Downtown put on the front burner

Chico City Council approves Rucker’s plan

“I firmly believe we have to take back downtown.” That’s the conclusion drawn by Vice Mayor Tom Nickell from talks he’s had with merchants and other citizens about “the jewel of Chico"—subject of two separate yet related deliberations by the City Council Tuesday night (Feb. 17).

Assistant City Manager John Rucker had just finished presenting a two-phase plan for improving police and City Hall response to downtown issues when Nickell, the retired highway patrolman who’s taken a personal interest in the neighborhood, talked about keeping this “two-year project” moving forward. “We’re taking back downtown, we’re taking back Chico, so people feel safe,” he declared.

Adding that officers, more than citizens, should be the watchdogs, Nickell said, “We have to get back to enforcing laws.” To Rucker, previously a Chico PD captain, Nickell said: “With you at the helm and with Chief Maloney at the helm [meaning acting Chief Mike Maloney], I see things being done.”

The council unanimously approved Rucker’s proposals with just some slight modifications. By May 1, the city will:

• Designate a Housing and Neighborhood Services staffer (Senior Planner Shawn Tillman) as City Hall’s liaison for downtown issues.

• Move the police substation in the Fourth-and-Salem parking structure to the renovated old municipal building next to the City Council building, where Housing and Neighborhood Services also will relocate. The departments will jointly staff a service desk where the public can raise concerns.

• Foster community involvement through an offshoot of the Downtown General Plan Committee.

• Educate business owners on the city code and intervention techniques so, on a strictly voluntary basis, they can approach people violating ordinances.

• Have volunteer police officers (VIPS) work with “ambassadors” from the Jesus Center and the Torres Shelter to reach out to the homeless population.

• Educate students—Chico Junior High, Chico High, Chico State—on traffic laws and safety.

• Offer business owners the opportunity for police consultation on improving security.

When city finances permit, other downtown initiatives include:

• Considering a Property and Business Improvement District.

• New signs stating laws pertaining to biking and skateboarding—along with the fines assessed for violations.

Councilman Scott Gruendl, who made the motion that passed 5-0 (with Ann Schwab and Larry Wahl disqualified because of business interests), added consideration of stronger codes for downtown. “I think you’ve got the will up here for some ordinances,” he told Rucker.

Mary Flynn, meanwhile, encouraged even broader brainstorming, referring to experiences in Old Town Pasadena while visiting her sister. Even in harsh economic times, she said, “it doesn’t cost anything to dream.”

The Downtown Access Plan also came up for approval Tuesday night. On an identical 5-0 vote, the council postponed considering whether to narrow Main and Broadway from three lanes to two, with diagonal parking, and suspended the in-lieu parking fee until adoption of the updated general plan.

In doing so, the council prioritized other aspects of the DAP, namely privatizing the enforcement of parking laws and getting “smart meters” on downtown streets.

Police enforcement came up during this discussion, too. The common denominator: a strategy in which many officers would get deployed for short, targeted periods of time to maximize their impact.

Flynn and Nickell also expressed concerns about delivery trucks clogging thoroughfares during peak lunch hours, but they and their colleagues agreed to address that issue later in the process.

Afterward, the vice mayor said he was pleased with the outcome. “We want to keep moving forward—that’s my biggest concern. John took the bull by the horns and is running with it. We’ve put too much work into this the past two years. We need people to sit down, compromise and go forward.”

Along with letting the Park Commission assess sites for disc golf (see Downstroke), the council unanimously authorized supplemental budget appropriations and, over Wahl’s lone “no” vote, instructed city staff to work on amending the tree-preservation ordinance.

The appropriations—some $3.2 million, mostly for items approved by the council since July—got presented in conjunction with a quarterly review by Finance Director Jennifer Hennessy.

For fiscal year2008-09, Hennessy said, the city is on target. Property-tax revenues increased; factoring in other taxes (i.e. transit-occupancy and utility), sales-tax proceeds would have to plummet 7 percent before the city faced a shortfall over the next six months. Statewide projections call for a drop in the 7 percent range, but Hennessy said Chico typically fares 2 percent better than the California average.

City Manager Dave Burkland praised all eight employee groups for agreeing to wage concessions that made the deficit-reduction strategy possible. Schwab, too, expressed gratitude for city staff—though dire projections for 2009-10 tempered her optimism some.

“I think the report showed we have serious concerns in the economic forecast for our community,” the mayor said afterward. “However, those are mostly based on outside forces. Chico took a very proactive approach to reducing the deficit well over a year ago. We took required steps that have proven to be very effective.”