There is a hole in downtown Livermore where a downtown should be. Knowing this and seeing a rare opportunity to create a new downtown out of whole cloth, the city opted for a pleasant, small-town downtown with nice old buildings intermixed with some new ones, residential neighborhoods within walking distance, some retail, new pocket parks, and professional offices, all under the shady canopy of newly planted street trees.
In other words, what Livermore wants is what nearly every California city has opted for in its downtown plan. And what’s the matter with that?
Nothing, of course. And yet something troubles me. Maybe I have become bored with the seemingly endless iterations of pleasant, Midwestern-style streets and nostalgic buildings — a downtown, in short, that is really little more than a shopping district. These downtowns are not places of politics or business or industry or transportation — all those things that downtowns used to be, and apparently are no longer, at least in this retail-driven version of small-town America. Am I simply jaded, or is something amiss, not simply in Livermore, but in this entire soft-focus vision of urbanism?
Change is certainly desirable for Livermore’s static, unsuccessful downtown that lies just south of the old Union Pacific tracks. This city, which has its roots in the Gold Rush period as a cattle ranch and later as a cluster of hay farms, has a rich and textured history, even if many of its historic structures have vanished. To the city’s credit, it retains a strong sense of itself as a Western town and even hosts an annual rodeo.
Despite its Western heritage and a scattering of interesting buildings, downtown Livermore is more notable for what it lacks, rather than for what exists. One problem with downtown Livermore, is that it has little that is inherently compelling: No great architectural masterpiece, magnificent public square, cathedral, riverbank or dramatic land form set off the downtown.
Neither City Hall nor Lawrence Livermore Laboratories, the town’s best-known employer, is located downtown. Redesigning downtown Livermore, then, is not merely a case of replacing a few “missing teeth.” The project here is to rebuild the jaw, the gums, make dental plates and cap the teeth. Given the once-in-a-century opportunity to make a center city, what kind of downtown has Livermore opted for?
The master plan laid out by the firm of Freedman Tung & Bottomley shows how skillful present-day designers have become in deploying the tools of urban retrofit. The new downtown will be the “gateway” to the city, with plenty of retail along tree-lined streets, supplemented with new office and retail space. The densest area of downtown is a multi-block area with high-traffic retail space. There will be several “catalytic” mixed-use projects, including an arts-oriented center with a 1,500-seat auditorium. There will also be an arts district, including an alley that opens onto artists’ live-work housing. The city is contemplating an artist-in-residence program. New residential neighborhoods, with several different types of housing, surround the new commercial space in all directions.
This is a pleasant vision, but it is so typical as to border on the banal. Perhaps this easy-going, “sweetness and light” notion of urbanism is just what is needed by an affluent community of educated, moneyed professionals, who may be looking more for a restful walk than bone-tingling nightlife.
And how could any reasonable person object to walkable streets and tree-shaded sidewalks lined with old-fashioned store windows? Is this not the vision of public life, or something close to it, for which we have been fighting? Is this not preferable to the bottom-dollar schlock development, the chain stores, the fast-food franchises, the Wal-Marts and the Home Depots? Of course it is. Still, in the search for an “authentic” urbanism, why are so many cities willing to accept uncritically the importation of foreign ideas? In Livermore’s plan, we find the same formula, more or less, that has that has guided the redevelopment of cities throughout the state and perhaps the nation. Where is the vaunted “sense of place” if every other city in the East Bay has an arts district and live-work housing?
In this way, the Freedman Tung & Bottomley scheme for downtown Livermore is a snapshot of our current idea about urbanism, at least the kind of urbanism that city officials and developers can agreed on. This downtown is a low-stress, generically pleasant area. And my cavils aside, maybe there is nothing wrong with that. The vision here is not of the downtown of commerce or government or multi-cultural stew pot, but rather of a relaxed, tasteful place to walk, to window shop and cool one’s jets.
But if pedestrian movement and refreshment from work is the purpose of this downtown area, then maybe the plan should emphasize the delight of pedestrians above creating opportunities for retailers. While skillful to a high degree, the plan is disappointing for not making better use of the abundant open space that is available. (A graphic in the city’s presentation booklet, not shown here, shows an abundance of downtown parcels that are either vacant or “vulnerable” to new development.)
With an almost empty canvas, I think that more open space is called for, especially a formal linear park, similar to Commonwealth Avenue in Boston or the Ramblas in Barcelona — a broad greenbelt with shops and housing on either side. If you are going to make a downtown from scratch, why not give it a bit more oomph and formality and civic feeling? The plan, as it stands, could be mistaken for one of the better outdoor shopping malls, such as Santana Row in San Jose. Even the low-key, everyday urbanism of Livermore needs a bit more drama and a lot less cliché.