What’s up with New Urban Builders?

Status report from Meriam Park developer

GOING THROUGH A PHASE<br>Nearly two years since receiving City Council approval, New Urban Builders hasn’t broken ground on Meriam Park—but expects to do so in the next few months.

Nearly two years since receiving City Council approval, New Urban Builders hasn’t broken ground on Meriam Park—but expects to do so in the next few months.

Twenty-one months ago, Chico City Council members enthusiastically approved one of the biggest projects to come through the local development pipeline: Meriam Park. When it’s completed, around 2020, it will encompass 272 acres and incorporate residences, shops, eateries, offices and parkland. It’s the quintessential mixed-use project, Exhibit A for many involved with updating the general plan.

New Urban Builders anticipated breaking ground a year later.

Until, of course, the economy took a dive.

The parcel remains oen space—grassy, undulating, undeveloped. Along its 20th Street and Bruce Road edges, signs proclaim “Summer 2009” for commercial opportunities where Summer 2008 once was the ETA. For all the talk of “shovel ready” projects, this one seems “shovel overdue.”

So … ?

At the last City Council meeting, on March 3, Principal Planner Brendan Vieg gave an update, upon which NUB President Tom DiGiovanni elaborated. Bottom line: The economic slowdown delayed matters, but on-site activity is imminent.

Coming first, commencing in the next few months, will be an affordable-housing project approved last year by the council (in conjunction with its role as the Redevelopment Agency board). NUB also will begin working on infrastructure to support commercial development, which is where DiGiovanni has placed the focus. As Vieg explained to the CN&R, “they have freedom to tweak opportunities between commercial and residential.”

The initial bit of development also will include “the first phase of a neighborhood park adjacent to Little Chico Creek Elementary,” DiGiovanni said. In the interim, he told the CN&R, “we’re moving the project ahead by completing the environmental mitigation and establishing the maintenance district for the entire property.”

The housing project is under the auspices of the Affordable Housing Development Corp., the firm that developed the seniors apartment complex, 1200 Park Avenue. Called Parkside Terrace Apartments, it’s slated for 90 units to accommodate large, low-income families.

Meanwhile, “even in this rather inclement economic climate, there remains interest in some commercial buildings around 20th Street, so there are some things that will happen, but probably not till next year,” DiGiovanni said.

“Fundamentally,” he continued, “Meriam Park was always viewed as a long-term project. It was always [planned for] different phases in different locations at different times.”

New Urban Builders as a whole has been going through a transition. Partner John Anderson and architect David Kim have spun off into their own firm, Anderson/Kim Architecture and Urban Design, which DiGiovanni employs in a consulting capacity. NUB has left its East Sixth Street digs for an office around the corner on Orient.

Most significant, Westside Green is no longer its property.

The eco-oriented subdivision on Highway 32 between Eighth Avenue and Lindo Avenue got “purchased by a San Francisco-based individual investor who already has other property interests here in Chico and loves Chico and sees its potential,” DiGiovanni said. “He’ll be developing it out as the market returns, in accordance with the existing [planning] approvals. There’s a potential, if not a likelihood, we’ll be playing a role in it.”

Vieg, expressing a City Hall perspective, said that “it’s too bad the homes that are there don’t have the community they hoped to buy into. We hope to get it realized.”

NUB continues to own the Doe Mill Neighborhood. DiGiovanni’s update: “We’re finalizing the sale of some of the row houses. There remain about 18 or so to be built to finish the entire project”—NUB’s first, off 20th Street east of Bruce, incorporating single- and multi-family housing with a signature style of architecture and planning.

“I have no less faith in new urbanism,” DiGiovanni said, “the principles of building with the neighborhood in mind and in the form of whole neighborhoods, with a mix of housing types for a range of prices. Those neighborhoods become the most durable over the long haul and have the most vitality over the long haul.

“The market shift that we have seen is only going to accelerate coming out of this recession, as families and households become ever more conscious of their household budgets, which tends to mean smaller homes—and when you have smaller homes and smaller lots, the neighborhood itself becomes important.”