more constructively engaged with influential entities such as, in CANA’s case, the university, the hospital, neighborhood schools and the city.
“Neighborhood planning is about empowerment,” Peterson said—and that sense of power was everywhere evident Saturday, as CANA embarked on its historic effort to create its own neighborhood destiny.