Wednesday, March 12, 2014

Northern California Tour: Woodland is a Familiar Story

A week ago, I began recounting a daytrip I took through Northern California.  I set an itinerary to take quick looks at destinations that I thought would offer urbanist insights.  My first stop was breakfast and a refresher tour in Suisun City, the site of extensive and well-conceived urban redevelopment that has become a personal favorite.

Today, I’ll describe the next destination on my zigzag route to Sacramento, the community of Woodland.  There’s much that is attractive and desirable in Woodland.  There’s also much that is cringeworthy.  In short, it has a lot in common with all cities that have roots in the 19th or early 20th centuries and were then subverted by more recent development concepts.

 In the days before I began this blog, I was casting about, trying to convince myself that I would have enough subjects about which to write three posts a week.  (Hint for potential urbanist bloggers: There is no shortage of fine post topics.  The problem is finding enough time to research and to write about the topics in the depth and care that they deserve, a task at which I’ve succeeded only partially.)

During those days of nervously gathering ideas, I came across an article in the Sacramento Bee about Woodland and its Target stores.  It seemed that Target had built an early store on the urban fringe of Woodland.  As the chain grew and the store concept evolved into greater footprints, Target built a new store further from downtown, leaving the first mall spiraling downward.

It seemed a great urbanist topic.  A town of 55,000 that had already gone through two versions of the same big box, leaving a pocket of blight that had been created in only two decades compared to the eight decades or more required to create downtown blight.

I saved the link and even drafted up a blog post.  It wasn’t a particularly good post, but I had it in the can, ready to go when needed.  I then began the blog and found plenty of topics about which to write.  The Woodland post stayed in the can.  Eventually, the link to the Bee article went dead.

But the story of the small town with two Targets stayed in my head.  So I looked forward to a quick tour of Woodland.

I found much what I had expected to find, a lovely and functional downtown.  Architecturally interesting buildings lining the main streets and handsome homes in the nearby neighborhoods within walking distance of downtown.

Indeed, I was even more impressed by Woodland than I had expected.  Because of the value of surrounding California farm land, the original town had retained a remarkably compact form, adding density rather than sprawl.  Most of the density had come in the form of smaller lots rather than height, but the town was well-configured to accept height when and if that future arrives.

And I came across several small pockets of neighborhood commercial as I cruised the streets, which is another positive urbanist element.

It was a downtown and nearby neighborhoods that I could explore for hours.  And I plan to do so in the future

Indeed, the only downside I could see was a lack of commercial activity downtown.  Many businesses seem to be stuck in a 1950s format, struggling to hang onto a shrinking customer base.  Given the easy pedestrian and bicycle access from the nearly residential areas, the lack of commerce was unfortunate.

But the reason for the downtown languor became evident as I headed east.  A district of the community that originally existed to serve the surrounding agriculture had been invaded by multiple shopping centers anchored by various big boxes.  It was a part of town that was inaccessible to all but the most determined pedestrians and bicyclists, relegating youth and the aged to relying on those with cars.

(To be fair, there’s also a transit system that serves the community, including connections between residential neighborhoods and the big box centers.   I’m pleased that the bus system exists, but walkability is still better for day-to-day life.  Especially with the big box centers designed for the convenience of cars, leaving long walks from bus stops for those arriving by transit.)

I didn’t find the original Target.  It’s likely been downcycled into another use.  But I did find the new Target.  It was as unlike the homey and comfortable downtown as I would have expected.  It was with a sigh that I drove onward toward Sacramento.

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


  1. Just this week I passed through the downtowns of both Woodland and Roseville. They have an intriguing, historic, traditional-looking design and architecture that provides a classic American appeal to me. The kind of town I want to live and engage in. I was drawn to walk about and hang out. Until I looked more closely and took in the desolate, moribund feel. I had no inkling that Woodland had a population similar to Petaluma’s. Unfortunately or not, I read your blog during a low period of my day and I find the facts in what you have related disappointing and depressing. Why have we taken the life out of such beautiful city centers with shops, offices, taverns, restaurants and theatres that once thrived with community bustle?

    1. Barry, I'm not as familiar as Roseville as I might be. And I can certainly spend more time wandering around Woodland. But based on my current knowledge, I think there's a key difference between the two. In Woodland, the big box explosion occurred primarily in one district, leaving the walkable retail and residential core largely intact. In Roseville on the other hand, the big box culture is more interleaved throughout the entire community. Because of this difference, I suspect that Woodland can more easily re-create a walkable community. If I had to pick a community more likely to thrive in a $10 per gallon gas, urbanist world, it'd be Woodland.