How The Esplanade became the template for multiway boulevards elsewhere
Sometime in the late 1950s, Fred Davis, who at the time was Chico’s public works director but soon would become its city manager, sat down in his office with a young draftsman named Earl Talken. His goal was to come up with a new design for The Esplanade, which was then a two-lane street bordered by side streets—not quite a boulevard yet, but getting there.
The men spent just two hours designing the new thoroughfare, Davis said recently. It would feature four lanes in the center separated by a median, and retain the narrow, block-long side streets for access to residences.
They had no idea that theirs would be the first multiway boulevard constructed in the United States since the 1920s. Nor could they have anticipated that, 50 years later, their design would serve as the model for Octavia Boulevard in San Francisco, completed in 2005, and other, similar streets in other cities.
Last week, the designers of Octavia Boulevard, Allan B. Jacobs and Elizabeth Macdonald, were in Chico to talk about boulevards and especially The Esplanade. The husband and wife, besides being teachers at UC Berkeley, own an urban-design firm, Jacobs Macdonald: Cityworks, that specializes in designing multiway boulevards. Along with a colleague, Yodan Rofé, they are also authors of The Boulevard Book: History, Evolution, Design of Multiway Boulevards, a coffee table volume that is especially notable for Chicoans because it features The Esplanade as its centerpiece example.
In a talk Thursday (April 26) in the Rowland-Taylor Recital Hall at Chico State University, Jacobs and Macdonald described their interest in “great streets” and in particular multiway boulevards.
Jacobs believes passionately that urban design begins with street design. “Design the streets well,” he said, “and you have largely designed the city.”
The genius of multiway boulevards, he explained, is that they are “mixed-use public ways” that “allow us to handle through traffic without deadening the surrounding environment.” The Esplanade moves heavy traffic through in an efficient manner, but it also creates a large “pedestrian realm” along the side streets that softens the impact of the through corridor and fosters bicycling and walking.
The street’s generous tree canopy is central to its success, Jacobs added. It provides natural beauty and cooling shade that benefit drivers and pedestrians alike while defining the edges of the streetscape in an esthetically satisfying way.
Multiway boulevards have a long history in this country, especially on the East Coast, Jacobs said, but until recently none had been built since the 1920s, with the exception of The Esplanade. “Why are they no longer being built?” he asked.
The main reason, he said, is because they don’t comfortably fit into traffic engineers’ idea of streets. On paper, they seem to have too many conflict points. The Esplanade, for example, has all those side-street intersections with cross streets.
But are they more dangerous than other streets? For two years Jacobs and Macdonald studied traffic and accident data. They found that boulevards “are no less safe than other streets if well designed.” Most important, the side streets must limit auto use by being just one lane wide, preferably a narrow lane, and by having stop signs at the end of every block. Drivers, they found, easily learn to negotiate the “conflict points” created by those stop signs.
Back when Fred Davis and Earl Talken were designing The Esplanade, they were just trying to come up with a better idea.
At that time The Esplanade was part of Highway 99E, which brought north-south traffic right through downtown along Main Street. The roadway still retained the design given it in the 19th century by Chico’s founder, John Bidwell. The two lanes in the center were bordered by double rows of sycamore trees and, beyond them, side streets. There was also a walking path on the west side, and railroad tracks ran down the east side.
The state wanted to build a new freeway about a half-mile east of downtown, and in return it offered to redesign and rebuild The Esplanade.
Davis said the design the state came up with would have expanded the side streets into two-lane thoroughfares separated by a wide median. It also would have required taking out the sycamore trees, a proposal that was so unpopular it earned then-City Manager Bob Bailey the nickname “Sycamore Bailey.”
Davis and Talken’s design increased the main route from two to four lanes with a median while keeping side-street access for local residents. Best of all, in most Chicoans’ minds, it required removing only one row of trees. The City Council approved the design, and the state proceeded to build The Esplanade as we know it today.
The railroad tracks, which ran through downtown and along Park Avenue as well, were removed in the mid-1970s.
A key to The Esplanade’s success, Davis said, was the decision to space the signals at carefully set distances and eliminate left turns at signaled intersections. The city was then able to sequence the signals so drivers could hit the green lights in both directions, keeping traffic flowing smoothly.
Octavia Boulevard is located in Hayes Valley, near San Francisco’s Civic Center, on the former site where the double-deck Central Freeway (Highway 101) ended at Fell and Oak streets. When the Loma Prieta earthquake struck in 1989, it severely damaged that section of the freeway, rendering it unusable.
For years San Franciscans argued over whether to rebuild it or create something different. Hayes Valley activists, “tired beyond telling of the Central Freeway” (as Macdonald writes in her article, “Building a Boulevard,” in the Spring 2006 issue of Access magazine), were aware of Jacobs’ book Great Streets and other research on multiway boulevards. They put a measure on the ballot in 1998 that gave voters a choice: rebuild the freeway section or, for much less money, replace it with a tree-lined boulevard. The boulevard won.
Now, when drivers come off the Central Freeway, they cross Market Street and travel for three or four blocks along a landscaped boulevard until turning onto Oak or Fell. At the end of the boulevard, between Fell and Hayes, is Patricia’s Green, a block-long pocket park with a playground that has been a big hit in the community.
When Octavia Boulevard debuted in September 2005, John King, the urban-design writer for the San Francisco Chronicle, described the descent off the freeway as “the most attractive entrance into the city after the Golden Gate Bridge.”
Jacobs and Macdonald recently designed a similar downtown boulevard in Vancouver, B.C.
Asked during their talk whether the qualities of the “good Esplanade” could be extended to the “bad Esplanade” north of Lindo Channel, Jacobs said they couldn’t be sure without knowing the dimensions, but certainly it was feasible—if the will were there.
For his part, Davis, who ended up serving as city manager for 33 years, until 1992, agrees with Jacobs and Macdonald. “It would take a little expenditure,” he said, “but it could be done.”