Big-picture plans

Before welcoming 2007, I headed down to Southern California to revisit what I left when I moved to the North State in 2006.

I criss-crossed parts of five counties in five days: San Bernardino, Riverside, Orange, Los Angeles and Ventura. What I took away from the trip (on top of happy reunions and a sore throat from all the catching-up talk) was fresh insight into city planning.

As I saw time and time again, context counts.

The city of Riverside remains a patchwork of infill. Two former orange groves now sport housing developments—one done, one in progress. Shops and strip malls wedge their way into established boulevard blocks. A gleaming four-story office building has popped up across the street from apartment buildings, separated from other commercial properties by a shrinking open field.

Apartments, by the way, are becoming an extinct species, as owner after owner jumps on the condo-conversion bandwagon. A sign at an old, nondescript complex trumpets units available “in the high 100s”—in other words, $175,000 for the kind of place you could rent here for $600 or $700 a month.

Foothill Ranch—which, contrary to the subtitle of MTV’s Laguna Beach, is the real O.C.—showcases the opposite. It’s a master-planned community near Irvine that is the epitome of cohesive; perhaps too cohesive.

Along the main thoroughfare, nothing looks out of place. Color, architecture, ivy-covered monoliths—all contribute to the unified aesthetic, something clearly possible when building a city from scratch.

But I felt like I was in a fantasy world. Everywhere you look, there’s an upscale housing tract, fancy shopping center or glistening business center. Call it opulent sterility.

Simi Valley presents the middle ground. A suburb outside the L.A. suburbs, this city of 100,000-plus recently got a brand new mall. Is it needed? Probably not, since just over the hill sit another couple malls. But at least it meshes with its surroundings. It’s organic, as are the newer neighborhoods along the eastern foothills.

What’s the lesson from all this?

Plans are not two-dimensional. Sure, density is important, but harmony may be even more important. Even the most exquisite artwork will jar the eye if it clashes with the wall color behind it.

Fortunately, Chico is taking a step in the right direction. The Planning Department is working on a “form-based” code that expands on the current use-based zoning by considering architecture and style. City councilmembers, planning commissioners and other officials will visit a city with such a code, Hercules, later this month.

Let’s hope their trip is as eye-opening as mine was.

Wholly different matter: From time to time, readers ask how the CN&R decides what makes the Letters section. E-mail or snail mail, I consider the same few things.

I look for letters that talk about what’s printed in this paper, as opposed to others, and haven’t appeared elsewhere. I prefer critiques over personal attacks, North State locals over propagandists, and people who sign their names over anonymous posters. Mainly, I select concise—or trimmable—letters that express something insightful, funny or both.

With that in mind, write away!