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Article on downtown Walnut Creek

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  • Karen Babbitt
    Hi all, This is from the December 2005 issue of San Francisco magazine. I don t think it s stale yet but apologize for not sending it along sooner.
    Message 1 of 1 , May 4, 2006
      Hi all,

      This is from the December 2005 issue of San Francisco magazine.  I don't think it's stale yet but apologize for not sending it along sooner.


      Rorschach town
      What do you see when you look at Walnut Creek's big, booming, and much-envied shopping district? Whether your answer is heaven or hell, there's no better place to make you think about the future of downtown America.
      By Ethan Watters
      Should we worry for the future of America’s downtowns that the hot ticket at a recent American Planning Association conference in San Francisco was a guided tour of Walnut Creek? Eighty city planners from all over the country signed up for the tour, but there were only 40 slots. One planner on the waiting list was so determined to see the Contra Costa County town, he begged the organizers to let him tag along, promising he’d stay at the back of the group and just listen.

      Walnut Creek planning manager Sandra Meyer, assistant planning manager Victoria Walker, and city planners Jeremy Lochirco and Scott Harriman brought the group out on BART. After meeting Mayor Gary Skrel at city hall, the visitors were herded down the newly renovated part of Main Street, which connects the office buildings to the north of down­town with the rest of the business district. The installation of the widened sidewalks and ye-old-fashioned streetlamps was so recent that the trees still had tags attached identifying them as “Quercus agrifolia, Coast Live Oak.” The new pedestrian corridor got a lot of compliments, but it was the southern part of downtown that really got the planners’ attention.

      For the past 40 or 50 years, city planners have been struggling to maintain historic downtown districts while competing for business with the malls and box stores sprouting up in the cheaper, more car-accessible property along highways on the outskirts of town. The quest has been to create economically viable, car-tolerant but foot-friendly downtowns. Walnut Creek has done just this by re-creating its downtown with half a dozen huge retail developments—most containing several stores in their own two-story buildings—that have lured major retailers from Nordstrom and Restoration Hardware to Sur la Table. Much of the business district of Walnut Creek is, in fact, a jigsaw of outdoor malls that are cleverly disguised to look like a downtown.

      For those who insist on unique shopping experiences, with stores and merchandise you won’t find anywhere else, a trip to the south part of Walnut Creek’s downtown would be like a journey into the fourth ring of hell. The new urban spirit of DIY is nowhere to be found along streets populated by Tommy Bahama, Crate & Barrel, and Ann Taylor Loft. In the new developments, there are no dresses made by the woman sitting behind the cash register, no owner/artisans throwing pots in the back of their shop. With name brands everywhere you turn, the redeveloped areas of Walnut Creek have a pristine, well-scrubbed air that can batter the senses. On some blocks, most notably on Locust Street between the Container Store and Andronico’s, the place feels like a downtown as conjured by a Las Vegas theme hotel.

      There’s another type of shopper, of course, for whom Walnut Creek is paradise on Earth. The mother-daughter duos who can be found any weekend afternoon at the Macy’s makeup counters, or the families heading to their cars loaded down with bags, are such shoppers. They don’t care if what they’re buying is one of a kind. They just want a selection of the nice stuff they’ve seen in catalogues and magazines and on TV in a variety of styles, shapes, sizes, colors, textures, and flavors. The sheer number of brand-name stores makes Walnut Creek irresistible.

      More and more of these sorts of shoppers are traveling to Walnut Creek, where they can browse without distraction. They don’t have to pay much for parking or make their way through panhandlers and the mentally ill or worry about crime in any form. Everyone seems friendly, and if they want to rest their tired feet, there’s a Starbucks or a city bench within a few steps. For these reasons and more, serious shoppers from Oakland and San Francisco are making their way to Walnut Creek, too.

      And why not? The place has everything the nonhip shopper could desire. Cost Plus, Home Chef, Victoria’s Secret, Chico’s, Barnes & Noble. There’s a Gap and a Baby Gap, a Pottery Barn and a Pottery Barn Kids. With only 66,000 residents, Walnut Creek has issued 6,357 active business licenses within the city boundaries and generates 37 percent of its revenue from sales tax. As other California cities struggle with the lingering effects of Prop. 13’s property-tax limits, Walnut Creek has built an enormous regional arts center, preserved big chunks of parkland, and is looking to break ground on a new public library. Its schools and public services are some of the best in the state. With $100 million in its investment portfolio, the city is in the enviable position of having money to spare.

      Given all this success, it’s not surprising that planners from Oregon to North Carolina—not to mention a number of Bay Area towns—want to learn Walnut Creek’s secrets. While taking notes and pictures on their walking tour, some of the recent visiting planners suggested setting up professional exchanges between their departments. Others talked about bringing their families back to vacation in Walnut Creek. (That should give the San Francisco Convention and Visitors Bureau pause. These folks want to come back to the Bay Area and spend their vacations where?)

      “They seemed in awe of what we’ve done,” Lochirco says. “They also seemed to have a sense of respect and an understanding that what has happened here hasn’t happened overnight—that this took a lot of time and was planning at its best.”

      Harriman wasn’t above teasing the visitors about the success Walnut Creek has had in attracting A-list retailers. Halfway through the tour, he stopped in front of one store and said, “Here’s Walnut Creek’s gift shop in case you want to buy some souvenirs for your spouse back home.” This got a good laugh from the group. Harriman was standing in front of the brushed-steel doors of Tiffany & Co.

      Apparently unconcerned with how uncool they are in some circles, local officials and planners are giddy with the success of Walnut Creek’s downtown. Ask anyone in city hall, and he or she will tell you the story of how the town has attracted the most finicky retailers, enlivened the arts, and developed a pedestrian-friendly downtown, all while saving pieces of the town’s history such as the giant Valley Oak behind Tiffany.

      Indeed, they have reason to be proud, since there is considerable truth in all these statements. Long ago, Walnut Creek literally bet the farm on promoting shopping in its downtown, and it appears to have hit the jackpot. Not that there hasn’t been sacrifice on the altar of retail. I was walking through the new downtown with the city’s public relations man, a dapper fellow named Brad Rovanpera, when I asked him what I thought was a simple question: “Where’s the creek?” I already knew that the “Walnut” in the city’s name is anachronistic. The land had long ago become too valuable for harvesting nuts. But, I figured, you can’t cut down a creek.

      “Well,” he said, “the creek would be over there.” He pointed toward the intersection separating Nordstrom from Eddie Bauer and an Il Fornaio restaurant.

      “What do you mean ‘would be’?” I asked.

      “It would be if the creek hadn’t been put underground when Broadway Plaza was built in the late 1950s.”

      “Oh,” I said. “So Walnut Creek buried Walnut Creek when it built its first mall?”

      “Well, actually, the city buried three creeks,” he said. He walked me toward the fountain in Liberty Bell Plaza, on Broadway just south of Mount Diablo Boulevard. The fountain was built, he explained, to honor the convergence of the San Ramon and Las Trampas creeks, which together, two dozen feet underground, form the beginnings of Walnut Creek.

      “Note the curving paths that lead to the fountain,” he said. “Those symbolize the creeks coming together.” Rovanpera showed me the signs indicating the city’s postmodern “Creek Walk,” which follows the buried waterway north on Broadway in front of a Jamba Juice, a Smith & Hawken, and a Sprint store. The creek itself doesn’t see the light of day until it has left downtown.

      Rovanpera points out that the decision to pave over the creek was made before any of the current city leaders were on the job. Nevertheless, the more I learned about Walnut Creek, the more I came to see that the town’s decision to make way for retail by burying its namesake waterway was a telling illustration of the city’s long-standing commitment to encouraging commerce in its downtown. And when I say “the city,” I mean not just the developers, the pro-growth city leaders, and the planning department but what seems the majority of the residents themselves. With the exception of the rise and fall of an antigrowth movement about 20 years ago, the community has shown remarkable enthusiasm for the direction Walnut Creek has taken, at least in a survey of 423 demographically representative residents drawn from the 2000 census. When asked in that survey to name their favorite aspect of Walnut Creek, the local citizens’ number one answer was their bustling downtown.

      The attitude of most citizens seems upbeat—sometimes to an almost Stepfordian extreme. Here, for example, is one local “wilderness guide” on his web page praising the “spiritual experience” of sitting on top of the buried creeks: “I realized when I saw the new signs on the fountain with the creek names that the city had provided a way for its citizens to reconnect with the creeks that flow underneath the city.…What a wonderful experience it is to reconnect with our natural origins...”

      Walnut Creek has changed remarkably in the last 50 years, and given the gung-ho attitude of the locals, it’s likely to keep on changing. The city currently allows developers to build 75,000 square feet—the equivalent of about one and a half football fields—of new commercial space each year. That rather liberal restriction will expire this year, and the city council will vote on a new general plan in the spring. At a meeting this fall, the council did direct the city to keep the growth restrictions in place, but not all development will fall under the general plan. Though the developers for Broadway Plaza, for instance, have not formally made a request, it’s rumored they will ask to be allowed to develop an additional 400,000 square feet of retail space.

      The midcentury decision to bury the creeks and build an enormous outdoor mall directly adjacent to the old downtown was, Rovanpera believes, the single most important moment in the city’s evolution. And his opinion counts, since Rovanpera wrote a book on the town’s his­tory, 150 Years in Pictures: An Illustrated History of Walnut Creek. “Before Broadway Plaza opened in 1951 with JC Penney, Sears, and Joseph Magnin,” he says, “Walnut Creek was just a place you drove through to get to somewhere else.”

      As Rovanpera recounts in his book, the building of Broadway Plaza ushered in two decades that each saw the town quadruple in size. In the 1950s, Walnut Creek grew from 2,400 to 10,000 people; in the 1960s, after completion of the Highway 680–Highway 24 interchange, the population jumped to 40,000. Land became a scarce commodity, but the growth continued. When BART opened in 1973, developers and local planners began to eye the property around the station for office buildings. The first couple of ten-story glass-and-steel structures shot up with no meaningful resistance. It was only after 6.5 million square feet of office space had been built, and people saw how the structures dominated the skyline of their once-bucolic town, that all hell broke loose.

      Complaining of traffic and out-of-control development, a group called Citizens for a Better Walnut Creek got two initiatives passed in the mid-eighties, one limiting building height and one slowing the pace of new development. (The slow-growth initiative was later overturned on a technicality by the California Supreme Court. The height limits are still in place, but since they are as generous as 89 feet—approximately six stories—in some areas, they have been anything but restrictive.) During this time, two of the slow-growth activists got elected to the city council, beginning an era of bitter fighting within the town leadership.

      “Commercial growth had been the hue and cry of community leaders since incorporation in 1914…[but] it appeared many residents were beginning to question the wisdom of their leaders.…” Rovanpera wrote in his book. “Never before in its 71-year history had the city faced such a grueling and soul-searching test.”

      As the economy revived from the recession of the seventies, the slow-growth advocacy ran out of steam. Nordstrom—referred to around town as the goose that laid the golden egg—moved in in 1989, and downtown development hit a sort of critical mass. Retailers no longer had to be wooed to set up shop in Walnut Creek. What shaped the city from that point on was a series of “specific plans,” essentially guidelines outlining what the local government wanted to see built in certain multiblock areas of downtown. If developers offered plans abiding by those guidelines, they found smooth sailing in getting the plans approved. The environmental-impact report, for example, a notoriously time-consuming hurdle, would be virtually rubber stamped. That saved more than time. If you’re servicing a $10 million loan on a piece of downtown real estate, not having to go through a two-year environmental review means money in your pocket.

      “Creating a specific plan is a way for the city to get out ahead of the developers and consider the things that are in the community’s interest,” says Victoria Walker, the assistant planning manager. Height limits, circulation patterns, parking needs, and design elements for the streetscape can all be written into the plan.

      The 1996 East Mount Diablo Boulevard Specific Plan eventually paved the way for the critical Broadway Point development, which connected Broadway Plaza with the older downtown. A tall, prominent structure on the old downtown side of Mount Diablo Boulevard, Broadway Point brought in Pottery Barn, Eddie Bauer, Il Fornaio, Williams-Sonoma, the second of three downtown Starbucks, and Restoration Hardware. It was so successful that other specific plans were soon in the works.

      Using these plans as guides, the city approved, in the years between 1996 and 2003, five large new or ex­panded retail projects averaging about 90,000 square feet each. Thanks to the work of the developers and town planners, if you fell asleep in Walnut Creek’s downtown in the late eighties and woke up there today, you wouldn’t know where you were.

      The city planners pride themselves on guiding developers and retailers not with harsh rules and regulations but in a kind of happy partnership in which developers are rewarded for agreeing to the city’s wishes. When plans for a development called Plaza Escuela displeased city planners, they didn’t turn the project down or send the developer back to the drawing board. Instead, the city hired its own architect to work with the developer to fulfill the ideas laid out in the specific plan for this part of downtown. In essence, the city officials tried to think more like developers in the hope and expectation that the developers would be willing to think more like city planners.

      Guiding the growth of a city in this manner is not easy. Once you get truly powerful businesses invested in your downtown, you run into all sorts of overt and subtle pressures to bend to their desires. Planning manager Sandra Meyer tells a great story of the design department’s attempts to impose facade guidelines on the Apple store. The shiny steel wall that Apple wanted to put up clearly didn’t fit with the autumn tones and stucco exteriors of the buildings around it. Once the city’s objections were made known, Steve Jobs himself came to town to lobby the design department commissioners. So on one side of the debate you had the volunteer design commissioners, and on the other side you had billion-dollar CEO/force-of-nature/Apple visionary Steve Jobs. Who would you bet won that test of wills?

      City planners believe there have been more victories than defeats. The city has convinced dozens of businesses that it is in their interest to help fund or make room for all manner of fountains, planters, and wooden benches. The most esteemed developers have gone beyond the city planners’ fondest wishes. Brian Hirahara, the developer who oversaw the Corners complex, is something of a town hero because he turned down a number of chain restaurants as tenants. Instead, he leased a space along Mount Diablo Boulevard to the one-of-a-kind Va de Vi, which now has a patio surrounding that old-growth oak the town insisted Hirahara not cut down.

      “It all comes down to how the city plays its cards,” says Hans Baldauf of San Francisco’s BCV Architects, which has designed or consulted on many of the town’s larger developments, including Broadway Point and the Corners. “Does the city harness the power of business and sell its soul, or does it harness the power of business and get what it wants? Walnut Creek has been very savvy about raising the expectations for developers without scaring them off.”

      Not all of downtown Walnut Creek is chain retail. The older section north of Mount Diablo Boulevard has a few dozen local shops and restaurants in the smaller buildings that still exist there. Stores like Belinda M Designs, Woolley’s Sporting Life, Main Street Rags (“contemporary consignments”), Kitchen Table, and Rinehart’s Jewelry, not to mention a French bistro, a shoe repair, and a barber shop, have strong local followings. Dolphin Dream offers a bewildering variety of merchandise (crystals, yoga mats, cauldrons, homes for gnomes) for the spiritually minded and culturally eclectic.

      For these small businesses, the proximity of so many major national retailers is a mixed blessing. They draw hordes of people but are also daunting competition, and their success means that leases are pricey and likely will continue to rise. You have to sell a lot of dresses or fly rods or Happy Blue Buddhas to keep your doors open.

      And the chains have already made an incursion into the old downtown, a trend that’s likely to continue. Having scores of national retailers in Walnut Creek leads to a fundamental question: To what extent do these chain stores add or detract from the character of a small city? When you invite in Tiffany and Apple, you are importing what a grad student would call the “signifiers” of these stores: Tiffany brings the snob appeal of its expensive jewelry; Apple, the hip sleekness of its latest electronic must-have. Given that Walnut Creek had nothing to do with the creation of these brand identities, can they help form a meaningful sense that this particular town is like no other?

      A legitimate answer might be, “Who cares?” The homogeneity of national brands is hardly a new trend in American retail, and it’s difficult to fault a town for joining the winning team. For any city that wants to thrive, the question should not be whether to embrace national brands and chain retailers—there seem few viable ways around that—but to what extent it will use those forces to its advantage.

      Local support for all the development in Walnut Creek is, of course, not uniform. Some residents complain that the new downtown is not for them but for tourist shoppers. In the busy holiday season, the streets are so full of cars some residents try to avoid driving through downtown altogether.

      “I see the same stores here that I see in Roseville or Burlingame,” says Karen Weichert, a San Francisco City College teacher who moved to Walnut Creek a decade ago for the schools. “Now it’s almost Anytown, USA.” She notes that she lost her local nursery to Whole Foods and a good hardware store to Andronico’s, and now that Sur la Table has opened, downtown Walnut Creek has four shops catering to cooks. “How many kitchenware stores does one town need?”

      Brenda McNeely, an elementary school teacher, worries that Walnut Creek is becoming synonymous with upscale retail and losing its small-town charm, pointing out that if local institutions like the vacuum cleaner repair shop can’t make their rent, everyone
      who lives here loses. “The local retailers are the types that sponsor the girls’ soccer leagues and put a picture of the team up on the wall,” she says. “The national retailers don’t participate in the community in that way.”

      Recently, a bond measure to fund a much-needed new library became a symbol for discontent when locals discovered that the plans called for an expensive three-story building. “Until recently, the library bond would have been a no-brainer,” says Debra Prager Burstyn, a regular contributor to the Contra Costa Times. “But it’s come close to being a flash point for the debate over the downtown. There is a segment of the population that’s become fed up with downtown development and the feeling that the city does everything to accommodate the shopping. Opposing the library has become a way of people saying, ‘Stop!’ ” Burstyn believes that last fall’s city council vote for continuing the growth restrictions was an attempt to quell fears that a big new library would be a green light for more growth.

      Despite such grumblings, however, there doesn’t appear to be much, if any, organized movement to suggest another course for the town. Not surprisingly, you sense resignation when you talk to the backers of the earlier slow-growth movement. “I don’t go to downtown much anymore,” says Selma King, a former planning commissioner and slow-growth advocate. “You can’t find a needle or thread, and there’s no hardware store. There is not much there for me. I’m 78 years old and fat; I don’t wear the latest hotshot fashions.”
      To be fair, you can find a needle and thread in downtown Walnut Creek, and there’s a Ross Dress for Less with reasonably priced clothing and sensible shoes for all sizes. But that doesn’t make King’s feelings any less valid. “It’s just too crowded and too glitzy,” she says, though she did visit Andronico’s recently to sample the “heavenly” strawberries.

      King and others caution the current leaders of Walnut Creek to tread carefully. Developers and city council members have suggested loosening the height restrictions in various locations around town—not just for the new library—to create even more room for commerce. If they go forward too quickly, King believes, at some point they’ll wake up the citizenry, who will finally say, “That’s too much too fast.”

      With all due respect for King and the battles she’s fought, I wonder whether she’s right about this. The aging and passing of her generation will eventually mean the loss of any living memory of what Walnut Creek was like before the boom. For two full generations now, Walnut Creek has attracted those who like to shop; realtors have long touted the shopping opportunities as a key selling point to home buyers. The crucial decisions have already been made. Something deep would have to change in American culture to lead Walnut Creek locals and leaders to reconsider.

      You could even make the case that there never was a time “before the boom” here. Ever since people began building at the foot of Mount Diablo in the 1850s, the place has been quick to embrace commerce and new technology. The town was on the Pony Express route and a supply depot for those heading to the gold fields. Walnut Creek has always been changing at breakneck speed. Perhaps transformation through commerce is its truest identity. Any arbitrary adherence to some moment in its past would seem as fake as those old-fashioned streetlamps on the new promenade.

      In the end, whether you see heaven or hell when you look at downtown Walnut Creek probably says more about your own views on modern America than it does about the wisdom of the city planners. Over the years, the town’s leaders have had to manage change as fast as generals on a battlefield. Their pride in what they’ve managed to build is not undeserved.

      Here is another story about Walnut Creek. One afternoon I’m walking with city PR man Rovanpera, who’s pointing out the traces that still remain of old Walnut Creek. He points to a historic building or two and an original facade, but in truth, there’s not much left. Walnut Creek’s leaders have torn down or refurbished the town’s past with the same enthusiasm for progress that led them to bury the creeks.

      As Rovanpera talks, I try to take notes, but I’m mostly window shopping. No denying there’s a lot of nice stuff to buy in this town. The new fall fashions are on display at Banana Republic, and I’m desperate to check out the video iPods at the Apple store. I’m also thinking that a Frappuccino would go down nicely.

      As we turn from Olympic onto Locust and head toward Andronico’s, in the Plaza Escuela development, I ask about the old mom-and-pop stores pushed out by the climbing rents. A few family-owned stores are left, Rovanpera points out, mostly those whose owners had the foresight to buy the land beneath their stores. “However, the city can’t control the rents,” he says, and then he shrugs. “What are you going to do? Success breeds success.”

      At the exact moment Rovanpera finishes that sentence, the electricity in these brand-new shops around us suddenly goes out. “Hmm,” says Rovanpera with the cool of a seasoned flack. “This is interesting.”

      Next to us, a clerk from the Container Store is trying to pry apart the unresponsive automatic doors, but she can get them open only an inch. The humor of this moment—the notion that the Container Store had become one big container for its employees and shoppers—won’t hit me until I tell the story to my wife that night. In the moment, I try to remain the picture of the polite reporter visiting from the big city.

      Rovanpera and I walk to the end of the block and find that the electricity is out as far as we can see in both directions. The traffic lights are dead, too, and the late-model Hondas, BMWs, and SUVs are already backing up and beginning to honk at each other with plaintive little bleats. We watch the staff in Tiffany huddling together nervously as a guard locks them inside. It’s unlikely there’s a hand-cranked cash register in any of these new developments, so none of the shops can ring up a sale.

      Slowly at first, people begin to emerge from the darkened stores. They look up and down the street, where there is suddenly nothing to buy. It’s a beautiful day, as it often is in Walnut Creek. Between some buildings you can see the green slopes of Mount Diablo rising like a breaking wave over the town. I want to go up and ask these people, “What do you think of Walnut Creek now?” but I know it’s not a fair question. No doubt the electricity will not be out for long, and there will be plenty of shopping opportunities by sunset.

      Still, it’s worth pondering: What would remain of Walnut Creek if the lights of Macy’s, Pottery Barn, Barnes & Noble, and all the other behemoth retailers stayed out? It’s a question as much for America as it is for Walnut Creek, and the answer is far from obvious. If there were a creek nearby, we could sit down along the banks and begin to think it through.

      Ethan Watters is a San Francisco writer.
      His most recent book is Urban Tribes: Are Friends the New Family?
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