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Is Richmond Worth Emulating?
February 14, 2006
According to a recent Contra Costa Times article reproduced below, municipal planners are coming from around the world to study how Walnut Creek has created a downtown ambiance that makes it the highest generator of per capita sales taxes in Contra Costa County.

I wonder why they didn’t just stop off in Richmond on the way since it’s closer to San Francisco? Well, Richmond has a little bit different theory about planning its main street experience. While Walnut Creek aspires to “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,” Richmond aspires to automobile oriented strip retail and big boxes.

Richmond’s Community Redevelopment Agency has worked on no project harder than bringing a Target store to Macdonald Avenue at the site of the former Montgomery Wards. Instead of going for “a pleasant outdoor environment” and “parking garages tucked behind appealing stores or restaurants,” the entire Richmond bureaucracy and the Richmond City Council rolled over for a single big box with its main entry facing NOT Macdonald Avenue but instead acres of surface parking that also face the street. Why? It’s all in the pursuit of sales taxes, and this is Richmond’s effort to boost its $152 per capita sales taxes closer to Walnut Creek’s $263.

Will it work? For the sake of all of us who crave better public services, we hope so. But it just doesn’t seem like the right model. Big boxes surrounded by acres of parking are the past, not the future. Planners from around the country are not going to pilgrimage to Richmond to see its new Target, and it’s doubtful that many shoppers from even as far away as Hercules will make the trip either.

There are many good models we can learn from to make Richmond a better place – and a more profitable place. Even companies like Target and Walmart are now designing community friendly stores in locations where the communities insist on good urban design and don’t back down. See http://www.usatoday.com/news/nation/2005-11-14-walmart-designs_x.htm, http://www.newurbannews.com/WalMart.html and http://www.newurbannews.com/TargetInsideOct05.html. It’s a shame we in Richmond look to the 1950s and 60s for our urban planning models instead of what attracts people today.


Posted on Fri, Feb. 10, 2006

Walnut Creek worth emulating


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 downtown.

"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 Creek.

"We would love to see redevelopment such as you guys have."

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 Concord's $202.

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 developments.

"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 trails citywide.

"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 years.

"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 nutshell."

Theresa Harrington covers the Walnut Creek area. Reach her at 925-945-4764 or tharrington@cctimes.com.



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 city goals.

• Meticulously planned for future

• Concentrated major retail in downtown

• Provided a mix of boutiques and upscale chain stores for shoppers

• Offered a variety of restaurants, bars and night clubs

• Located a large movie theater downtown

• Built a performing arts center and gallery

• Wrapped ground floor retail around parking garages

• Partnered with businesses to bring temporary ice rink downtown

• Encouraged office development around BART station

• Preserved residential neighborhoods

• Spread 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 www.walnut-creek.org.

• Build a new downtown library branch

• Create a plaza in older downtown area

• Expand and possibly privatize some arts facilities

• Enhance walking environment

• Attract more office-based businesses that provide high-wage jobs

• Lure a boutique hotel downtown

• Approve a BART transit village

• Provide more housing for all income levels

• Carve out more space for auto dealers

• Improve public transit and bike options

• Boost recycling and energy conservation efforts

• Complete creekside trails and encourage projects facing water

• Highlight public art

• Revitalize Shadelands Business Park

• Upgrade aquatics facilities

• Strengthen reputation as a regional destination while meeting residents' needs

Source: Draft general plan 2025