Building communities in Tahoe

Getting a grip on growth while keeping townsfolk connected

Planners are trying to focus growth in small mountainous towns like Truckee.

Planners are trying to focus growth in small mountainous towns like Truckee.

Truckee Town Hall, which played host to a regional growth planning conference this month, isn’t in downtown Truckee—it’s a few miles down the highway in a small business/industrial area. It’s a little hard to find.

The location of Truckee’s town hall, in that out-of-the-way subdivision, provides a perfect example of inadequate growth planning in the Sierra—the very thing the conference members were there to discuss. Truckee’s town hall, said members of the conference’s Community Commercial Center planning group, is a civic building that folks expect to find downtown.

“It doesn’t represent an ideal town hall site,” said Tony Lashbrook, Truckee’s community development director, adding that Truckee adopted the site in a time of desperate need. “A lot of people think it’s in Placer County. But that would be illegal.”

The conference members came to some definite conclusions about how a town in the Sierra should look, function and feel. For instance, a sense of place is important, as is a sense of arrival into a town center. And the building of “human-size” structures, rather than daunting big-box retailers, drastically changes the feel of a town.

The maximization of space is particularly important—especially in the Sierra, where a heavy influx of wealthy Bay Area folks has caused towns near Lake Tahoe to experience rapid spurts of growth in the last few years.

“There needs to be a sense of place, but a lot of the growth here has happened so fast, it’s hard to keep a hold of it,” said Darin Dinsmore, Sierra Business Council director of town planning services.

Towns such as Incline Village, Truckee and Tahoe City don’t have a geography that permits drastic outward expansion. But these days, in an era when Wal-Marts are becoming the new town squares, growth usually means just that. Growing mountainous towns need a new model, planners say, one that grooms downtown areas into flourishing civic and retail centers—where the 19th-century town square meets the 21st-century civic and commercial mecca.

“The Sierra is kind of different than anywhere else because of our mountains, our topography,” Dinsmore said. “Many cities, instead of planning, are just responding [to rapid growth]. We have to preserve our downtowns and reinvest in them.”

The conference in early June, titled “Defining Our Economic Futures: Smart Growth for the Sierra,” was sponsored by the Sierra Business Council. In partnership with the National Trust for Historic Preservation, the SBC brought in planning consultants to help develop principles that would preserve historic downtown areas and incorporate new “mixed-use” areas into existing communities. These principles would be integrated into the Sierra’s regional planning bible, the Sierra Town Patterns Guidebook.

“The idea of this conference was to go to the next level of detail [in planning], to create model codes to facilitate mixed-use principles,” Lashbrook said. “Look at [Truckee]. We have a downtown core, but the rest has spread to the corners. … We have 140 miles of street serving 14,000 residents. It’s not very efficient.”

The conference was divided into four “working groups” that each discussed an area of critical concern: Downtown and Main Street, Neighborhood Center, Community Commercial Center and Corridors. The groups discussing growth models for downtown areas and neighborhood centers used Truckee as a case study; groups discussing commercial centers and corridors used North Douglas County and Mammoth Lakes as case studies.

“We’re trying to take a step back and say, ‘How can we learn from these [models]?’ “ Dinsmore said. “We’re trying to give communities something that will help them, [but] it’s a voluntary thing. It’s a model tool.”

Sitting around a table in a sunlit conference room on a Saturday afternoon, community members discussed ways to beautify commercial centers and foster a sense of connectedness among townsfolk. They talked of building areas that are both thriving commercial centers and civic use spaces. They envisioned creating areas with health care facilities, churches, community meeting halls, playgrounds, farmers’ markets, satellite government offices, senior centers and recycling centers. They envisioned town centers that would serve a collection of neighborhoods, not simply cater to long-established neighborhoods, high-end communities or low-income housing areas.

“This ought to be a place where you come to do more than just buy things,” one group member commented.

Such a commercial center ought to be bicycle- and pedestrian-friendly, workshop members agreed. If it’s a regional center, it should be connected to a regional trail system.

The group’s discussions often centered around the concept of “human-scale” buildings, buildings with exteriors that are non-threatening, that can be “comprehended” and enjoyed by passersby—not the massive, overwhelming vertical sea of concrete one gets with a big-box retailer.

And one concept that came up again and again was the maximization of space.

“You’ve got to be double-fronted,” one member of the group said, noting the wastefulness of grocery and department stores that have only one entrance. “All sides [of a building] should be neighborhood- and pedestrian-friendly. … All four sides should be visually interesting.”

The importance of building up more than building out seems critical. Single-story buildings are totally inefficient in a mountainous environment, planners concurred. And while housing units are typically layered above mom-and-pop shops, this needn’t always be the case.

If there have to be big-box retailers, asked Sierra Business Council intern Brandy Fox, why not build on top of them?

“I would love to say I live above Wal-Mart,” she joked.

Another concern raised at the conference was automobile-dominated strip corridors. Dinsmore said that there are 37 strip corridors in the Sierra.

"[The question is] how to retrofit them,” Dinsmore said. “We still have to design them for cars, but we can make them more [pedestrian-friendly].”

Effective ways to retrofit the Mammoth Lakes strip corridor might include slowing traffic down by putting in roundabouts and center islands and by creating eye candy—"focal activity nodes” that catch a driver’s eye. Mammoth Lakes’ terrain is steep, but that’s a good thing. It helps slow cars down and encourages foot traffic. Delaying traffic can turn into a boon for local businesses if people stop and say, “What’s going on?”

Excessive traffic is certainly not a new problem, Dinsmore said. But in a region so mountainous that few more roads can or should be built, the situation becomes dire. It will take a combination of planning efforts—efforts that focus on downtown redevelopment, strip corridors, commercial and neighborhood centers—to maintain cohesive, attractive communities with clean air and unstressed dwellers.

“The average number of vehicle trips [nationally] has gone up to 9.5 trips per day for one household,” Dinsmore noted. “We’d like to reduce that to three trips per day [in the Sierra].”

He added that there is more at stake than just air and noise pollution.

"[Reducing the number of trips] will create a sense of place and a sense of pride—a better social atmosphere."