Field trip to the future

City officials travel to Hercules to see a housing development that people actually like

PAST AS PRELUDE<br>Hercules’ community services director, Steve Lawton (center, in light shirt), explains the concepts behind his city’s impressive New Urbanist development to a group of Chico folks.

Hercules’ community services director, Steve Lawton (center, in light shirt), explains the concepts behind his city’s impressive New Urbanist development to a group of Chico folks.

Photo By Robert Speer

For more on New Urbanism:
The Web site offers a good intro to this planning approach as well as links to several New Urbanist projects on the West Coast, including Hercules and Chico’s Meriam Park.

Online exclusive:
Check our gallery of more photos from the Hercules field trip.

Why do so many people dislike development? Why does it run into such passionate opposition, not just in Chico, but in many other parts of California, as well?

It hasn’t always been this way. A hundred years ago, developers were highly respected. Parks and schools and streets, even whole towns, were named after them, honoring their drive and creativity.

What went wrong? Why is development now widely seen as a kind of necessary evil, something that must be allowed but inevitably is going to cause sprawl, increase traffic and air pollution, and stress community services such as police?

The short answer is that we’re disillusioned with suburbia. It’s a development model designed with cars in mind and the notion that, should residents wish to go somewhere, they will drive. Well, we’re getting tired of driving everywhere. Most important, suburbia’s monocultural nature—"little boxes” made of “ticky tack,” in folksinger Malvina Reynolds’ famous words—does a poor job of creating neighborhoods and a sense of community.

What many people now want, studies have shown, is to live in neighborhoods that offer a diversity of housing types, easy access to wild areas and the opportunity to walk to or actually live in an urbanized core. What they want, in other words, is a neighborhood that resembles a village—in planning lingo, a “traditional neighborhood development” (TND) or “New Urbanism.”

There’s a big one in the works for Chico: Meriam Park, the New Urban Builders project that is up for approval this year. At an anticipated 2,300 or more dwelling units on 272 acres, and with a commercial/civic center at its core, this is the largest project to pass through the planning pipeline in decades. And it’s unlike any other development in town—so different, in fact, that the city doesn’t have codes for it.

A similar, smaller project, Barber Yard, is planned for the former Diamond Match site in south Chico.

It’s one thing to talk or read about New Urbanism but quite another to see what a New Urbanist development actually looks like. So the city of Chico arranged for a number of city planners and officials, including three councilmembers, to take a bus ride last Wednesday (Jan. 24) to Hercules, Calif., where a major New Urbanist development is well under way.

Hercules is a city of 25,000 residents located about 25 miles northeast of San Francisco, on San Pablo Bay, off I-80 just south of Vallejo. Until the mid-1970s, it was a company town of fewer than 500 residents that was owned by the Hercules Powder Co., which early in the century manufactured explosives and later made fertilizer. After the plant shut down in 1977, Hercules started to develop as a bedroom community for the Bay Area.

Last year, it became briefly famous as the little town that stopped Wal-Mart in its tracks when city officials used eminent domain to buy up the land on which Wal-Mart wanted to build a new store. The project wasn’t appropriate for the site, they insisted.

That’s because it was right next to the area where the city’s ambitious, multi-phase New Urbanist development was being constructed. A Wal-Mart, the city decided, wasn’t compatible with a neighborhood designed to foster walking to the store, not driving.

A geologic anomaly makes Hercules unique. The town is set in a valley bisected by a creek, which runs into the bay. The bottom of the valley, especially near the waterfront, has bay mud as its base, so for many years development took place on the more stable hillsides.

This left 167 acres of raw land at the very center of Hercules. In the late 1990s, when new technology made development possible on the mud, the acreage presented an opportunity for creative planning on a large scale. As City Manager Mike Sakamoto put it, Hercules is “filling in the hole in the donut.”

The plans, which are still being implemented, call for five distinct mixed-use neighborhoods, including a “historic town center” near the waterfront surrounded by live-work houses, “duets” (three-story duplexes) and single-family dwellings farther out. A new Amtrak station will be built near the bay, as will a ferry station.

The structures are in TND design, updated Victorians and Craftsman cottages, mostly, and densely packed together. Land costs are sky high in the Bay Area, so the trick is to build densely but to include a good number of neighborhood parks and greenways.

The neighborhoods have traditional grid street patterns and alleyways, so garages are in the backs of houses. Blocks are kept small—less than 500 feet long—and the streets are bordered by porches, patios, plazas and shop fronts, not parking lots and garages. Each neighborhood is small enough to allow residents to walk from edge to center in five to 10 minutes, and each has a variety of housing types, commercial and civic uses.

When the plans came before the Hercules Planning Commission and City Council in 2000, not a single person spoke against them, and both bodies approved them unanimously.

Today, Sakamoto said, residents of the built neighborhoods look out on the empty land that has yet to be developed and, instead of wishing it be left as open space, eagerly anticipate the arrival of more neighbors and businesses.

He himself lives in one of the new neighborhoods and says it’s the first time he’s known his neighbors. People are out and about in the evenings and on weekends, he says, and on Halloween they throw a big neighborhood party.

The Hercules development is brand new, and the buildings have a just-out-of-the-box look that makes them seem a little quaint, even precious. “Give it time,” said Tom DiGiovanni, the president of New Urban Builders. “Eventually it will develop the patina that comes with use.”

DiGiovanni was quick to note that Meriam Park would be quite different. Its housing designs, for example, would be more reflective of traditional Chico styles than the Victoriana of San Francisco.

Dave Kelley, an architect who sits on the Chico Planning Commission, liked what he saw: “I thought it looked better in person than in photos. There was a good mix of housing models, though it was maybe a bit crowded between the buildings.”

Kelley would like to see New Urbanist styles expand beyond the “nostalgic” Victorian and Craftsman styles that now characterize it. “I think it’s a good concept, but I’d like to see more variety.”

Councilwoman Ann Schwab liked the mixed-use nature of the neighborhoods. “Having the shops on the ground floor and residences above them makes the neighborhood vital and vibrant,” she said.

And Mayor Andy Holcombe also liked it that in such neighborhoods, “everything you need on a daily basis is within a half-mile walk from your house.”

The man who organized the trip to Hercules is Brendan Vieg, the city senior planner who is shepherding Meriam Park through the permitting process. His goal, he said, was to give city officials an all-angles view of a New Urbanist project. “We know the good that comes from such projects,” he said, “but it was also important to know some of the pitfalls that can occur when you change the codes.”

Hercules came up against several problems: Financing infrastructure was difficult, the fire department didn’t like the narrow streets, and the builders didn’t always stay with the program. In one group of live-work spaces, for example, the builder redesigned the first stories to make them more suitable for residences than storefronts.

Overall, though, the projects are a tremendous success, and Vieg sees Meriam Park as another example of such far-sighted development. “I have no doubt that in a few years people will be coming to Chico and asking us how to do it,” he said.