Walnut Creek worth emulating
CONTRA COSTA TIMES
Like the belle of the ball, Walnut Creek is the envy of
others who want to emulate the city's urban core to make
their own downtowns more attractive.
"It's the gold standard for the East Bay," said Hercules
Community Development Director Steve Lawton. "It's the
reference mode. When residents in Hercules describe what
they want, they say 'Walnut Creek.'"
Officials from cities as small as Hercules, with a
population of about 23,000, up to 112,000 in the town of
Cary, N.C., and 2.6 million in Huzhou, China, are eyeing
Walnut Creek as a model they can learn from.
The city's retail prowess was such a draw for
participants at the annual American Planning Association
conference in San Francisco last March that city
officials had to turn 40 people away from a tour of
"It's beautiful out there," said Brian Reid, chairman of
the board of directors for the Chamber of Commerce in
Cary, N.C. "Our downtown has kind of languished over the
past couple decades and our community has grown
significantly, very affluently, kind of like Walnut
"We would love to see redevelopment such as you guys
Reid and town planner Jeffery Ulma will bring a
delegation from Cary to Walnut Creek in April to get
ideas for revitalizing the Raleigh suburb. When Ulma and
Cary's Chamber of Commerce director visited Walnut Creek
last month, they were amazed by the amount of
mid-afternoon activity downtown.
"There was hustle and bustle, with people going up and
down the street," Ulma said. "We were scratching our
heads, thinking, 'What makes this place tick?'"
Visitors from throughout the Bay Area come to Walnut
Creek for its chic stores and restaurants surrounded by
a pleasant outdoor environment that includes brick
paving, trees adorned with glittering lights and parking
garages tucked behind appealing stores or restaurants.
Downtown development has transformed Walnut Creek into a
regional destination, which helped earn the city $17.5
million in sales tax revenues in 2004-05, contributing
37 percent of the city's total revenues. By comparison,
Hercules pulls in $1.2 million in sales tax revenues a
year, contributing about 9 percent of the city's $12.1
million in revenues, Lawton said.
With a population of 66,000, Walnut Creek was the
highest per capita sales tax generator in Contra Costa
County in 2005, with $263 per resident, compared to
But while Walnut Creek basks in its glory, some local
residents say the city is developing too much too fast
and is in danger of losing its charm.
"I think everybody's concern is the scope and the
quality of the development," said Andrea Morse, a
longtime resident who worries about increasing traffic
and fears the city will endorse more large projects such
as the recent Plaza Escuela and Olympia Place
"The style of those buildings matches every building all
the way up and down the state," she said.
The Corners project owned by Brian Hirahara, which
includes Tiffany & Co., is treasured by Morse and held
up as an example of first-class development by city
leaders because it combines varied architecture with an
interior courtyard that provides an oasis in the city.
Many planners consider Walnut Creek a "must-see" city
because it has made the most of a great location by
creating a vision for its future, then sticking to its
plans until they came to fruition. It is known for its
compact downtown with streets lined by high-end chain
stores, as well as smaller boutiques and restaurants.
Officials from China visited Walnut Creek last year to
see how an upper-middle class American city operates.
Accustomed to large cities with tall buildings, they
liked Walnut Creek's cleanliness, small shops, downtown
housing and natural beauty, said Jon Jun, a professor
emeritus at Cal State East Bay who brought the
delegation from Huzhou, which is near Shanghai.
"Also they were impressed by preserving open space on
the hillside and they really liked a lot of trees in the
town," he said.
Decades ago, Walnut Creek leaders decided to cluster
retail and offices downtown, preserve residential areas
outside the core and provide open space, parks and
"The decision was made not to sprawl out," said Bob
Schroder, who served on the council from 1962 to 1976.
Schroder's son, Martinez Mayor Rob Schroder, grew up in
Walnut Creek and has worked in the family-owned
insurance agency on North Main Street for 27 years.
"There was a time when Walnut Creek had what I would
call blight in the downtown core," he said. "There were
liquor stores with neon signs, trash was piling up in
doorways and it needed to be polished."
A downtown business association established around 1990
helped spruce up the area and is now striving to create
an identity for the older part of town, which competes
for business with Broadway Plaza and newer developments
south of Mt. Diablo Boulevard.
Walnut Creek resident Judith Dexter, 67, said she is
thrilled with the way the city has changed over the
"I would have to live in Boston to get what I've got in
Walnut Creek.," said Dexter, who moved to California
from Massachusetts 31 years ago. "It's paradise in a
Theresa Harrington covers the Walnut Creek area. Reach
her at 925-945-4764 or
Walnut Creek sales tax revenues, July 2004-June 2005:
Type Percent Amount
General retail 39 $6.8 million
New auto sales 25 $4.4 million
Restaurants 10 $1.7 million
Other sales 26 $4.6 million
Total: 100 $17.5 million
Source: City of Walnut Creek
Here are some of the things that city leaders say
they're proud of in Walnut Creek, followed by a list of
planned for future
major retail in downtown
a mix of boutiques and upscale chain stores for shoppers
a variety of restaurants, bars and night clubs
a large movie theater downtown
a performing arts center and gallery
ground floor retail around parking garages
with businesses to bring temporary ice rink downtown
office development around BART station
parks, trails, open space and neighborhood shopping
centers throughout city to serve residents
Information about Walnut Creek's draft general plan is
available at 925-943-5829 or
a new downtown library branch
a plaza in older downtown area
and possibly privatize some arts facilities
more office-based businesses that provide high-wage jobs
a boutique hotel downtown
a BART transit village
more housing for all income levels
out more space for auto dealers
public transit and bike options
recycling and energy conservation efforts
creekside trails and encourage projects facing water
Shadelands Business Park
reputation as a regional destination while meeting
Source: Draft general plan 2025