Category: Road Trip
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Road Trip: Fresno

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This entry kicks off a semi-occasional feature we'll be calling "Road Trip" -- a chance to explore other cities and areas within California, particularly those outside the three major metropolitan regions: Los Angeles, San Francisco and San Diego. Everyone knows these places, but what about the likes of Fresno, Stockton and Bakersfield? The latter three are relatively large cities that in many states would be the largest and most dominant city. But in California, they are but one of at least a dozen cities in excess of 300,000 residents.

Our aim will be to spotlight these lesser-known, mid-major cities. In some cases, we'll toss in a smaller city (such as Visalia) or a larger city essentially hidden within one of the major metropolitan areas (such as Chula Vista). From a basic urban/civic planning perspective, we'll take a somewhat cursory look at their urban form, and in particular, their downtown cores -- if there is one -- and see what's there and what isn't. We'll then compare and contrast them relative to Riverside, looking for what makes them unique -- or not.

Our hope is to gain better appreciation for these somewhat overlooked places and possibly learn a thing or two along the way about how to improve and strengthen our own city.


Road Trip: Fresno

Flash: Road Trip: Fresno slideshow

Flash: Fresno Fashion Fair Mall
(with interior views reminiscent of
The Broadway dept. store in Riverside)

For being a city located at the center of California's dusty, but agriculturally rich "Central Valley," Fresno belies expectations. Many Californian's simply assume the worst and never really give the place a chance, making it a good candidate in which to start this series.

First impression: Fresno is a big city -- 470,000 according to 2007 Census estimates -- that feels somewhat smaller than it is. The downtown core, though not overly large for a city of its size, is a mixture of old and new. And, as with every major California city, Fresno is surrounded by expansive, suburban housing tracts. Thanks to numerous trees lining many major streets, particularly those in the more recent developments and newer commercial areas, Fresno appears much greener than one might expect. Looming in the distance to the east is the Sierra Nevada mountain range, including Kings Canyon and Sequoia national parks (with 14,494-foot Mt. Whitney on the backside). Located about an hour to the northeast is Yosemite.

How it's similar: Fresno and Riverside actually share much in common. Both support a major university and are seats of county government with the various civic and cultural institutions inherent therein. Physically, downtown Fresno also contains a classic street grid pattern and a 1960s-era pedestrian mall. Likewise, Fresno's post-war growth has taken on a predominantly suburban form -- partly to the detriment of downtown. Geographically, the metropolitan region is partially hemmed in by mountains. And, as with the majority of California's valleys, summers can get a bit toasty and the air does get somewhat stagnant at times.

How it's different: Unlike Riverside, Fresno is unquestionably the dominant city within the Fresno-Madera metropolitan region. As such, it has its own television market. Fresno's moderate skyline is dominated by mostly older and slightly taller buildings. Though both cities have modern convention centers, the latter also has a mid-sized arena and an adjacent concert hall/civic theater. And although Fresno has a passenger airport with an Air National Guard unit, the city does not have a major military base the likes of March Field near Riverside. Once outside Fresno, the landscape turns into mile upon mile of farmland.

Biggest surprise: Parts of downtown appear to be in a time warp of sorts, with a small, but impressive collection of pre-WWII "Renaissance Revival" styled towers (one | two | three | four). Arguably downtown's most unique aspect, the outdoor Fulton Mall (1964) offers a nice respite from California's car-dominated landscape. Though not overly vibrant, the pedestrian mall has a lot of potential. A recent addition is a minor league baseball stadium located at the mall's southern end. Interestingly, the landscape design of Fresno's Fulton Mall is very similar to the one in downtown Riverside, which opened two years after Fresno's. Both malls contain elements (Fresno | Riverside) designed by landscape architect Garrett Eckbo of Eckbo, Dean, Austin and Williams. One key difference is the amount of public art situated along Fresno's mall, at least double of that found at Riverside's version.

Biggest disappointment: As a predominantly low-rise campus (one | two) with several large parking lots and no overly distinctive buildings, the campus of California State University at Fresno felt more like an overgrown high school. In fact, one can easily drive past the campus without even realizing. However, the university is a major player in local sports and includes a football stadium, a recently built arena/rec center, and separate stadiums for both baseball and softball.

What can Riverside learn? One aspect of Fresno that Riverside can take note of is that city's long-term commitment to the larger civic/regional entities, such as the sports arena, civic theater and even the new minor league baseball stadium. And although Riverside's own pedestrian mall is currently undergoing its first major renovation, the city should keep tabs on Fresno's similarly designed outdoor mall. In particular, Riverside should take note of the amount of public art dotting Fresno's mall.


Downtown SD part deux

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An excellent article regarding the recent residential building boom taking shape in downtown San Diego (a not too distant topic here on this very blog) appeared recently on the San Francisco Weekly Website.

Writer Matt Smith surmises that San Diego and San Diegans themselves are finally beginning to realize both the need and desirability of some forms of dense developments -- specifically, mixed-use residential towers. Moreover, he sees the recent wave of downtown development potentially acting as a savior for suburban Southern California:

"A mini-Manhattan sprouting at the edge of San Diego Bay offers hope as medicine for what ails California."

Without a doubt, San Diego area builders, buyers and bureacrats alike have all come to better accept such development, which again, is atypical within suburban-minded Southern California. Our hope is that such mixed-use developments will help bring balance back into overly suburban developmental patterns afflicting Southern California.

New residential high-rises
downtown San Diego

Much of downtown San Diego's recent high-rise residential boom came via a developer (Nat Bosa) who did much the same over the past 20 years in Vancouver, B.C., Canada:

Vancouver officials beckoned developers to fallow industrial yards near downtown ... Nat Bosa, an Italian immigrant who entered the building trade 30 years ago as a laborer, was among those who foresaw that Canadians would pay good money to live in such a place. "My prediction in 1990 was, in 10 years, it will be fashionable to live in downtown Vancouver, and in 15, it will be a great place to live," he says. "People now love it."

As prime, cheap land began to disappear from central Vancouver, Bosa and other Canadian developers looked south to San Diego and saw another abandoned, decrepit downtown ... "I felt it was just a fabulous place, with a great climate. I thought it was ready for what I call urbanization," Bosa says. "It was lacking on one big thing -- more people."

Sounds as though downtown Riverside could use a bit of Mr. Bosa's enthusiasm and ideas...


Downtown San Diego

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Convention Center

New residential high-rises

Horton Plaza

Just 90 miles to the south of Riverside is San Diego. Like much of Southern California, San Diego has found itself battling suburban sprawl for much of the past few decades. However, unlike its big brother to the north (Los Angeles), San Diego still remains an actual town with a highly recognizable central core -- a core which has become even stronger and more viable in the last decade. And, with the recent opening of Petco Park, downtown San Diego has officially turned the corner for good.

But it took more than the $500M investment of Petco Park. Downtown's recent transformation actually gained its first tangible foothold in the mid-1980s with Horton Plaza. After a few slow years, steam began picking up and by the 1990s, the historic Gaslamp District began to come alive with eateries, pubs and night spots.

Next, there was a new convention center, marina redevelopment and first-class hotels, which paved the way for a return to high-rise residential developments -- many of which have been built just in the last 3-5 years. Today, there are 25,000 residents living in downtown -- a significant number in suburban-oriented Southern California.

And now, there's Petco Park. Although to many, Petco Park is simply icing on the cake (and in some respects, it is), in reality the new ballpark for the San Diego Padres means so much more.

For starters, it keeps MLB in town. With the on-going threat of the NFL's Chargers leaving (and having already lost the NBA's Clippers in the 1980s), San Diego needed to retain at least one major-league franchise. Some may disagree, but being a "major-league" city is still important these days.

Likewise, this immensely large investment in downtown San Diego has once again proven to skeptics that downtown is indeed a place worth -- and necessary -- in retaining, redeveloping and reinvesting in (again, a seemingly simple concept lost on many suburban-minded Southern Californians).

With so much recent downtown development -- particularly on the residential front -- San Diego has separated itself from the rest of Southern California and moved closer to being a balanced city the likes of Portland and Seattle. In fact, although there is neither a Microsoft nor a Space Needle, some would say San Diego is more and more becoming 'Seattle South.'

Well, maybe.

Regardless, there's no denying that after decades of battling smaller suburban cores popping up outside of downtown (La Jolla, Mission Valley, Rancho Bernardo), the city's central core is stronger than ever and still remains the region's primary focus. This is one very distinct -- and important -- difference between Metro San Diego and Greater Los Angeles.

Again, how was it done? Reinventing, redeveloping and reinvesting in the central core. But above all, it took realizing the need to retain the central core.

So, if there's one city in Southern California in which the others could learn from, downtown San Diego indeed is it. (Are you listening Riverside? Anaheim? Los Angeles??)

More - Road Trip:
September 2008 | May 2004 | March 2004 |

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