Meriam Park: neighborhood by design

As the clock ticked past 10 on Monday night, the caffeine- and adrenaline-fueled development design team members looked nowhere near running out of steam. Fine-tip pens and plastic cups scattered the floor, tracing-paper sketches were stuck to the walls with adhesive dots, and a boombox on the stairs alternated Mozart with Dire Straits CDs at the makeshift think tank for the one of the most significant building projects in Chico’s recent history.

The old Oser’s/Sports LTD store at 240 Main St. formed the design studio for 25 professionals from all over the nation—even Europe—working 12-hour-plus days in a meeting of the minds that will result in the design for a nearly 250-acre piece of property south of Humboldt Road and west of Bruce Road.

The khaki-clad group worked late into the night for seven days, having sandwiches delivered and pausing only to chat amiably with citizens who dropped by to learn more about the project and the planning process. Almost as quickly as the drawings were completed, they were scanned into computers.

The charrette culminated in a Dec. 9 presentation of what they’d come up with and the revelation that the project would be named for one of Chico’s most prominent and revered civic leaders, the late Ted Meriam.

“It’s meant to honor him and in a larger way honor a tradition of civil engagement and contribution,” said Tom DiGiovanni, the Chico developer who, along with Florida investors, purchased the property formerly owned by Enloe Health System.

“We’re imposing a high standard on ourselves,” he acknowledged. “We do it because in some ways we think it will be a reminder of what we’re shooting for: a place that will stand the test of time.”

More than 100 people showed up to hear the final presentation and were largely complimentary, lobbing a few questions about environmental effects, density and the need to maintain Chico’s character. Heritage Partners will file its plans with the city in March 2004.

The project falls into the urban planning category of Traditional Neighborhood Development, intended to create a “sense of place” by virtue of mixed uses and streets that are laid out in a pre-World War II grid-like pattern that promotes traffic flow and allows residents to walk almost anywhere they need to go in five minutes.

Meriam Park will include almost everything, from residential to retail to civic uses. But it won’t be an island unto itself, promised DiGiovanni, “It [will become] part of the cultural and social traditions of Chico.”

DiGiovanni’s firm hired the design team at a cost in the six-figure range, and that bought a level of intellect that several participants noted exceeded any previous planning process they’d been involved in.

Throughout the process, citizens were welcomed to drop by and share their own ideas. One of them even gave design team leader Leon Krier, who flew in from Luxembourg, an unwanted gift—the flu.

Geoffrey Mouen, who was the town architect for Celebration, Fla., where he now lives, said the visitors were quite welcome. “It’s kind of a break once in awhile,” he said, and the more ideas the better.

Mouen said the houses they’ve sketched have ranged in size from 500 to 3,000 square feet, and the sheer size of the project should ensure that many of them are in reach of the average wage-earner in Chico. “We’re trying to meet everybody’s needs,” he said.

“Architecture is not for experts, but for the general public,” the captivating Krier told the assembled audience on the final night.

Maryland-based architect Seth Harry described a “café row” reminiscent of the south of France, along with realistic parking areas and a large, open marketplace with offices built above it.

John Anderson, also with Heritage Partners, showed visitors a hypothetical high school. Because it’s been allocated four acres rather than the state-required 40, it would have to be privately run, but its students could share yard space with other entities.

The design will preserve native trees and allow the creek, spanned in two spots by bridges, to meander naturally, said Darin Dinsmore of Truckee, whose field is landscape architecture. “I’ve been out to the site eight times,” he said. “Every time you go out you get inspired by something.”

Anne Deutsch, a Berkeley-based expert in sustainable design and green building, said that even with so many experts working closely for so long, there haven’t been any memorable arguments. “We’re all designers, and we all have our own opinions and want things to come out beautifully,” Deutsch said. “But everyone’s been very democratic.”

DiGiovanni, for one, seemed to be beaming the entire week. "We tend to recognize places that are cared for," he said. "It’s ongoing and it takes a long time for the town—the civic, physical and social place—to become in the heart and mind a ‘place.'"