A look into the past and the future of Chico’s City Plaza
“Well, I’ve been afraid of changing
‘cause I’ve built my life around you
But time makes you bolder
Children get older
I’m getting older too”
—Fleetwood Mac, “Landslide”
A’mond or almond? Park or plaza? Simple words have the ability to polarize conversations. The redevelopment of the downtown Chico square is no exception.
After months of reading the local press, I am clear that anger management seminars are a waste of time. Outcries range from “who needs cement toilets” and “another mausoleum” to “bulldoze and start over,” “throw out the City Council” and my favorite, “hang the designer.”
Ouch, that’s downright cold!
Before pointing fingers, we need to strap some aluminum foil on our heads and jump into the time machine and go back 14 years. Carefully look around and see which City Council campaign signs were planted in your neighbor’s front yard—back then. For it was the 1992 City Council that adopted the Plaza Master Plan—a plan developed in public at Bidwell Park and Playground Commission hearings.
The 1992 Master Plan kept the original circle and diagonal pathway layout. It added bulbed street corners (i.e., more cement) and targeted the wooden gazebo to be replaced with a single performance platform. A critical component was the gradual replacement of the elms over a 20 year period.
Originally, the elms were planted too close together, which caused them to grow sideways and become weak. In the 1900s, too much dirt was placed over their root base. Decades of tree topping did not help. Time had not been kind to the majestic elms.
John Bidwell was clear from the beginning that our city was to have a plaza. In 1872 he deeded the land to the city while reserving the right for a county courthouse to be built there. In 1873 Bidwell planted the first elm trees, envisioning a civic space for public gatherings.
Plaza is actually a Spanish word that means a marketplace or an open square, usually located near urban buildings and often featuring walkways, trees and shrubs, places to sit and sometimes shops.
The original layout was just that, sans the vendor booths and yo-yo tournament. Elms were planted around the four bounding streets, and a double row lined the diagonal walkways that led to the raised center fountain. Over time a wooden gazebo was added and the fountain was removed. Activities have increased dramatically from the picturesque parade-watching 1910s to more than 100 planned events per year that can draw up to 2,000 people a day.
By 2002 the first replacement trees had grown up to 30 feet tall, but then one old elm crashed to the ground, injuring a person. Further investigation revealed the trunks to be hollow inside and unsafe. Greg Melton, the plaza landscape architect, confirmed that the deterioration of the 130-year-old elms was the determining factor that triggered the current full site redevelopment.
So in 2002 the city held public workshops to gather ideas for the full redevelopment. Dennis Beardsley, the city’s General Services Department director, recalls the event well, where 25 to 30 citizens responded to published newspaper notices and colored flyers. Workshop records show the top four public priorities were:
• Improve functionality for community activities.
• Increase the sense of safety and security.
• Re-invigorate the daily use to a wider cross-section of the community.
• Repair the deteriorating, “shabby” appearance.
Imagine: a small handful of people shaping our future. Their collective efforts resulted in three basic schemes, which were reconciled into a composite solution at Beardsley’s direction. The workshop changed the 1992 plan by expanding the center hard surface area, adding a water feature and one more performance platform. The big Christmas tree, the redwood and the chestnut trees were to remain. Last, back-in diagonal parking on Main and Broadway streets was given the go-ahead. Let me repeat, “back-in diagonal” parking. This is sure to become a tow truck bonanza!
Strangely, no permanent on-site public restrooms were recommended by the workshop. Porta-potties were given the thumbs down for being unsightly. So the options were to truck in restroom trailers as needed, install modular restroom buildings in nearby parking lots or hike across Main Street to use the small existing council chambers restrooms. A fourth option was not identified, which is going to Duffy’s Tavern—always a rational choice.
To implement the workshop plan, David Rogers, the plaza architect, was hired to design the permanent structures. Rogers’ design contemplated the old City Hall pediment gable style and the simpler classic arch and Doric column post office. His goal was to tie in local architecture along historic lines. He drew inspiration from the Golden Gate Park archway and other band-shell period styles.
Rogers’ initial design concept was to incorporate rest rooms behind the band shell, as in the Colorado Springs, Colo., photo. That was not feasible because of the tall redwood on 4th Street. Locating the single structure on Main or Broadway was ruled out due to audience distractions from moving traffic. A 5th Street location did not sit well with the Post Office or Lyon Books. So the decision was made to separate the band shell and the restrooms.
In 2003 this final plan went to the City Council and was approved by a 6-1 vote. Done deal.
So what can we expect to see in the future? Melton says there will be 50 new trees, mostly elms, mixed with red maples and cherry. In 20 years time the elms will have a 30-foot spread—casting shade and cool shadows. The tree canopy will be pruned to about 8 feet, providing human scale and intimacy. Over time the concrete will be burnished by foot traffic. Rogers says the shiny copper band shell awning will tarnish to a brown patina. The starkness of the buildings will diminish as the landscape matures in height. The buildings will be absorbed into the summer green and the stucco and clay tile roofs will blend into the crimson colors of fall. The elms will tower again, buffering the open views across the plaza. The new soil should give another 130 years of life to the plaza. The raised planters provide perimeter seating while reducing lawn deterioration.
Beardsley says that Shakespeare in the Park wants to relocate to the plaza. Rogers says that the North State Symphony is interested in performing there.
One more time-travel trip. Let’s go forward 30 years when the kids who are awaiting the plaza opening are adults. Their memories will be of playful times running through the ground-level fountain, playing chess and watching yo-yo tournaments on a real stage. In fact, a red-haired teenage boy looking through the construction fencing told me, “Why is there all the controversy; no one asked our generation what we wanted. My parents would not take us to the old plaza because of bums and troublemakers. I can’t wait for the new plaza to open.”
It is ironic and sad, that the elms we all loved actually caused their own demise and removal. I suspect a lot of the local anger is due to real and perceived memories being lost. Gone like yesterday. These memories can not be replaced, but they can be cherished.
The old elms can be replaced—and they will grow and hold future memories—as they should.