Wednesday, May 15, 2013

Trying Too Hard and Trying Too Little Are Both Flawed Approaches

I recently made a day trip to the East Bay.  My business required only a couple of hours, so I stretched my outing to look at the downtowns of Pleasant Hill and Pleasanton.  The choice of destinations, which was based a bit on logistical convenience and a bit on alphabetical proximity, was fortuitous because it illuminated two approaches to urbanist design.

In a conventional sense, Pleasant Hill doesn’t have a real downtown.  The town came into full existence during the era when strip malls and housing tracts were the development norm.   But a few years back, a developer tried to fill the void with Crescent Drive, a faux downtown near the center of the community.

The impulse was reasonable, but the execution missed the mark.  In an era when we’re rediscovering knowledge about how downtowns work, the lessons were ignored in Pleasant Hill.

There isn’t a residential component to add life to the streets.  Instead, the land uses closest to Crescent Drive are mostly parking lots for Crescent Drive shoppers.

Walkability is limited to the pedestrian routes between the parking lots and the shops.  Outside of Crescent Drive, much of the existing development is pedestrian unfriendly big boxes and strip malls.

What remains is attractive but generic architecture, banners describing the area as “downtown”,

and an arch above the entrance announcing “Pleasant Hill”.  I can be a fan of entrance arches.  When they look authentic, they create a warm feeling about the community.  But authenticity is hard to achieve in faux downtowns.  And, like the rest of Crescent Drive, it wasn’t successful here.

I sympathize with the problem faced by the developer.  It’s hard to create a downtown decades after the town came into existence.  But an incremental approach would have been better.  (Although I’ll acknowledge that financing would have been difficult.)  Crescent Drive feels like an attempt to be too much too soon.  Which resulted in a development that is little more than inadequate and quickly aging eye candy.
Pleasanton is on the other end of the scale.  It’s a marvelous downtown that clearly dates to the early days of the community.  The arch sign, even with the retrofitted neon tubing, feels authentic.  The storefronts are varied and interesting.  And the perfectly preserved filling station is guaranteed to evoke smiles.
But it seems that little beyond preservation has been done to make downtown vibrant.  It has an oddly linear configuration, only one street wide and about a half-mile long.  It may be the best location in the Bay Area for a small town parade, but it’s not convenient for pedestrians to explore, with the only route being up and down the same street.

The linear downtown reminded me how much I enjoy the North Bay cities like Sonoma, Santa Rosa, Healdsburg, Napa, and Petaluma that offer multiple routes for a downtown amble.

There are charming residential neighborhoods in Pleasanton, but they’re too far from downtown to be readily convenient on foot.  Nor does there seem to have been any effort to widen or to strengthen the downtown.  Underutilized parcels exist only a block away, but there was no evidence of an attempt to add residential to enliven the downtown or commercial to enhance the pedestrian experience.

I didn’t research the municipal planning documents to see if there was a vision that hadn’t yet reached the ground.  But my observation of downtown showed a place that was resting on the laurels that came from preservation and hadn’t yet grasped the problem of making the downtown truly vibrant.

Creating a functional downtown is a challenge that must be met with both enthusiasm and restraint.  Neither Pleasant Hill nor Pleasanton seems to have found the right balance.

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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