Five steps to a complete community
Here are changes needed to make a small apartment complex in Chico truly walkable.
On Monday I posted a piece on a small multifamily development outside of Chico, California. I gave 10 reasons why this project is better than the typical suburban housing.
To recap, the project is nicely designed, completes a small residential neighborhood, hides the parking, helps to create a sense of place, and begins to change the character of the main road, among other attributes. I made clear that the site is isolated, with no mixed-use, on a thoroughfare designed to move traffic fairly fast. The question came up in the comments: "Are there new commercial areas within a reasonable walk?" To which somebody else added: "Or other social opportunities?"
The answer: Not much on either count. The Walk Score of the site is 15 — very low. The buildings are great, the public spaces in the little neighborhood are well done, but the site is — at best — a work in progress.
Yet the prospects are far from hopeless. Numerous green areas are nearby. Residents can walk to a very good park with playground, basketball court, and field large enough for pick-up or organized ball games. Within a half mile is an elementary school. Within a mile are a grocery store, Starbucks, big box stores, regional mall, and lots of restaurants. Two miles away are historic, walkable neighborhoods, and three miles west is downtown and Chico State University.
The area is extensively developed with conventional subdivisions connected to an arterial road.
Google maps view of the area, with the location of Doe Mill marked "A."
What would make this little project truly walkable? Here's a list of five key steps that would make this area a complete community over time.
1) The culture of development has to change. More projects are needed like the one highlighted, designed by Anderson|Kim Architecture + Urban Design and developed by Tovey Geizentanner of Green line Partners. I don't mean exactly the same — some should include mixed-use, commercial, institution, workplace, and civic buildings. I mean similar in the sense of contributing to place and the overall neighborhood. This is not as vague and far-fetched as it may sound. The development industry is shifting in this direction. But without that change in culture, this little part of the world will never add up to much.
2) Change is needed in thoroughfare design. East 20th Street, where this project is located, is a typical suburban arterial geared to cars and not pedestrians, bicyclists, and users of transit. This reform is also not far-fetched: California is changing its approach to streets. More specifically, East 20th Street has to become a "complete street," designed for all users. This could mean many things: Narrower lanes that slow traffic, more street trees, bike lanes, more sidewalks, on-street parking, and mixed-use buildings that front the street are some options.
East 20th Street existing view, above. The street could be reimagined in many ways, along the lines of the illustration below by Steve Price for a similar thoroughfare in Fayetteville, Arkansas.
3) The city should plan for a mixed-use center nearby. This has already been done. Within a quarter mile of the site, a very large walkable urban center, Meriam Park, is planned. Still on the books, this project ground to a halt due to lack of financing as a result of the 2008 housing crash. Perhaps a paired down, less expensive version of Meriam Park could be revived. Failing that, more mixed-use in general is needed nearby.
Meriam Park illustration and plan.
4) Form-based codes adopted all along the corridor would transform the shape of the built environment over the next decade or two in a way that would promote community.
5) A focus on infill, coupled with measures to preserve open space, would discourage leapfrog development. Not far beyond Doe Mill are pristine countryside and natural areas. These are assets and should be preserved as much as possible — even as walkable, mixed-use, infill development creates a stronger sense of place heading into town.
A smart growth purist might ask: Why build at all in this automobile-oriented location? Why not just build downtown where the area is already walkable? One answer is that development should take place in in-town neighborhoods that are already good. But the opportunities may be just as signficant to improve areas like East 20th Street, Chico, in the coming years.
Robert Steuteville is editor and executive director of Better Cities & Towns.