Wednesday, May 9, 2012

Place Review: Walnut Creek

Twice in my life, I’ve lived in Walnut Creek.  The first time was for grades five through eight.  The second was for the first five years of my professional career.  I retain fond memories of Walnut Creek.  Although my wife and I are likely to remain in Petaluma, we even discussed Walnut Creek as a possible retirement destination.  (Its principal advantage is superior transit options to the airports, to San Francisco, and to the Cal campus.)

Over the past twenty years, downtown Walnut Creek changed dramatically.   The sleepy tree-lined lanes that I remember from my youth have transformed into busy streets dedicated to commerce, mostly national chains.

My initial response to the change was awe at the extent of the transformation.  As I made more visits, a sense of misgiving began to grow.  Recently, I wandered the streets of downtown Walnut Creek on a rainy weekday afternoon and my feelings crystallized.  I’m deeply disappointed by what Walnut Creek has become.

Many readers are probably familiar with the term “lifestyle centers”, but let me briefly review.  A lifestyle center is relatively new form of retail center, replacing the covered malls and strip malls of thirty years ago.  It is typically toward the upper end of the retail scale, uses sidewalks and other pedestrian paths that are open to the elements, and mimics an established downtown.

However, a lifestyle center is usually built over just a few years and of a single type of construction.  So it will eventually age and be replaced by a new lifestyle center elsewhere, rather than being regenerated one building at a time like a true downtown.  (Jane Jacobs referred to a rush of construction as a “cataclysmic flow of capital” and considered it very unfortunate.)  Also, because it lacks the accumulated parking options of a real downtown, a lifestyle center requires new parking lots, either as acres of asphalt or as structured parking.
(Some would argue that lifestyle center is beneficial because local sales tax revenues are increased.  The problem with that argument is that a lifestyle center, or any retail development, has little impact on the total retail sales of a region.  Instead, it redistributes them.  If Walnut Creek has a sales tax bump, it is probably a loss to Pleasant Hill, Concord, or Danville.  Unless one thinks that taking money from neighbors is a good thing, it’s hard to get excited about a new retail center.)

In most cases, lifestyle centers are built near the urban fringe or on parcels that have been assembled and cleared for new construction.  But in Walnut Creek, most of the existing street grid was retained and a lifestyle center was imposed.  The quiet streets where I first learned to navigate around a downtown have become a monument to consumption.

So, is it a good thing that a downtown becomes a lifestyle center?  Compared to a stand-alone lifestyle center, I’ll reluctantly give the edge to the downtown conversion.  Mostly because the downtown street grid must be maintained, forcing the city to deal with the aging buildings.  The alternative would be allowing a stand-alone lifestyle center to molder into a death spiral of declining uses.  But one must hope that California had sorted out the redevelopment rules before the City of Walnut Creek must deal with its disaster of a downtown in 2040.

Is it possible to do a lifestyle downtown conversion better than Walnut Creek?  Yes, undoubtedly.   I see three problems in Walnut Creek.

First, there is little downtown housing.  Look at some of the streetscapes.  Nicely detailed blocks of relatively short commercial buildings.  How would the buildings look with three or four stories of residential above?  To my urbanist eye, they’d look great.

We know why the residential didn’t happen.  Because neither the commercial developers nor the lending institutes were comfortable with residential over commercial.  And because the city didn’t insist on residential at the risk of losing the developers.  But the absence of residential is a critical shortcoming.

To be fair, there are several interesting residential projects being developed at the periphery of the downtown.  But periphery residential doesn’t work the same way as downtown residential.  Residents at the periphery could walk downtown, but are motivated to do so only if others are already on the sidewalks, creating a sense of safety, community, and activity.  A critical mass of sidewalk life is required.  Failing that, residents at the edges won’t walk downtown.  Actual downtown residents create the critical mass.

Second, the complete reconstruction of downtown, Jacobs’ “cataclysmic flow of capital”, eliminated the buildings in which less robust local businesses could have found continuing homes.  From my earlier times in Walnut Creek, I had memories of several local businesses.  I checked their old locations.  The hof brau where my family ate after doing downtown chores is now a Swarovski’s.  My old barbershop is now a Banana Republic.  The Sears where I bought my first real baseball glove is now a Crate and Barrel.  (Yes, I know that Sears was the big box of its era.  But a Sears of 45 years ago had a feeling of localness that a Crate and Barrel can’t even sniff.)

Third, downtown Walnut Creek isn’t very pedestrian friendly.  But it’s car friendly.  Notice the garage signage.  It’s very welcoming and helpful to drivers.  And look at the Nieman Marcus frontage, which is a mostly blank white wall for pedestrians.  The only decorations are the waving fins that are far above pedestrians’ heads and are best viewed from a car a block away.  Downtown Walnut Creek feels safe to pedestrians, but it doesn’t feel welcoming.

I miss the downtown Walnut Creek of my youth.  And I feel sorry for the children who are now growing up in Walnut Creek.  They’re missing valuable lessons about downtowns and about life.

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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