The Lowdown on Downtowns

Market Street - looking north from Placer Street - in downtown Redding. Photo courtesy of the Shasta Historical Society

Reporter Paul Shigley is on vacation. Here’s a reprint of a column published March 19, 2009:

The best downtowns are 16/6 districts — they are lively places at least 16 hours a day, 6 days a week. The worst downtowns are those that stand largely abandoned, but nearly as depressing are those that operate almost exclusively from 8 to 5 on weekdays.

Redding has an 8-to-5 downtown for the most part. Sure, there are signs of life at other times, especially just south of the mall. In general, though, the sidewalks are largely deserted by 6 o’clock. In fact, the sidewalks are pretty empty most of the time.

I’ve been very hard on downtown Redding. In 2007, my publication ranked Redding as the second worst downtown in the state for mid-sized cities. That assessment might have been overly harsh, but I maintain that downtown Redding could be – no, should be – a much better place for residents, merchants, shoppers, artists, students and visitors.

I love cities. In my jobs as editor of California Planning & Development Report and frequent contributor to Planning magazine, I actually get paid to visit and learn about cities. I have spent sunny afternoons in San Diego’s Balboa Park, wandered ethnic neighborhoods of Los Angeles, eaten the best seafood in Monterey, whiled away a few days in Seattle’s Pike Place Market, visited Kansas City’s delightful Country Club Plaza, toured Fenway Park in Boston and stumbled around Las Vegas late at night – all on someone else’s dime.

But I also have gotten hopelessly lost in the spaghetti streets of Irvine, ducked a flying liquor bottle in Oakland, prayed my car wouldn’t get stolen in San Bernardino, searched in vain for signs of life in downtown El Centro, detoured around vagrants urinating on the sidewalk of San Francisco’s Market Street, dodged streetwalkers and drug dealers near Disneyland, and hoped that a restaurant besides Applebee’s would be open after 9 o’clock in the faceless suburbia of Chandler, Arizona.

In other words, I’ve experienced the good and the bad of urban places, the glorious and the mundane, the inspired and the insipid. I spend much of my time in downtowns, because they are the best reflection of a city. The quality of a downtown is directly related to the amount of civic pride a community has.

You might be surprised where you find a great downtown. Could be a small town in the middle of nowhere, a suburb in the midst of a giant metropolitan area or a poor farm town. Over the years, I’ve figured out the best ways to evaluate a downtown: Walk around at 10 or 11 a.m. – after the office workers are in place and before the lunchtime rush – and again at about 9 or 10 p.m. – after everyone has eaten dinner. Chat with a shopkeeper and a waiter while things are slow. Stand on a street corner for 15 minutes and simply watch the activity. If possible, get an old-timer to provide a tour. Hop on a bus or a light rail car and get off at a random stop to wander around. Most of all, walk, walk, walk.

Qualities of a Great Downtown

I’ve concluded that the best downtowns have these things in common:

• They are convenient for pedestrians, and inconvenient for motorists. High-speed traffic is literally deadly for a downtown. Nobody wants to walk, let alone dine alfresco, in the vicinity of cars speeding past at 45 mph. It’s unpleasant and unsafe. Besides, downtown should be the destination, not the thoroughfare. If you want the alleged convenience of driving, then head to the shopping mall or power center. Downtown Redding, unfortunately, is designed chiefly to get cars from one point to another, and the place has way too many drive-throughs. Fortunately, the newly reopened mall and the block of Market Street to the south, as well as several cross streets, have a ton of pedestrian potential.

• They have great public gathering spaces. These may be formal town squares and parks, or more informal, quasi-public nooks and crannies. These are places where office workers spend their lunch hour, teenagers flirt with each other, and visitors study their pamphlets while sipping a cup of coffee. At times, there are concerts, movies or a farmers market. Many of these places are quite small. Redding’s Library Park is a delightful spot for Marketfest, but it’s too isolated to serve as an informal gathering spot at other times. A couple locations in the newly re-opened mall have promise.

• They have lots of bread and circuses. Downtown should be the place for a night on the town. It should have a variety of restaurants, watering holes and coffee houses, cinema, galleries, bookstores, arcades and performing arts spaces.

• They have more than bread and circuses. There’s a tendency in the downtown renewal game to focus almost exclusively on “visitor-serving” uses. Yes, restaurants and nightclubs are vital, but only with employment centers, civic facilities and all of the businesses and services needed by residents do downtowns become 16/6 places. Which leads to …

• People live there. People will choose to live downtown only if they can take care of daily needs right there. Their immediate neighborhood should have a grocery, a drug store, dry cleaners, a small hardware store, a farmers market, car repair, a gym, professional services like medical care, a veterinarian and hair salons, educational opportunities, a library and easy access to transit. Redding stacks up fairly well here – except for the housing component. If I could wave a magic wand over downtown Redding, I would wipe out the flop house motels and convert the sites into genuine apartments and condos with big views of the mountains.

• The city, landowners, developers and merchants have invested real money. Everyone needs to do their share. For a very long time, the Redding Redevelopment Agency appeared to be the only entity willing to spend money downtown. In recent years, though, we’ve seen major investments such as Shasta College’s Health, Sciences and University Center, the Cascade Theatre restoration, and Craig Kraffert’s tasteful reuse project at California and Placer. We’ve also seen people willing to open new businesses and spruce up existing ones. Those are positive signs. An indoor kart racing facility may not be the ideal use of the old Dickers building, but give the operators credit for investing in a building that sat vacant for a decade.

• Everyone in town has a sense of ownership. People should feel protective of the spaces, businesses and traditions of downtown You want a district of which people are proud, not apologetic. In Redding, people tend to boast about the Cascade, the annual Pancake Breakfast, Jack’s, Marketfest, a Damburger with the works. But if you’ve ever shown around people from out of town, you’ve likely issued your share of apologies.

• They evolve. Times change, and so should urban districts. Uses come and go. More important is the urban fabric – the street grid, the public spaces, the architecture and the institutions – that remain in place for long periods. Good urban fabric accommodates many trends.

• They serve a diverse population. Young and old, male and female, black, brown and white, gay and straight, hipsters and geeks – the best downtowns are true melting pots.

• They are place-specific. By this, I mean that downtown should have unique aspects. Downtown Redding should feel like Redding – not like Chico, with its college town vibe, or Eureka, with its Victorians near the waterfront, or Ashland, where performing arts predominate. Nor should Redding go the “instant downtown” route, as have some Southern California cities. My suggestion: For most of the Daylight Saving Time period, Redding has great late afternoon and evening weather. Many people choose to live in Redding because they like being outdoors. So make downtown’s outdoor spaces the locations where people want to spend the hours between 4 and 10 p.m. – and make those spaces most convenient to people on foot and bicycle, especially people coming from the Sacramento River bike path and the Sundial Bridge. Once those outdoor spaces get popular enough, people will go even when the weather is awful.

The Pasadena Example

In land use planning circles, Pasadena provides the gold standard for downtown renewal in a mid-sized city. Thirty years ago, nobody went to Old Pasadena after dark unless they were looking for a prostitute or drugs. It was strictly an 8-to-5 downtown. The city had been doing 1960s- and 1970s-style “urban renewal,” a well-intentioned but failed approach in which you destroy the city in order to save the city. Pasadena was demolishing old office, commercial and residential buildings so that developers could erect new, very bland office and commercial buildings. The final insult was construction of an indoor shopping mall, which ruined a grand boulevard and cost the city numerous historic buildings. At that point, the locals said enough.

Pasadena is full of great Mediterranean, Craftsman and Art Deco architecture, and the city has a rich history. Rather than bulldozing the architecture and ignoring the history, the citizens asked, why don’t we capitalize on them?

The city changed courses. It halted its urban renewal strategy and made historic preservation a cornerstone. It invested in two large parking garages and then turned over the revenue to a downtown organization that used the money for streetscape and other public improvements, and marketing. Essentially, the city set the stage. It also had the guts to say “no” to developers who proposed insensitive projects.

Now Pasadena is among the finest downtowns of any size in the country. It has loads of restaurants, varied shopping opportunities, nightlife, a thriving theater scene, government offices and civic institutions, large employers, many restored historic buildings, two light rail stops, and thousands of new housing units. It’s not perfect – some of the new housing and mixed-use structures are not very friendly to the street, it’s not an easy place to ride a bicycle and there’s a need for more parks. But everyone wants to be in downtown Pasadena, which is the ultimate indicator of success.

The bottom line – and I have to remind myself of this – is patience. Downtown rebounds often take 20 to 30 years. Pasadena, for example, changed course in 1980 and didn’t show great success until nearly 2000. Downtown proponents must embrace incremental change, learn from setbacks, and forget about silver bullets.

On today’s A La Carte menu:

Know your history … A collection of public agencies and nonprofit organizations will mark the 50th anniversary of the Freedom Rides and the 48th anniversary of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech from 2 to 5 p.m. on Sunday, August 28, at the MLK Multicultural Center, 1815 Sheridan Street, in Redding. Dinner is scheduled for 2 p.m., followed by a showing of the documentary and musical tribute “A Soundtrack for a Revolution.” For more information, call the MLK Center at (530) 225-4375. By the way, writer Calvin Trillin, who covered the civil rights movement for Time magazine, had some poignant and painful observations of both that era and today in a recent edition of The New Yorker.

Two-fer Tuesdays … I have fond, although hazy, college memories of two-for-one drink specials on Tuesdays at Sacramento watering holes. I haven’t found similar boozy offers in Anderson, but the Chamber of Commerce and merchants are organizing a “Shop Tuesday” campaign. For example, you get free popcorn with your Prime Cinemas ticket on Tuesdays. Wear a Burrito Bandito T-shirt into the restaurant on Tuesday and they’ll hand you a free taco. Other businesses are paying the sales tax for purchases made on Tuesdays. Clever marketing during these lean times. Now, where are those two-for-one drink specials?

shigley-mugshotPaul Shigley is editor of California Planning & Development Report, a frequent contributor to Planning magazine and co-author of Guide to California Planning, a reference book and college text. He lives in Centerville.

A News Cafe, founded in Shasta County by Redding, CA journalist Doni Greenberg, is the place for people craving local Northern California news, commentary, food, arts and entertainment. Views and opinions expressed here are not necessarily those of anewscafe.com.

Paul Shigley

has been a professional journalist since 1987. For 12 years, he served as editor or senior editor of California Planning & Development Report, a statewide trade publication for land use planners, real estate development professionals and attorneys. Prior to that, he worked as a reporter or editor at newspapers in Redding, Grass Valley, Napa and Calistoga. Shigley's work also has appeared in the Washington Post, the Los Angeles Times, Planning magazine, Governing magazine, California Law Week, National Speed Sport News and elsewhere. In addition, he is co-author of Guide to California Planning, a college text and reference book, and is currently working on a book for the American Planning Association about the Bay Delta and California water resources. A graduate of California State University, Sacramento, Shigley has contributed to A News Cafe since 2009. He and his wife, Dana, live in western Shasta County.

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