Revised Meriam Park development moves forward with new leadership

Dan Gonzales plans for construction to start in this southwest corner of Meriam Park Community, which will become the Hub.

Dan Gonzales plans for construction to start in this southwest corner of Meriam Park Community, which will become the Hub.

Photo by Evan Tuchinsky

Neighboring project:
The city will hold a public scoping meeting on Stonegate's environmental impact report July 12 at 5:30 p.m. in City Council chambers.

Dan Gonzales has a vision for Chico shared by many in the business community. He sees this university town as a magnet for established companies, particularly from the Bay Area, and an incubator for entrepreneurs hoping to turn ideas into enterprises.

He found success here with apparel company Fifth Sun; while his story may be less known than that of Ken Grossman at Sierra Nevada Brewing Co., Gonzales makes enough clothes to justify an office near Walmart’s headquarters in Bentonville, Ark.

So Gonzales, in partnership with Grossman, put together a plan to realize that vision.

That plan is the new iteration of Meriam Park.

Initially a project of New Urban Builders, Meriam Park is a 270-acre development of commercial and residential properties, with open space and parkland, along the west side of Bruce Road between East 20th Street and Humboldt Road.

It received City Council approval in 2007, but the new developer, headed by Gonzales, made enough changes to warrant fresh review by the Planning Commission. Fully authorized, following the commission’s vote June 16, construction can move forward—and will, in the next few months, scheduled through 2022.

Meanwhile, both kitty-corner and across the street on East 20th, Epick Homes’ 300-acre Stonegate project— primarily residential, some commercial— is early in the approval process. (See infobox.) If approved, it won’t be much like its neighbor.

Meriam Park Community, as the Gonzales/Grossman project is formally titled, will have both an aesthetic and business model that differs from traditional development.

The vibe will be au courant. Gonzales describes a “cultural infrastructure,” including contemporary design—“modern with an agricultural industrial flair.” The idea is to attract a mix of occupants—artisans, farm-to-table chefs, product-makers, professionals, families—sharing an affinity for Portland/Berkeley-style environs. They’ll live and/or work in a cohesive district divided into areas, which will unfurl in phases.

The Hub, occupying the southwest corner by the Cal Water Co. storage tank, is the start-up zone featuring retail, eateries and “maker” spaces for new ventures. Thrive, in the southeast, is for commercial and office space.

Adjoining the existing courthouse will be medical facilities (north/east) and multifamily housing (west), with a park. Single-family houses are planned for the western portion up to Little Chico Creek; north of that greenway, senior housing. The plan also calls for two other parks, an amphitheater and an environmental preserve.

Some locations pencil out more profitably. Others—notably in the Hub—will offer below-market pricing to entice nascent innovators.

“This is not based on a pure ROI [return-on-investment model],” Gonzales said. “If things work according to our plan, the entity won’t lose money, and we’ll create economic development within Chico—and we would have accomplished our goal.

“Our goal is to be very frugal with the way we design, be very smart, but we are going to be aggressive in terms of infrastructure. We are building infrastructure ahead of the development and the demand.”

Infrastructure for Gonzales isn’t the standard building term encompassing roads, pipes and wiring; rather, it’s a holistic term that also represents the cultural build-out.

“You have to build the right types of restaurants, the right environments, the right arts—and you can’t fake that; it has to grow organically,” he said. “That’s going to be our biggest challenge [in the Hub]: How to do you create a creative culture?”

The biggest challenge, some might say, is pulling off a viable Meriam Park project after New Urban Builders could not.

Gonzales admits he’s not a developer or a “trained urbanist”—two job titles that would seem beneficial when spearheading an urbanist development. Yet he’s also not just a T-shirt maker; he’s a civil engineer, and he hired a professional master planner.

While he may not be a builder—he calls himself and Grossman “builders of businesses”—he feels he understands why New Urban Builders’ work stopped. He said that project fell victim to an economic downturn, not a flawed concept.

“I’m fortunate to pick the project up at this point when it’s already entitled [i.e., authorized],” he said. “Tom DiGiovanni and his team [at New Urban Builders] did much of the time-intensive heavy lifting ….”

DiGiovanni, with partners, still owns a 24-acre parcel within Meriam Park’s boundaries that Gonzales said will be developed separately but in keeping with the new project. (DiGiovanni did not return a call by CN&R deadline.)

Mike Sawley, an associate planner at City Hall, said it’s hard to tell at this point exactly how Meriam Park Community will wind up, as all that’s been vetted are “lines on a subdivision map.”

Comparing concepts, Sawley described the new iteration of Meriam Park as having “a ‘build it and they will come’ mentality and ‘it will work because …’ there will be these various levels of rents and spaces that entrepreneurs can get into at that time, knowing it may progress to a bigger, higher use with more support and success down the road.

“The older vision was more like ‘we know successful places are built a certain way’—multistory with commercial space on the first floor, flex space on the second floor, residential on the third floor—and ‘the critical thing is how they’re built …’

“They’re two philosophies kind of angling in the same direction.”