Friday, May 17, 2013

Historic Downtowns Needn’t Be Museums

Perhaps the most surprising discovery during my peripatetic spring was downtown Lodi.  I’d heard rumors that Lodi had a historical downtown with a good sprinkling of retail and restaurant activity, but I hadn’t expected to feel as immediately comfortable as I did.

The downtown is approximately two blocks wide by five blocks long, anchored by a railroad station on the east.  It also has a pair of entrance arches, one of which dates from 1907 making it truly historic.  The other arch is a more recent addition, but it a quiet elegance which complements the downtown.  (Pleasant Hill should take note.)

Nor I am the only one to be beguiled by downtown Lodi.  The San Francisco Chronicle recently lauded it.

And the town of Lodi is unusually well-configured to support a downtown, with a compact development pattern that puts much of the community within easy biking or walking range of downtown.  The downtown has reacted with popular retail, dining, and tasting room opportunities.

But there are potential shortcomings in downtown Lodi.  From observation and from an internet search, there are few residential or lodging opportunities in the downtown area.  Only three hotels are within the downtown core, all of which seem to be budget options.  For one, the only on-line review refers to bedbugs and the lack of fire escapes.  Without people who have money to spend residing or staying downtown, maintaining an active street life is difficult.

In many communities, an absence of needed downtown elements is a sign that the city is being

overly protective of its historical district, effectively placing a bell jar over it.  But there was a clear sign that Lodi is willing to allow downtown development.

Near the north end of downtown, N. School Street looks the same as the other downtown tree-lined street.  But at the corner of W. Elm is a surprise.  A contemporary multiplex cinema occupies the northwest corner.  It’s in an architecture style that offers only a nodding acknowledgement to the nearby buildings, but is sufficiently screened by the trees to be acceptable.

I won’t defend the architecture of the cinema.  I would have preferred different materials and a stronger acknowledgement of the historical downtown.  But if I assume that the city exacted the best architecture possible from the developer, then I’m willing to accept the cinema as better than non-development.

I hope that the cinema is a precursor to other downtown projects, perhaps more architecturally advanced projects, which will buttress what is already working in downtown Lodi.

Although my Lodi visit was brief (I didn’t want to get stuck there), it appeared that the city was reaching for the necessary triad of downtown urbanism: respect the past, acknowledge the present, and build for the future.

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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