Friday, May 18, 2012

Place Review: Suisun City

Several years ago, the Urban Land Institute and the American Planning Association held a joint Sacramento meeting.  The topic was the best uses of redevelopment in California.  (This was long before the dissolution of redevelopment.)  I was sitting near a Sacramento architect friend when the Suisun City Redevelopment Agency presented what they had already accomplished and where their vision was taking them.

I remember the architect and I looking at each other in puzzlement, amazed that a community barely an hour from where we sat had accomplished so much with so little public awareness.

After that wakeup call, I put Suisun City on my list of places to visit.  But despite my regular travel on Interstate 80 through Fairfield, I didn’t find the time to drive the few miles into Suisun City for far too long.  I finally changed that about two months ago.  The long-ago presentation was accurate.  Remarkable things have been happening in Suisun City.

There are other, more knowledgeable guides to Suisun City than me.  In addition to the ULI/APA presentation and some internet research, I had only about 45 minutes on a rainy afternoon to take a quick peak, often scurrying with my camera tucked inside my coat as rain showers came and went.   But I can offer my initial observations.  And I can elaborate as I find future opportunities to take a longer look under more clement conditions.

Historically, Suisun City was an industrial transportation hub, offering a convenient point of connection between the railroad and San Francisco Bay.  There was housing, but it was principally occupied by people employed in the industries around Suisun Channel.  As the industrial uses died, a ring of contaminated blight was left around the channel.  More housing came to town, but it came because the land was cheap, not because the community of Suisun City was compelling.

At one point, city government was housed in a set of mobile homes, leading a former mayor to opine, “We had the only city hall in California that was registered with the Department of Motor Vehicles." 

Having reached a low point, the community decided to transform.  Using a specific plan and the aggressive use of redevelopment, the changes were broad and striking.  A poorly conceived residential project on the east side of Suisun Channel was demolished.  In its place, the Victorian Harbor neighborhood was developed.  Across the street from Victorian Harbor, a real city hall was built along the channel shoreline.  At the north end of the channel, lodging and office projects were successfully completed.  Along the west side of the channel, an aging Main Street was revitalized with new municipal and commercial projects.    The contamination left behind by industry was cleaned up and Suisun Channel was converted to recreational use.

For my truncated tour, I began on the east side of the channel.  The new city hall is a fine architectural addition to the community.  The structure fits well with the waterfront character of the community.  And of course, it’s a major improvement from mobile homes.

The first look at Victorian Harbor reminded me of Harbor Town.  On closer observation, the architectural details and construction quality is better at Harbor Town, but the Victorian Harbor is well-configured.  If the housing market sustains the home values, it should be a neighborhood that will age well.

The north end of the channel was my biggest concern about the redevelopment.  The connection between the east and west sides of Suisun Channel  is defined by a large office building, a Hampton Inn, and a large parking lot.  It’s great that hotel and office developers were willing to take a chance on Suisun City.  However, the streetscape wasn’t compelling.  With most of the retail on the west side, I was concerned that the route wasn’t sufficiently friendly to people from the eastside who wanted to travel on foot or on bicycle.  If the streetscape isn’t interesting, the walkable urban concept is undermined.

I later realized that an alternative route exists for walkers and bicyclists along the waterfront, which reduces my concern.  However, the walking distance between Victorian Harbor on the east side and the heart of the retail district on the west side remains more than a half mile, which is beyond what many folks will walk.  I hope that the long term vision includes retail on the east side to encourage more car-free shopping.  Walkable eastside retail would also give children a stronger sense of connection to the community.

A passenger ferry or tram across Suisun Channel would also be a fun concept, but probably difficult to financially justify or to implement.

The westside of the channel is the most interesting new urbanist challenge, trying to integrate older retail with newer infill development.  The work done thus far looks intriguing, but the west side also shows the effect of the dissolution of redevelopment.  Several parcels are cleared and signed for pending construction with funds from the Suisun City Redevelopment Agency.  Those funds have now been indefinitely delayed.

Also, there are numerous westside restaurants garnering good reviews on Yelp, which is another reason to make more visits.

A report on Suisun City redevelopment can be found in this report by   It’s written in planner wonkish, but offers some insights to how Suisun City began the transformation.  Then, this website provides regular updates about activities along the waterfront.  And of course I’ll be stopping by Suisun City again, beginning with a breakfast at Bab’s Delta Diner.  I’ll give updates from those future visits.

As always, your questions or comments will be appreciated.  Please comment below or email me.  And thanks for reading. - Dave Alden (

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