Few other land uses inspire ambivalence like the highway, and rightly so. Like the twin Hindu deities, Brahman and Vishnu, the highway is both creator and destroyer, giving life to cities and then making them uninhabitable. Serving the role played by the railroad and the river in earlier times, the highway is the city's lifeline to the larger world. And just as the river and the railroad each gave the city a new kind of settlement, the highway has given rise to its own type of urbanism: the strip. No wonder, then, that the strip is the dominant pattern of development of the American West: It is the landscape defined by the highway.
If the life of the city depends on the highway, however, the city is also poisoned by it. The ugly black scar on the landscape cuts the city in half and serves as unofficial line of demarcation that separates people by income or class or race. It is a difficult fissure to mend, either in social equity or urban design.
That's why the Downtown Revitalization Program in Cathedral City, a small Coachella Valley town between Palm Springs and Rancho Mirage, should be of great interest to planners in small cities throughout the state. Cathedral City has found a way of taming the highway by changing the high-speed arterial into a signalized boulevard with plentiful landscaping, sidewalks and frontage roads for local traffic. The highway strategy has allowed Cathedral City to incorporate the arterial into the city's new downtown, rather than forcing the city to work around it. While other cities have found ways of slowing down the thoroughfare in the center of town, the multi-layered strategy in Cathedral City should become a reference point for other cities with similar problems.
With a population of 37,000 residents, Cathedral City is a lower-middle-class bedroom community in a region where the differences between affluent and not-so-affluent are very apparent. The city was long considered a patch of bad scenery between Palm Springs and Rancho Mirage on Highway 111, the royal road of the Coachella Valley's golf resorts. Both sides of the highway were "disinvestment" zones, to borrow a phrase from the city. On the south lay a series of boarded-up or tacky buildings that have corroded the edge of a residential neighborhood. To the north are the vestiges of the old downtown, as well as strip retail. That streetscape was not good advertising for Cathedral City, which is traversed by 35,000 highway travelers daily. "It looked like a barrio," said Redevelopment Director Susan Moeller. "Buildings either were not maintained or painted bright orange. It was the worst stretch of the highway in the whole valley."
Ironically, the new downtown got its start, in part, as a planning exercise about highway widening. In 1992, the city set out to solve two problems: the city needed a new city hall, which was then located in rented facilities just south of the highway. And the city needed to widen the highway to ease a downtown traffic bottleneck. Urban designer Michael Freedman of Freedman, Tung & Bottomley told a task force that the easy solution would be to build a new city hall outside downtown on land already owned by the city. But the best choice, he added, would be to build a new city hall as the centerpiece of a new downtown master plan. The task force chose the latter, and Freedman provided several alternatives for a new downtown in Cathedral City.
The grandest of the alternatives is Master Plan A, which locates a large new city hall building and town square a few blocks north of Highway 111. Surrounding city hall on the east, west, and south will be "revitalized neighborhoods," while mixed-use development will be concentrated along the northern highway frontage. The design also calls for a new bridge to span the flood-control channel immediately north of downtown, connecting the new civic center with the Perez Road shopping area to the north. The city is not shy about eminent domain, and may end up condemning and clearing about 65 acres of the 100-acre downtown plan area to create the space for the city hall, town square and retail buildings.
The most significant part of the downtown plan, at least in my view, is the design guidelines to turn the highway into a boulevard. After identifying certain intersections as the cause of traffic bottlenecks, the city decided to widen the four-lane road into six lanes along those intersections. Elsewhere, the highway remains four lanes throughout the downtown core, and is bordered by frontage streets both north and south.
Resembling the side streets used in the street-car era, the new frontage streets allow cars to turn off the highway and park behind planted medians; angled parking is provided for commercial space north of the highway, while parallel parking is provided on the south, in front of new residential development. Sidewalks are available for pedestrians of the highway, and a bicycle path is integrated into one of the medians. In short, the highway has become a street — now known as East Palm Canyon Drive — that can support local merchants, provide access to local housing, and be used by pedestrians and bicyclists. (Caltrans allowed the new traffic signals and other changes to the highway only after surrounding cities gave their permission.)
The new downtown plan has already inspired a new spate of downtown development, including a luxurious Ritz-Carlton, while three retail developers are busy in the civic center area.
Surprisingly or not, Moeller reports that she "has taken a lot of hits," over the project. "A lot of people don't want anything that will slow down the 50-mile-an-hour traffic," she said. I predict (maybe I just hope) that the complaining will stop when the "greensward" landscaping is in place and Cathedral City becomes a highlight of a drive through the Coachella Valley, rather than a stretch of shabbiness in the desert. At any rate, anyone who complains about slower traffic is missing the point about Cathedral City, which represents one solution to the problem of how best to benefit from the highway, while minimizing its destructive aspects. That's worth slowing down a little bit, isn't it? Honk if you love the pedestrian-friendly highway.