SW Chicoans give planners an earful

BIKING THE ‘HOOD<br>This group of southwest Chico residents gathered Sunday afternoon outside the 1200 Park Avenue seniors complex to begin a bicycling tour of their neighborhood. Interestingly, all were homeowners (most neighborhood residents rent) and all lived west of Park Avenue.

This group of southwest Chico residents gathered Sunday afternoon outside the 1200 Park Avenue seniors complex to begin a bicycling tour of their neighborhood. Interestingly, all were homeowners (most neighborhood residents rent) and all lived west of Park Avenue.

Photo By Robert Speer

In some ways, southwest Chico is one of the most interesting and attractive areas of town. It’s got a wide diversity of older homes, many of them lovingly restored. It also has beautiful, tree-lined streets, two creeks running through it and a spicy ethnic mix of residents.

It’s got a rich history, too, as Chico’s first major subdivision, a once-flourishing “company town” surrounding the Diamond Match Co. plant located there.

But it’s also got a host of difficult problems, as a number of its residents informed city planners and consultants in no uncertain terms Saturday (April 28), the first day of a five-day planning charrette for the neighborhood.

Most of all they’re nervous about “the elephant in the room,” the 138 empty acres of the former Diamond Match plant, now called Barber Yard, the name developer Jeff Greening has given to his 1,100-unit “new urbanist” project conceived for the site but so far not acted upon.

This planning session (which concluded Wednesday, May 2) followed another hosted by the city last November in the Avenues neighborhood north of downtown. The products of both will be strongly considered in the city’s current updating of the general plan.

Compared to the Avenues neighborhood, which is mostly residential, southwest Chico—as defined by the city—is a complex mix of residential, commercial and industrial.

More than 8,000 people live in the area, which is bounded by 9th Street on the north, Mulberry and Fair streets on the west, Comanche Creek on the south and the Southern Pacific railroad tracks on the west. It’s poorer, on average, than the rest of Chico, and 77 percent of its residents are renters.

Its residential neighborhoods contain a mix of owner-occupied and rented single-family homes, with one section, in the area of Ivy Street, made up mostly of multifamily rentals. They are bisected by a busy, pedestrian-hostile thoroughfare (Park Avenue), and there are two large industrial tracts on the south end.

And then there’s the “elephant in the room,” which makes up a full 20 percent of the area under consideration.

A number of speakers Saturday morning in the Chico Country Day School multipurpose room were concerned about Barber Yard’s potential impact on the neighborhood, especially traffic. Because of the railroad tracks, there’s no access to it from the west, so anybody going to or from it will have to pass through existing neighborhoods. Nobody was happy about that.

A number of people—public health nurse Chris Nelson among them—were also concerned about residual toxins on the site. Diamond Match dumped all kinds of poisonous substances there for years, and though it’s supposedly been cleaned up, few neighbors have confidence that it’s safe.

Greening first publicized his concept for Barber Yard in 2003, saying then he hoped to present a development plan in a year or so. So far he has not done so.

In the meantime, a neighborhood group formed in opposition to it. Over time it morphed into the Barber Neighborhood Association, the group with which the city coordinated this week’s planning session.

Most of the BNA members live west of Park Avenue, so it wasn’t surprising that most of the discussion concerned that area. One by one, residents trooped to the microphone to express their concerns. They complained of poor infrastructure, including old sewer lines, potholed streets and disconnected sidewalks. They noted a lack of retail outlets—there’s no neighborhood grocery store, for example—and the lack of an elementary school (Chico Country Day School serves all of Chico, not just the neighborhood); most parents must drive their kids to Rosedale or Chapman schools.

The only park is miniscule Rotary Park, there are homeless people camping out along Little Chico Creek, and neither that creek nor Comanche Creek has been developed for public use. Both are commonly filled with debris.

They noted an abundance of absentee landlords and “party culture” tenants, and they said Park Avenue was unsafe for pedestrians, especially children, to cross.

Several speakers urged that Barber Yard not be developed, or at the most turned into a light-industrial site. Tom Ford, a principal with the project consultant, Design, Community & Environment, of Berkeley, gently reminded them that the general plans calls for 700-1,200 residential units on the site.

“Not much can be done about that,” he said, “but you can influence how it integrates into the neighborhood.”

That afternoon, having gotten their complaints off their chests, residents broke into small groups to brainstorm on problems and possible solutions. Robin Trenda, a BNA member, later said the sessions were “extremely productive and positive.”

On Sunday they took walking and bicycling tours of the area, and on Monday they met for two hours in the evening to “explore options.” Capping off the agenda was a gathering Wednesday evening to review the plans emerging from the design team’s ongoing studio headquartered at 1200 Park Avenue.

The team will present a draft plan in late spring or early summer, Ford said, and a final plan in late summer.