The changing face of downtown

The upscale Hotel Diamond leads a parade of new buildings and projects. What do all these developments foretell?

Eric Hart, who’s been rebuilding the Senator Theatre, has a couple of other big projects in the works, including the one sketched below. It would adjoin the Senator and contain retail, a restaurant, a courtyard, offices and, at the rear, residential units.

Eric Hart, who’s been rebuilding the Senator Theatre, has a couple of other big projects in the works, including the one sketched below. It would adjoin the Senator and contain retail, a restaurant, a courtyard, offices and, at the rear, residential units.

By Tom Angel

When Steven Gonsalves goes to work at his downtown office each morning, he has a short commute: one flight of stairs. He jokes that his next-door neighbor, Bob Linscheid, has much farther to go: two flights of stairs.

That’s because Gonsalves and Linscheid live in adjoining suites atop one of downtown’s newest and most remarkable buildings, the four-story combined retail, office and residential structure at the corner of Sixth and Main streets known as 555 Main.

Gonsalves, who graduated from Chico State University, grew up in San Francisco, so he is used to having entertainments and services within walking distance. During a recent interview, he described with relish walking to Laxson Auditorium one evening to take in a performance, having dinner afterward at the Black Crow restaurant, then walking home to his suite, which has a view down Main Street from its balcony.

Gonsalves is a partner in the architectural firm Nichols, Melburg and Rosseto, which owns the building and has offices on the third floor. Linscheid’s business consulting company, Linscheid & Associates, is on the second floor, and the Black Sea Furniture Gallery occupies the ground floor.

In some ways the building represents the future of downtown Chico—or at least an aspect of the likely future. Its addition of residential units above offices and retail signals the growing attractiveness of downtown Chico as a place to live and enjoy the best kind of urban lifestyle—a little bit of San Francisco in the midst of leafy, bucolic Chico. And its addition of high-end office spaces above a sophisticated retail store suggests that, slowly but surely, Chico is becoming more prosperous.

Gonsalves’ building is also the first new multi-story structure to be located beyond Fifth Street, which long has marked the southern boundary of the downtown core. In that sense it presages the possible remaking of the area bordered by Fifth, Eighth, Wall and Salem streets, now a hodge-podge of uses, as land values rise and the demand for office and urban residential space increases.

Courtesy Of

And it was an early entrant in a virtual parade of new and redesigned buildings downtown. Developer Wayne Cook’s sparkling new Hotel Diamond on Fourth Street, which opened last month and is the first downtown hotel since the Hotel Oaks closed its doors nearly 50 years ago, is the most recent entrant—and another structure whose construction signals confidence in Chico’s growing prosperity.

Lined up behind the hotel are Eric Hart and Tom van Overbeek’s proposed new combined office, retail and residential structure adjoining Hart’s Senator Theatre building and next door to the 555 Main building, as well as their reconfiguration of the El Rey Theatre into an office complex.

Others will follow, though how fast they will appear depends on several factors.

Parking is one important issue. Any developer who builds a new structure or redesigns an old one for a new use must either provide parking or pay in-lieu parking fees—now set at $16,000 per space—for the people who work there or the consumers who shop there.

The Hotel Diamond, for instance, probably could not have been built had the City Council not agreed to set aside, for hotel guests’ use, a number of the spaces in the municipal parking structure next door.

According to a recent city-sponsored parking survey, the current number of parking spaces will not be sufficient for much longer—hence the interest in building a multi-story parking structure at Second and Wall streets. Many Chicoans believe the problem isn’t lack of parking, however, but rather people’s unwillingness to walk more than a block to get to their destinations—that, or ride their bikes or take the bus downtown.

And, even if the new structure is built, it won’t do much to solve the parking problem in the southern part of downtown, where there isn’t even a surface parking lot, much less a parking structure. The only space previously set aside for parking, Gonsalves points out, was a small lot that has since become part of the Boys and Girls Club.

An artist’s rendering of the complex of offices, retail and residential Tom DiGiovanni’s New Urban Builders group has proposed for East First Street along Big Chico Creek. It would include a public promenade along the so-called “Lost Park” section of the creek.

Courtesy Of Envision Design

And underground parking garages are not the solution in Chico that they are elsewhere. John Bidwell couldn’t have foreseen, when he sited the town in this otherwise ideal spot, the impact of a high water table on the ability to park cars underground. Any building within shouting distance of one of Chico’s creeks that tries to dig deeper than 10 or 12 feet is vulnerable to problems with seepage, especially during wet years. It’s not an insuperable problem, but drainage systems can be expensive.

Some owners’ lack of desire to upgrade is another important factor slowing downtown development. Many of downtown’s buildings are owned by family trusts that are content with the steady incomes their properties provide. These owners are property holders, not property developers, and as long as they’re happy with things as they are, not much change will take place.

“They have no vested interest in doing something entrepreneurial,” says Gonsalves.

In some ways that’s good. For example, it keeps rents down, making it easier for small, locally owned start-up businesses to stay afloat. But it frustrates those developers who have dreams for downtown and want to see it evolve and change in a way that is commensurate with Chico’s emerging financial and cultural significance in the Sacramento Valley area.

Buildings and land need to “recycle” for a neighborhood like downtown to realize its full potential, says Tom DiGiovanni, of New Urban Builders. “It’s part of the natural evolution of a place.” Eventually, he says, these static holdings will pass on to heirs, who might be inclined to sell off some of them, if only to pay estate taxes.

A good example of the recycling problem, if it is a problem, is the lot at the corner of First and Main streets, a prime location that has been empty for decades. It’s actually two parcels owned by separate family trusts. One of them is the Breslauer trust, which is managed by 87-year-old Mendel Tochterman, whose mother was a Breslauer. Tochterman, a lifelong third-generation Chico resident, also manages, among other Breslauer trust buildings, the pink Waterland-Breslauer Building at Fourth and Broadway, which houses many small businesses at generously low rents, including the community radio station, KZFR 90.1 FM.

At one point a Casa Lupe restaurant was proposed for the First and Main site, but it included a drive-thru component, and the city nixed that. Since then, nothing.

Steve Gonzalves, a partner in the architectural firm that owns the new building at 555 Main Street, on the balcony of the penthouse suite owned by business consultant Bob Linscheid. Gonzalves lives right next door; his balcony looks south along Main Street. Both men also work in the building.

Photo By Tom Angel

Tochterman says he’s been approached a number of times, but he doesn’t want to sell the land. “It’s been in my family more than 100 years,” he says. “Can you imagine what the capital gains taxes would be? Unbearable. We’d rather have the land. … Besides, I’m sentimental about properties my grandparents bought.”

Tochterman said he is willing to provide a long-term land lease to anyone who might want to build on the site, but so far interest has been nil.

Another factor impeding development downtown is the lack of available vacant land for building new structures. Here downtown’s reliance on surface parking lots could play a role, in that some of these lots are potentially prime locations for development—but of course that would require building more parking structures to make up for the lost spaces.

The lack of a comprehensive plan for development downtown, particularly in the area south of Fifth Street, is also a problem. Much of the area still has the old C-1 or C-2 zoning, which allows such traditional commercial uses as muffler and auto repair shops and warehouses.

City planners have been talking for “a couple of years” about the need for a better plan for the area, says Senior Planner Tom Hayes, “but it’s never been well-defined.” City staff has been too busy doing other things. “We need to get some breathing room,” Hayes adds.

City Manager Tom Lando agrees that the city needs to “sit down and work with the owners and merchants who are already there” and, adding in planners’ creativity, come up with a design for the area. Such a plan would help to tie the downtown core to another area in which the city has invested much time, money and effort, the Park Avenue corridor.

Lando understands that, as downtown gentrifies, smaller businesses will be squeezed out and need places to land. “Where will this ‘secondary retail’ go?” he asks, adding that it’s the city’s job to anticipate such changes. The Park Avenue corridor is one possibility, as is the south-of-Fifth-Street area, though Lando expects the latter to develop into mostly office and high-density residential space. The lack of off-street parking there will remain a problem.

This is an artist’s rendering of the new band shell to be included in the facelift of the Downtown Plaza Park, which is set to begin construction in July. The park’s upgrading can be expected to “re-center” downtown, says one prominent developer.

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Despite the obstacles in the way of new and exciting projects downtown, however, they’re still getting built. The Hotel Diamond, which is surely the most spectacular building downtown and the biggest private development to happen there in decades, leads the parade, but other projects, private and public, are right behind it. Here’s a short list:

Hotel Diamond— If there’s one project that most expresses confidence in the future of downtown, it’s the Hotel Diamond. Developer Wayne Cook has taken a “hulk” (his word) of a building and turned it into an $8 million gem. If you haven’t been inside yet, treat yourself to a look-see.

Cook, who’s long focused on restoring historic buildings (he famously saved the university’s language houses), doesn’t do halfway work. Whatever he was able to rescue from this historic Fourth Street building—the original foundation, many of the original brick walls, some beautiful window openings that had been covered up for decades, the Dan Evers-made front door to the old Delancy’s Restaurant—he saved and restored. “There’s been a tremendous price paid,” he says, “to keep not a lot of the old building.”

Inside it’s all high-end woodwork and etched glass—beautiful stuff. There’s a banquet room in the basement—Cook installed a $20,000 pump and drainage system—as well as an elegant, and totally wired, conference room. Lobby level has the bar and Johnnie’s, an attractive exhibition-style restaurant named after Cook’s longtime contractor, Johnnie Luallen. Above that are three floors of rooms, crowned by Cook’s personal penthouse and the building’s distinctive cupola.

The rooms are elegantly outfitted, many with antique furniture, all with high-quality bedding and cabinetry. Cook himself made two trips to China to purchase furniture.

It’s a risky venture. There are only 43 rooms. “Anybody with any business sense can understand that it’s more than a tough road to hoe financially,” Cook says.

He’s drained by the project, the most complicated he’s ever done, Cook adds. He sold a number of properties and used all of his credit to get the hotel built. If he has regrets, however, he doesn’t voice them. He loves his work and takes pride in it.

Clockwise from top: A view of the creekside promenade envisioned as part of New Urban Builders’ proposed East First Street project

Courtesy Of Envision Design

“I was born and grew up in this town,” he says. “I believe in the future of Chico. Its best days are ahead.”

Downtown Plaza Park— The Downtown Plaza Park has always been the center of Chico’s civic life. Besides being next to the post office and City Hall, it’s been the site of frequent social events, from the Friday Night Concerts series to the Artisans Faire, not to mention innumerable political demonstrations.

It took a hit last year, when the city was forced to chop down the park’s grand old elms because they were diseased. This year, though, it’s going to get a facelift that should make it not only much prettier, but also more useful.

The new design will incorporate a large fountain in its center that can be turned off for events. A new bandstand with a retractable shell will be set on the north side, and the number of entry points to the park will increase. It will also have, for the first time, permanent rest rooms.

DiGiovanni, for one, believes the new park will be a tremendous boon to Chico. “It could re-center the downtown again,” he says.

Work was set to begin in May, but early bids came in too high and it’s going out to bid again June 3. Lando says he expects work to begin in July.

A drawing of the Majestic Building, which will emerge from the El Rey Theatre and echo the design of the original Majestic Theatre there.

Courtesy Of Griffith & Associates

Senator and El Rey theaters— Eric Hart is best known as the man who has taken on the formidable task of rehabbing the Senator Theatre, but he and partner Tom van Overbeek have a couple of other significant projects in the works downtown, including the El Rey Theatre.

The Senator project achieved a milestone of sorts two weekends ago, when the historic building’s tower was returned to its spot on the corner of Fifth and Main streets after an absence of six years. It was further sign of Hart’s commitment to the building. He’s rehabbed the apartments there, and his work on the theater continues. “It’s coming along,” he says, admitting that it will take time.

Meanwhile, he has purchased the El Rey and announced plans to convert it to offices, and he and van Overbeek have submitted an ambitious plan to the city for a new, five-story structure on the south side of the Senator building.

That building will have offices and retail on the ground floor, a restaurant and offices on the second floor and offices above them. There will be a courtyard in the center of the building. Both the courtyard and the restaurant will be connected by doorways to the theater, making the complex one large entertainment, retail and office unit. A separate component behind the office/retail part will contain residential units.

Earlier this year the proposal ran into two hitches before the city Planning Commission. One was that it would have required a total of 77 parking spaces. At $16,000 a pop, the in-lieu parking cost would have made the project financially infeasible. Also, the project was designed to be 80 feet high, 15 feet over the city’s 65-foot height limit. The added height would have blocked the view from Linscheid’s suite next door, a fact he made sure the commission was aware of.

Hart appears to have accepted the height limit. “We’ll go to the maximum height we can go, 65 feet,” he now says. But he needs a break on the parking. Kim Seidler, the city’s planning director, says Hart has offered to provide 21 spaces and pay in-lieu for 19 others, for a total of 40.

The project is on hold while the commission researches both issues—and waits to see what happens to the Second and Wall parking structure, Seidler says.

The brand-new Hotel Diamond on Fourth Street.

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Meanwhile, Hart and van Overbeek’s company, Hart Diversified, is drawing up plans for converting the El Rey into 20,000 square-feet of mixed-use office and retail space to be known as the Majestic Building, so named after an earlier incarnation as a theater. The building is on a raised foundation, allowing development of basement parking, but the company will also need to lease four spaces in the little city lot behind the theater.

For now, the theater is being used again—for Sunday meetings of the congregation of Bidwell Memorial Presbyterian Church, of which Hart is a member. The church, one of the most historically significant in Chico, is embarking on a $4 million refurbishment of its classic redbrick structure at First and Broadway. The changes won’t be much noticeable from the outside, but the church’s interior will be dramatically improved.

New Urban Builders— Tom DiGiovanni and his partners are best known for their Doe Mill Neighborhood and the proposed Meriam Park, both eastside “new urbanist” developments combining mixed-use residential with commercial cores in pedestrian-friendly environments. But they’ve also made a mark downtown, chiefly with the restoration of the old Gold Country Market complex on Flume Street between Fifth and Sixth, which they’ve turned into professional offices, including the University of Phoenix and their own headquarters. The complex is also notable for the rooftop array of solar panels that provide much of its power.

DiGiovanni wants to see more high-density, non-student residential downtown. He’d like to build on part of his parking area next to the University of Phoenix, but the lack of substitute parking is an obstacle, he says.

Several years ago, NUB developed a remarkable proposal to transform an ill-used downtown stretch of Big Chico Creek into something much more useful and attractive. The idea was to take the area bordering the creek between the university-owned buildings on Main Street and the Sierra Central Credit Union and transform what is now mostly parking lots—there’s one building housing four storefronts, two of them now empty—into a striking multi-storied complex of offices and residential units, with perhaps some street-level restaurants and coffee shops (see artist’s rendering, page 17).

As part of the transformation, the project would include a stylish promenade along the creek. The city’s Seidler has suggested that it could eventually become an integral part of an eventual creekside walkway running from Main Street to One-Mile.

An aerial view of the planned upgrading of the Downtown Plaza Park, including a large fountain at its center.

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Obviously, it would make much better use of the only section of the creek downtown that isn’t part of the university. One drawback is that it would remove a number of parking spaces, but DiGiovanni points out that city surveys have shown the municipal lot is mostly empty during summer months, suggesting that students and university employees are its biggest users the rest of the year.

It probably won’t go forward, however, if the city abandons its plan to build a parking structure nearby at Second and Wall streets, DiGiovanni says.

University projects— Chico State University’s new master plan calls for a number of new projects on campus, and a couple of them are important for the downtown area.

One is the plan to re-do First Street between Salem Street and the Bell Memorial Union, which has been closed to traffic for more than 30 years. Now, says Greg Francis, the university’s director of facilities planning, “we’re working with the idea of … going in there and making it a nice pedestrian space.”

The project would include dramatically upgrading the intersection of First and Salem streets, which marks the gateway to the campus. “Right now it looks like an abandoned street,” Francis explains. “It doesn’t do a good job of introducing the university.”

Taylor Hall, which sits on that corner, is slated for demolition and replacement by a four-story building that would take up the entire block, with the exception of the Madison Bear Garden restaurant and bar.

The university’s early aerials for a redesigned First Street pedestrian space and a reconfigured, four-story Taylor Hall.

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The university is also hoping to partner with the city of Chico to build a multi-story parking structure on the twin half-block lots, one now owned by the city, the other by the university, across Second Street from the Mad Bear and the Performing Arts Center. The structure would provide downtown and university parking by day and concert and restaurant parking by night. Normal Avenue would remain open, traveling under a tunnel between the two halves of the structure.

The city has put its long-gestating plans for a new transit center at Second and Salem streets on hold, pending an agreement on the parking structure with the university. As Lando often has noted, wheels grind slowly at the university, but the parties are meeting regularly and both are confident a structure eventually will be built.

Old Municipal Building— The OMB, as some are now calling it, is the old City Hall on the corner of Fifth and Main streets. Plans are to turn it into a “center for art, history and culture” for Chico and the region, and a unique partnership has formed to bring that about.

Plans are for the city, which owns the building, to lease it to the Chico Area Recreation and Park District (CARD) to manage. CARD would in turn work cooperatively with Chico State’s College of Humanities and Fine Arts and the arts advocacy group Friends of the Arts (the state-local partner of the California Arts Council) to provide a variety of arts events and presentations.

The OMB would become home to the Janet Turner Print Gallery, now at Chico State, and its collection of more than 4,000 prints, many of them by world-class artists. Downstairs, it would also house its own OMB gallery and permanent collection of local and regional art as well as a visitors’ center focusing on the area’s natural and cultural attractions.

Upstairs it would have several spaces useful for special events, art- and art-history-related workshops. “We’re trying to make it into not only an art museum,” says Debra Lucero, director of Friends of the Arts, “but also a heritage center.”

For a long time the city didn’t know who would be using the building, so progress on renovating it has been “plodding along,” in the words of Tony Baptiste, the city’s community services director. But now that the partnership is definite, the city is about ready to go to bid on the initial phase of construction, and Baptiste is confident the project will be ready for occupancy sometime in 2006.

One of the best ways to appreciate downtown Chico is to take an evening stroll there, especially at this time of year. The weather is balmy, and the streets aren’t crowded.

Lighted storefronts gleam in the darkness, each offering a glittering diorama of some kind—works of art, beautifully garbed mannequins, collections of toys and gifts—to attract your attention. The bars, restaurants and coffee shops ring with easy chatter and laughter and, sometimes, the sound of music. The variety is remarkable. Upscale eateries and boutiques co-exist comfortably with quick-food joints, live-music bars and vintage-clothing outlets.

Mendel Tochterman, who’s watched Chico grow for nearly a century, says he welcomes the changes downtown. When he talks about this town, it’s as if he’s talking about a favorite child, such is his love for it. There will always be a place for the kinds of small businesses downtown has in such abundance, he says. “Small merchants can give good service, while those big-box stores, they don’t give any service.”

But he also worries that some of these small-business owners won’t be able to afford the changes. “I think it’s unfortunate the little people are getting squeezed out,” he says. He’s glad he’s able to provide spaces for so many of them in his Waterland-Breslauer building, because “they’re all pretty nice people.”

Tom DiGiovanni, however, is confident that downtown will never lose the qualities that make it unique. “What will always make downtown interesting is the confluence of sophisticated urban living with the energy and vitality of students,” he says, “and the merchants who serve both of those groups.”

Good retailers, he says, “will always find the right spot.” Some may migrate from downtown to Park Avenue or to the area south of Fifth Street. “There’s kind of an ecology to all this where those bits of life will find their places.”

A good trend, he adds, is that many of the best downtown merchants—he mentions Bob and Barbara Malowney, of Bird in Hand, and Syl Lucena, of Collier Hardware—own the buildings their stores are in. He even suggests the city think of ways to help other downtown merchants buy their buildings.

“I think downtown is far from becoming a mall,” he adds. “It will always have vitality coming from the campus. But it also will become more sophisticated and urbane.”