Monday, December 29, 2014

North Bay Great Streets: Calistoga and St. Helena

The cessation of the December rains and the conclusion of Christmas festivities finally allowed me to resume my review of great streets in the North Bay.

As I wrote when setting forth the rules for my holiday season quest, I planned to travel throughout the North Bay, identifying in each city the four-block segment of a street that best met the criteria for great streets as defined by the Project for Public Places.

To be honest, it was a bit of a fool’s errand.  One can’t wander a town for an hour on a chill December morning and expect to definitively assess whether a street has “an active entity that manages the space”.

But there were criteria I could assess, such as “active ground floor uses that create valuable experiences along a street for both pedestrians and motorists”.

So I did the best I could within the time and information available.  Hopefully, my selections, even if not definitive, will at least trigger thoughts and actions in others, moving the urbanist conversation ahead.

The first two cities I visited, before the storm pattern fully established itself, were Petaluma and Cotati.  From those visits, I identified two concepts that I expected to be key to my further North Bay observations.

The first was “bypass”.  The North Bay regional road network originally ran through the heart of most communities, with the initial commercial districts growing up around roadways that carried visitors through towns toward other destinations while also serving as the prime arterials for locals.

But in many towns, increasing traffic loads eventually forced new routes, typically freeways, to be constructed, bypassing the original downtowns.  Where there was sufficient local commercial activity, the original downtowns continued to prosper while transitioning from serving the regional traffic passing through town to serving the local residents and day visitors.

Petaluma is an example.  Perhaps the service stations along Petaluma Boulevard have mostly disappeared since the 101 freeway bypass was completed many years ago, but the downtown, with its restaurants, boutiques, and antique shops, continues to provide an attractive and thriving core.

But when the local economic activity was insufficient, the downtowns began a slow drift downward.  Cotati is an example.  I find downtown Cotati a pleasant place, but it lacks vitality and seems not to have recovered from the 101 freeway bypass.

So the question of whether a downtown has been bypassed, and how it has responded to a bypass, seems key to whether the town has a great street.

The second concept was jaywalking.  I don’t encourage jaywalking, but find that the ability to jaywalk cautiously is a good indicator of a balance between automotive and pedestrian uses.  If traffic has sufficient volume or velocity to preclude jaywalking for all but the foolhardy, that detracts from the greatness of a street.

To those two concepts, I’ll add a third, service to the local community, for the discussion today.  A street can be well-configured with a moderate amount of traffic and the potential for safe jaywalking, but if it doesn’t serve the people who live in the community, many of whom may live within a walkable distance of the street, then the street will serve mostly visitors who arrive by car and the nature of the street will reflect both the car-orientation and the retail needs of the visitors.

There are community benefits from having a great street that meets the local retail needs.  Local residents often visit a street on rainy days or during hours when the car-dependent shoppers are absent, so residents expand the hours that the street may be occupied.  Also, local residents are often in a different demographic group that the car-dependent visitors, so broaden the range of retail services.  (Although framed differently, this is the same point that PPS makes when they write of “diverse user groups”.)

I included the issue of serving local residents because it pertains directly to the cities I’ll describe today, Calistoga and St. Helena.

For Calistoga, the nearest approach to a great street is the four blocks of Lincoln Avenue between the junction with Highway 128 and Fair Way.  Calistoga hasn’t yet been bypassed, so Lincoln Avenue also serves as Highway 29.  As a result, the street is wide and carries a sufficient number of vehicles at a sufficiently high speed that jaywalking is effectively precluded.

Despite those detriments, much of the architecture along the Lincoln Avenue is attractive, the setting of the town near the upper end of the Napa Valley town provides hilly vistas in both directions, and the street is regularly used for community functions such as parades.  It’s a street that almost overcomes the deficiencies of highway traffic.

But it fails as a great street because it doesn’t serve the Calistoga residents well.  Many of the businesses along Lincoln Avenue are upper-end cafes, restaurants, wine shops, and kitchen boutiques targeted for the wine tourists.  But going just a block from Lincoln Avenue, especially to the south, gets into medium to low density housing with residents who seem inconsistent with the retail options on Lincoln Avenue.

I like Lincoln Avenue.  During my visit, I enjoyed walking the street and had a fine breakfast.  But it doesn’t serve the people who live in Calistoga, so it isn’t a great street.

St. Helena, a few miles to the south, is much the same story, but at a higher level.  From appearances, the average resident of St. Helena is more prosperous than his equivalent in Calistoga.  But the nearest approach to a great street, Main Street between Pine Street and Mitchell Drive, is more architecturally distinguished than Calistoga and targets an even higher demographic, once again seeming incompatible with many of the local residents.

Plus, Main Street doubles as Highway 29 and is often jammed with cars creeping through town, mostly the cars of visiting wine tourists.

I love the segment of Main Street in St. Helena and have often visited it with my wife.  But that doesn’t mean that I like it as an urban place.

One can write about the great and exciting physical characteristics or nature of a street, but if the street doesn’t meet the needs of the local residents, then it’s not a great street.  And, based on my observations and despite my affection for both places, neither Calistoga nor St. Helena has a truly great street.

My next post will fall on New Year’s Eve.  I’ll look back at my resolutions of past years, judging my successes and failures, and also put forth a resolution for the New Year.

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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