California's Best And Worst Mid-Sized City Downtowns

 

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.