The Meriam Park model

Ordinarily, when the Chico Planning Commission begins considering a major development proposal, all kinds of folks step forward with concerns and objections. But last Thursday (May 10), when the commission began looking at Meriam Park, that didn’t happen. Instead, speaker after speaker, including several prominent environmentalists, said it was a good fit for Chico.

How was this possible? After all, this is the biggest development here in a quarter-century. It will place some 2,500 dwelling units as well as a major commercial core and significant office space on its 272 acres in east Chico. It’s huge. It’s dense. And yet people support it. Why?

One reason is that its proponent, New Urban Builders, has spent nearly three years talking with people and soliciting their ideas for the project, beginning with a week-long charrette downtown. By the time Meriam Park came to the commission, it was a well-understood proposal. The fact that NUB already had proven, with its Doe Mill Neighborhood, that it could deliver on its proposals only increased the confidence level.

Another reason is that Meriam Park is true to the 1994 general plan. That long-ignored and often-maligned document is actually quite visionary. Drafted with major assistance from a 43-member citizens’ task force, it calls for mixed-used, urban-density, walkable neighborhoods as a counter to suburban sprawl. New Urban Builders is finally realizing the promise of that plan.

And the project is sensitive to nature, particularly Little Chico Creek, which runs through it from east to west. Instead of putting houses and fences along the edge of the creek, as was done at the neighboring Chico Creek Estates, Meriam Park creates the kind of urban greenway called for in the general plan guidelines but never implemented. Not only is the creek protected and even enhanced, everybody will be able to enjoy it.

Environmentalists’ support of the project puts the lie to the oft-cited canard that their concern for the physical environment is just a mask for their hostility to all growth. Clearly, they will support development proposals, even big ones, as long as they’re also good ones.

Developers should keep Meriam Park in mind as they plan future projects. The city is in the process of implementing zoning that will make it easier to build such traditional neighborhoods, and the public clearly welcomes them.