The Bay Area town of Hercules has adopted a new plan that city officials hope will allow the town to capitalize on a unique asset: 400 acres of mostly vacant land, some of it with sweeping bay views, situated in the middle of town.

Not long ago, city officials came close to simply zoning the property and letting development run its course. Instead, the city has adopted a New Urbanist "district plan" that is designed to turn the area into the town center that Hercules has never had.

The plan, which the City Council adopted in July, outlines four different districts — waterfront, central quarter, hill town, and civic center/hospitality corridor. The districts have differing emphases, and a variety of uses is permitted in all. The district plan relies heavily on a design code, which is nearing completion. The design code creates a network of streets that help determine parcel size. There are 12 different types of streets, each with corresponding massing guidelines, build-to lines and architectural requirements. Instead of dictating the permissible uses of each parcel, "what you are really doing is typologically coding the urban areas," Community Development Director Steve Lawton said.

Located about 15 miles north of Oakland in Contra Costa County, Hercules has a colorful past as a Gold Rush town. There was no gold in Hercules' hills. Rather, Hercules grew up as a company town for the California Powder Works, one of the world's largest manufacturers of dynamite. An extensive network of narrow gauge rail lines extended from a pier in San Pablo Bay to dispersed buildings where workers handled black powder, nitroglycerine and other volatile materials.

By the time the dynamite factory went out of business in the early 1970s, Hercules had become an oil town. Again, there were no resources in Hercules. Instead, a huge oil refinery had become the city's landmark. Because the refinery provided the city with a large amount of sales tax revenue, city officials were satisfied to let the town become a bedroom community and they did not pursue economic development.

"The city, as it grew up as a bedroom community, blew it," said Lawton, an 11-year resident and former planning commissioner. "There was no strong business community. It was just a bunch of homeowners. … The normal financial tools of a city, in retrospect, were not grasped."

The scene changed when homebuilding stalled and the oil refinery closed in 1992. Many city leaders wanted Hercules to remain a quiet residential community, and City Hall stayed alive thanks to a $30 million cushion of sales tax revenue built up over the years. But projections showed that the city eventually would deplete the sales tax reserve. The need for more revenue combined with proximity to Interstate 80, a lack of shopping, a large piece of vacant land and about 20,000 mostly middle-class residents meant that Hercules was ripe for retail development. The city even made a deal to attract The Home Depot.

But some civic leaders, including Lawton, a member of the Congress for the New Urbanism, wanted more than a faceless collection of sales-tax-generating boxes. In 1999, the Planning Commission decided to pursue a district plan for the 426 acres in the center of town. The city's Redevelopment Agency and two major developers, Bixby Land Company and Catellus Development, shared the cost of the $300,000 planning effort. The city hired Dover, Kohl & Partners, a New Urbanist design firm from Florida, to help craft the plan.

The city and its consultants examined not just at the land, but also the retail and housing market conditions. In June 2000, the city conducted a 10-day design charrette in which about 400 citizens participated. In December 2000, members of the Planning Commission and City Council toured New Urbanist developments in Florida. The end result was a district plan with tremendous political support. Both the Planning Commission and the City Council voted unanimously for the document.

Because the plan only roughly defines permissible uses, what exactly gets built is uncertain. There will be at least 1,500 housing units, a mixed-use town center, some civic facilities, light industry, and extensive retail and service-oriented development.

Bixby Land had proposed a "traditional neighborhood development" for the 125-acre Waterfront District before the city became serious about the district plan. Clearly, city officials are excited about Bixby's project, and Bixby is happy to see City Hall take the New Urbanist route.

Grading began this spring on the first phase of the Bixby project — a 200-unit single family home subdivision. Rough grading is scheduled to begin later this year on a mixed-use town center of three- to five-story buildings on a hill overlooking the bay. The town center will allow for — but will not mandate — commercial uses on the ground floor and residential uses above, said Bixby project planner David Sargent, of Sargent Town Planning in Ventura.

"The point is to make the building types flexible so as the market for different types of residential or office or retail or service uses evolves over time, the buildings can adapt," Sargent said.

Future phases of Bixby's waterfront project are a mixed-use village, a mostly residential development, and what has the potential to become the town's new signature — reuse of Hercules Point. The point juts into the bay, providing expansive views of the bayshore and Marin County. Design plans are preliminary, but development will probably involve civic and public uses, as well as some retail, Sargent said. The main street in the planned town center will run directly toward Hercules Point.

Also under consideration is reconstruction of the pier, which could provide a ferry station. That would make the Hercules project "multi-modal," as an Amtrak train station — for which the state has committed $3 million — is planned between the new town center and Hercules Point. The city intends to build a large parking lot near the train station, from which it will be a short walk to most of the Bixby project.

Lawton said the city avoided the normal planning route. The district plan's environmental document is tiered off the general plan EIR, which assumed a significantly higher buildout. The city's reliance on a design code, rather than a detailed zoning ordinance, means that many uses will be allowed by right and eligible for administrative approval, Lawton said.

"We are dramatically compressing the cycle time for entitlement. We are not touching the cycle for project-specific environmental review," Lawton said.

Sargent believes Hercules is in an enviable position. "How many cities are there that have an existing, solid population base, a location close to a thriving urban metropolis, and a 400-acre blank spot in the middle? It's just sort of an accident of topography and history — and of the economic pressure to do something with it," Sargent said.


Steve Lawton, Hercules Community Development Department, (510) 799-8233.

David Sargent, Sargent Town Planning, (805) 644-1892.

Dover, Kohl & Partners website: