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Old September 17th, 2007, 09:09 PM   #1
jchernin
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California's Best And Worst Mid-Sized City Downtowns

my hometown made the list!!



originally posted on ssp by soleri
California's Best And Worst Mid-Sized City Downtowns
by Paul Shigley
California Planning & Development Report
10 September 2007 - 4:48pm

When people think of downtowns, they often think of huge cities like San Francisco and Los Angeles. But anybody familiar with California knows that the big city downtowns are the exceptions. By and large, California is a state of mid-sized cities, and some of the most delightful urban places are the smaller downtowns. Often in older cities, these districts are manageable, pleasant and, very often these days, in the midst of a strong renaissance.

That’s why we at California Planning & Development Report are expanding our “best and worst downtowns” compilation beyond only the largest cities. Back in July, CP&DR selected San Francisco and San Diego as the top big-city downtowns in California, and we placed Fresno at the bottom. Now, it’s time to look at the state’s 94 cities with populations of 75,000 to 290,000 people — what we at CP&DR consider “mid-sized” cities.

These cities couldn’t be much more diverse. They range from old regional centers (Riverside, Modesto) to inner-ring suburbs (Lakewood, Daly City) to fast-growing bedroom communities (Temecula, Elk Grove). Some of these cities have visions of grandeur (Irvine, Roseville), and some are blue-collar factory towns struggling to regain their footing (Fontana, Richmond). Some are California icons (Santa Barbara), while others are icons of post-war planning practices (Thousand Oaks, Sunnyvale).

The downtowns of many of these cities are great — the sorts of places that locals and visitors enjoy whether or not they care anything about planning, architecture, social systems or transit boarding statistics.

Other downtowns, unfortunately, are grim places where nobody is enjoying much of anything. Some of these districts have been distressed for decades. Some have been the scene of failed revitalization plans, while others have simply been ignored. We name some names here, but with a caveat: We’re pulling for every one the cities on our “most disappointing” list. We’d be very pleased to return in a few years to write about a downtown transformation.

Such transformations are entirely possible. Some of the downtowns we rave about today were districts that excited no one outside of the vice squad during the 1970s and 1980s.

Of course, a number of the 94 mid-sized cities have no identifiable downtown. By and large, these are cities that have grown rapidly since the 1960s, a period when creating a downtown with a messy mix of uses and extended hours was legally prohibited. You can find a number of these cities in Orange County and the Inland Empire. It’s a shame because any city of 75,000 people should have a core area that provides a sense of place.

Indeed, a sense of place and a feeling of vibrancy were critical in our rankings. We also considered land use mixes, public spaces, architecture, pedestrian friendliness, cultural facilities and activities, and other amenities. But we always get back to how a place feels — and how it makes you feel.

If you were to visit any of the downtowns in our top 5, you would find a very strong sense of place. What all five cities have in common is that they are grounded in a history in which their downtowns served as significant regional commercial centers for a broad area. This factor helps account for their magnificent public realm and architecture, which almost all of them have. Three of the five are college towns, which tend to have good downtowns, and a fourth (Pasadena) has strong educational institutions. All five work well for residents, business people and tourists.

Enough of the introduction. Here is our list of the best and worst mid-sized city downtowns, along with a few special awards.


Best Mid-Sized City (population 75,000 to 300,000) Downtowns in California:

1. Pasadena. One of the country’s biggest planning success stories of the last 30 years, downtown Pasadena was not always a happy place. In the 1970s, the only people who went to Old Pasadena after dark were probably up to no good. The city began an urban renewal program that, thankfully, the local citizenry halted. They wanted a real place with a real sense of history.

What has made Pasadena the most magnificent example for other cities is the way it is being transformed during what is now the second generation of downtown revitalization. What began during the 1980s as an attempt to leverage retail revitalization on Colorado Boulevard off of strategically located parking garages has evolved, believe it not, into a transit-oriented housing strategy thanks to the Gold Line. Who would have believed you could blow out the middle of a shopping mall and put housing on top — and make it one of the hottest residential properties in L.A. Who would have believed you could build housing on top of not one but two light-rail stations within walking distance of each other? Believe it. It’s a cliché to say Pasadena is the best, but nothing else is even close. It’s the gold standard.

2. Santa Barbara. If you can afford it, this historic coastal city is about as close to paradise as you can get. Downtown, however, is not for only the wealthy. There is famously hip nightlife that caters both to UC college students and tourists. Shopping consists of everything from high-brow boutiques and department stores to thrift shops. Restaurants range from steakhouses to organic vegan take-out. Mixed in are professional offices of all stripes.

State Street provides the heart, but the downtown vibe extends well beyond to take in some historic neighborhoods, grand civic structures, lush gardens and the well-maintained Alameda and Chase Palm parks. And it’s all reachable without a car, thanks to a pedestrian- and bicycle-friendly atmosphere and electric trolley rides that cost only two bits.

3. Chico. This Sacramento Valley city may be California’s ultimate college town, and that is reflected in the downtown, which lies just across Second Street from the third-oldest campus in the CSU system. Like any good college town, Chico is replete with nightclubs, sports bars, coffee houses, eateries, bookstores and even shops that sell vinyl records. The place literally pulses with energy well into the night. But you’ll also find stores and services that clearly appeal to the college kids’ parents, upper-floor professional offices, artist studios and civic institutions. A carefully revamped downtown plaza is only going to get better as it matures, and new housing is on the way. The edge of Bidwell Park — a 4,000-acre jewel that extends for miles from the valley floor into the foothills — is only a couple blocks away.

4. Berkeley. Not a whole lot of new development has happened in downtown Berkeley recently, but the place is a dense, rich, diverse district with fabulous transit, including a BART station in just the right place, thus providing immediate access to most of the Bay Area. Believe it or not, many chain stores are doing quite well (although, in Berkeley fashion, the run-down, no-public-bathroom Starbucks feels more like an urban McDonalds catering to the near-homeless). Despite the chains, local businesses thrive, including nationally renowned restaurants. There is a great deal of housing on upper floors and in the immediate vicinity, the UC campus is close by, and everything is walkable, if a bit spread out. Patrick Kennedy’s Gaia Building, the first new high-rise in 30 years, and Shattuck Lofts are excellent urban projects, even if the locals hate them.

5. Santa Rosa. Maybe the biggest surprise on our list, downtown Santa Rosa is big and strong with many different features: shopping, offices, some fabulous public spaces, a smattering of housing, a touch of the arts, and an overall flavor that says “Sonoma County.” The enclosed shopping mall could be problematic, but it relates pretty well to downtown. The 101 freeway is something of a dividing line; however, as Railroad Square continues to develop, the freeway will likely become little more than a minor annoyance. This is a downtown that’s only going to get better.


Honorable Mentions:

Visalia
San Mateo
Ventura
Riverside
Santa Monica


Best Manufactured New Downtown:

Valencia Town Center in Santa Clarita. Forty years ago, Valencia was first developed as a planned suburb – pleasant and walkable, though it did not exactly have a downtown. In the late ’90s, however, developer Newhall Land and the city of Santa Clarita began a serious effort to manufacture a downtown – and so far it’s the best of all of the new downtowns created from scratch. A retail Main Street was constructed at one end of the Valencia Town Center mall, complete with multiplex theater. If it seems a little mall-esque, that’s OK; the scale is great and there is some diversity in the form of office buildings housing the headquarters of (believe it or not) Princess Cruise Lines. Across McBean Parkway, the Main Street continues toward a hotel, some nice mixed-use projects, and pretty high-density housing. Narrow the eight-lane McBean and throw in some kind of arts or college component, and you’ve got a real downtown.


The Next Big Thing:

Redwood City. This Peninsula city is in its third round of redevelopment after two earlier efforts failed to produce much. But this time, it’s taking. Want evidence? You now have to pay to park downtown on weekends — unthinkable only a few years ago. Downtown has a new multi-plex and the restored Fox Theatre, alfresco dining aplenty, watering holes, an invigorating blend of old and new architecture, and hundreds of new housing units. Anchoring downtown is the refurbished San Mateo County courthouse (now a museum), which is one of the state’s most handsome public buildings. A public square in front of the courthouse provides a great view. And all of this is within walking distance of a Caltrain station. As it matures, downtown Redwood City could well become one of the Bay Area’s most interesting urban places.


Most Underrated (even by us):

Fullerton. While much of Fullerton offers up Orange County’s suburban blandness, the small downtown almost makes you wonder if you’re still south of the Orange Curtain. Harbor Boulevard is lined with a nice mix of services, retail, restaurants and comfortable bars. New multi-story housing has brought people to the neighborhood ’round the clock. Plus, only one block off Harbor is Fullerton High School (an inviting Mission-style campus with no obnoxious fence on the perimeter). Just beyond the high school is Fullerton College. Thus, downtown is full of young people on foot. Yes, the place could be better. There’s too much through traffic, for one thing. But restoration of the Fox Fullerton Theatre appears to be gaining traction finally, and there is civic and developer interest in making more things happen.


Most Overrated:

Santa Monica. We concede that many people like downtown Santa Monica. Heck, we even gave it an honorable mention above. The Third Street Promenade is magnificent urbanism in just the right place. But take away Third Street, and what do you have? Not much besides a mix of uses and pretty good bus transit. Big chunks of land are poorly utilized, a freeway divides things up and there is little architecture of note. Part of the reason there’s something missing here is due to Santa Monica’s historic lack of regional significance as a commercial center, something that the best downtowns all have; hence, the lack of magnificent architecture. Yes, some of the coolest, modernist-style mixed-use and residential buildings anywhere in Southern California are in close proximity to downtown. But it doesn’t hang together as an urban district. There are too many things pulling people away from the downtown, including the beach, the funkiness of the Ocean Park neighborhood, and the civic center, which is on the other side of the freeway. Underneath, this is only a small-city, pre-war downtown. Santa Monica, you’re not Pasadena. You’re not even Chico.


Most Disappointing Mid-Sized City Downtowns in California:

1. San Bernardino. Where to begin? Downtown San Berdoo has been a depressing and dangerous place for a long time. The Carousel Mall (originally called the Central City Mall) opened during the early 1970s, helping kill off mom-and-pop businesses. Before long, the mall itself started to decline and for two decades it has been a white elephant surrounded by empty parking lots in the midst of downtown. For years, developers have been interested mostly in freeway frontage elsewhere in town. During the last 10 years, the city and developers have cooked up numerous schemes to revive downtown, ranging from wiping out part of downtown with a series of lakes and canals, to re-using the mall for housing. But it has been little more than talk.

2. Redding. Downtown Redding started to die in the early 1970s, when the city transformed four blocks on either side of Market Street — the heart of downtown — into an enclosed mall. In a city with 110-degree summers, air-conditioned retail comfort seemed like the right thing. It wasn’t. The mall began to fail almost immediately (a “real” mall opened across town a year later) and most of the forlorn downtown mall still stands, a glum collection of offices, struggling shops and vacant space. There are signs of life downtown today. A new Shasta College health sciences center is replacing part of the old mall, the art deco Cascade Theatre has been refurbished into a performing arts center (full disclosure: CP&DR Editor Paul Shigley served on the Cascade Theatre restoration committee) and there is a bit of genuine investment by the private market. Reasons for optimism? Maybe. Check back in 10 years.

3. Antioch. A forgotten district in a city of commuter housing tracts and big-box centers. Even under the tightest definition of redevelopment, this qualifies as urban blight.

4. Costa Mesa. Massive Harbor Boulevard and its glut of traffic chops things in half. The poorly situated Triangle Plaza has never worked right. A bunch of run-down stores matches the run-down neighborhoods nearby. This should all be so much better.

5. Richmond. It’s probably unfair to call this San Bernardino North, but downtown Richmond may be equally unsafe. Even during the recent real estate boom that juiced most of the region, downtown Richmond continued to stagnate
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Old September 17th, 2007, 10:39 PM   #2
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Here is the big city article:

Quote:
California's Best And Worst Big City Downtowns
18 July 2007 - 10:24pm

There are few places more exciting than the pulsing downtown of a big city. There is a vitality and diversity that is palpable. Sure, it might be kind of noisy and dirty and crowded. But there is so much going on — commerce, entertainment, education, travel, socializing — that it’s easy to overlook the grime and congestion.

At the same time, there are few places more depressing than the forgotten downtown of a struggling big city. Those downtowns have the dirt, but the noise and crowds are gone. In their wake is crime, poverty, and the only thing that’s palpable is a sense of hopelessness.

Of course, things are not black and white. Downtown in City A is not ideal in every way and without problems, while City B’s downtown is totally pathetic and beyond salvage. Manhattan may be the center of the world, but it has problems, starting with a lack of decent housing that’s affordable on working class wages. Downtown Cleveland may be literally the poster child for a burned-out, abandoned central city. Yet there is new investment, including sparkling sports venues and a smattering of new housing.

Determining the “best” downtowns is, of course, entirely subjective. Sure, you could count the number of jobs or museums or nightclubs with live music. But simply selecting the quantifier is a subjective exercise. Determining the “best” downtown is more of a seat-of-the-pants exercise. What does it feel like to be there?

Within most states, there is little competition among big city downtowns because most states have only one or two big cities. California has no fewer than 11 cities of at least 300,000 people. (From north to south: Sacramento, Oakland, San Francisco, San Jose, Fresno, Bakersfield, Los Angeles, Long Beach, Anaheim, Santa Ana and San Diego.) Some of these are world-class cities with dynamic downtowns. Some of these are the butts of many jokes. Some are both.

Here then is the California Planning & Development Report ranking of the best and worst.


Best Big-City (300,000-plus) Downtown in California:

1. San Francisco. A recent story in the Economist magazine, which was not altogether flattering of The City By The Bay, said, “San Francisco is, indeed, one of America’s most alluring and urbane spots. Next to it, every other big city in California resembles a glorified suburb.”

One of the issues, however, is identifying San Francisco’s “downtown.” The Financial District is the core of downtown, but that’s mostly a gigantic employment center. We also view Chinatown, SoMa, Nob Hill, the Tenderloin and the Civic Center as part of downtown. When you consider this larger area, it’s hard to identify what could possibly be lacking – except maybe the aforementioned decent affordable housing. There are a wide variety of jobs, first-rate museums, maybe the best live theater west of New York City, world-class restaurants, popular public gather spaces, varied architecture, shopping, a scenic waterfront, public institutions and great transit. There is even a baseball stadium and growing UC campus nearby.

1. (TIE) San Diego. It probably looks like we chickened out, but we really can’t decide which is better. Twenty years ago, San Diego wouldn’t have been a contender. But since then it has become a downtown of unusual grace and sophistication. Beginning in the 1980s with the Horton Plaza shopping mall – admittedly a bit garish – downtown San Diego has turned into exactly the kind of lively 24/7 location planners always dream of. Horton Plaza kick-started the revitalization of the adjacent Gaslamp district, an historic area that is now home to the city’s nightlife. The Gaslamp, in turn, spawned a huge construction boom in high-rise condos. There’s the requisite baseball park, of course, but best of all San Diego had the first – and still the best – urban Ralphs’ market anywhere.

3. Long Beach. For decades, downtown Long Beach was simply a place with potential. Many of the city’s aggressive redevelopment efforts either backfired or didn’t fire at all. A long-struggling, enclosed shopping mall was a cancer. A no-man’s-land of vacant lots cut off downtown from the waterfront. But much of this has started to change in recent years. The mall is gone. Ethnic restaurants and shops are everywhere, often underneath new loft residences. Entertainment venues have filled in the no-man’s-land and now connect downtown hotels, shops, offices and eateries with a great waterfront. There may be no West Coast downtown that is a more enjoyable place to be a pedestrian.

4. Los Angeles. Yes, downtown L.A. has been on the comeback for, oh, 50 years. It’s still very much a work in progress and it’s not necessarily an inviting place after hours. But while the redevelopment work continues, a lively, incredibly international community has taken over much of downtown. A walk down Broadway will have you in Korea one minute and El Salvador the next. Downtown L.A. has great restaurants and watering holes, the new Disney concert hall, the most remarkable cathedral built in America in many years, Staples Center, both classic and cutting edge architecture, and even new housing.

Worst Big-City Downtown in California:

Fresno. It’s really not even close. Bakersfield, Oakland and Anaheim all have less-than-ideal downtowns, but none of those districts is as desperate, depressing and even threatening as downtown Fresno. The hideous 1970s office buildings are the least of the problems in Fresno’s core. The place is one gigantic real estate “opportunity,” and it’s usually deserted after 6 o’clock. Yes, there is a nice new minor league baseball stadium, but that’s about the only reason locals willingly go downtown.

http://www.cp-dr.com/node/1732
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Old September 17th, 2007, 11:36 PM   #3
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any pics of Downtown Backersfield and Fresno?
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Old September 18th, 2007, 12:19 AM   #4
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Downtown Oakland isnt that bad at all.

It lacks shopping bigtime though.
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Old September 18th, 2007, 06:37 AM   #5
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Quote:
but best of all San Diego had the first – and still the best – urban Ralphs’ market anywhere.
We do have a sweet Ralphs'.
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Old September 18th, 2007, 07:54 AM   #6
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Downtown Sacramento should be included as one of the worse.
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Old September 18th, 2007, 08:00 AM   #7
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berkeley top 5 best small town? hurm......
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Old September 18th, 2007, 09:56 AM   #8
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Santa Rosa











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Old September 18th, 2007, 08:25 PM   #9
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Quote:
Originally Posted by Robert Stark View Post
any pics of Downtown Backersfield and Fresno?
Downtown Fresno






Downtown Bakersfield


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Old September 18th, 2007, 09:28 PM   #10
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thanks, they do have potential with more infil. in 20 years with the highspeed rail the good be decent cities, I just hope they lern from LA's mistakes.
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Old September 18th, 2007, 09:55 PM   #11
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Quote:
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thanks, they do have potential with more infil. in 20 years with the highspeed rail the good be decent cities, I just hope they lern from LA's mistakes.
i agree with you, both cities have the potential to create a better downtown. Ive heard that theres a proposed tallest for Fresno, and 3 proposed buildings taller than the current one in Bakersfield, which is like 13 floors. Slowly both cities are creating a better downtown.....
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Old September 19th, 2007, 02:51 AM   #12
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right now Fresno and Bakersfield are faily working class, but over tiem they will develop more middle and upper class suburbs.
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Old September 19th, 2007, 04:03 AM   #13
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Downtown Sacramento should be included as one of the worse.
No, because it's right next to Midtown which is obviously awesome.
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Old September 19th, 2007, 04:45 AM   #14
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Redding has a downtown?
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Old September 19th, 2007, 08:15 PM   #15
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No, because it's right next to Midtown which is obviously awesome.
Midtown is great. My favorite neighborhood in Sac, but I'm referring to downtown which is west of 16th street. Midtown is 16th to 30th.
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Old September 19th, 2007, 08:38 PM   #16
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Quote:
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Midtown is great. My favorite neighborhood in Sac, but I'm referring to downtown which is west of 16th street. Midtown is 16th to 30th.
I just meant that there's good flow between them (following the same grid), so it can't possibly suck that bad.
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Old September 19th, 2007, 08:56 PM   #17
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Best downtown: San Jose
Worst downtown: Fresno
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Old September 19th, 2007, 09:23 PM   #18
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Best downtown: San Jose
Worst downtown: Fresno
So...there are only two California cities above "mid-sized?"
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Old September 20th, 2007, 01:32 AM   #19
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^ san jose as the best is a bit of a stretch....no offense or anything
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Old September 22nd, 2007, 01:00 AM   #20
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Best Downtown San Diego
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