April 30, 1994 - From the April, 1994 issue

Edge Cities Offer Lessons on Revitalizing Downtowns

Recently, the City of Los Angeles has sought to revitalize its downtown area -- Stephen Davies & Shirley Secunda propose that there are two "edge cities" that can provide lessons. The cities of Riverside and San Bernardino have individually teammed up with Project for Public Spaces (PPS), a non-profit planning and design organization that has worked with some 500 communities throughout the U.S. and abroad to improve urban areas for people's greater comfort and use, to revitalize their downtowns. Stephen Davis & Shirley Secunda are vice president and project manger, respectively, at PPS.

When the Great Earthquake hit Los Angeles this past January, there was one positive outcome. Faced with disaster and diminished use of their cars, people look to the streets. For what was the first time for many, neighbors met neighbors, shared nightmares and dreams, and, in the process, rediscovered a sense of community. Los Angeles still has a long way to go before its places and spaces are permanently retooled. Two of its neighboring cities, however, have been making significant strides in that direction for over two years. 

East of Los Angeles, in the cities of Riverside and San Bernardino, changes are taking place that are helping to both bring back a sense of community and bolster the local economy. These changes stem from the idea that small-scale, incremental improvements based on communities’ own visions of what they need can provide quick, productive enhancement that sets the stage for meaningful long term development. They're also founded on the realization that community survival hinges on bringing people back to the street. 

Such ideas challenge the way L.A. area cities have been evolving and operating for over 30 years. Inevitably, they will require addressing traffic and environmental issues that have been avoided up until now in the name of automobile convenience and facilitation. In the meantime, Riverside's and San Bernardino's downtowns are on their way to becoming lively, attractive places where people want to be to stroll, shop, socialize and do business. 

During the past 30 years, both San Bernardino and Riverside suffered similar downtown decline, as shoppers abandoned downtowns for shopping centers and malls. To compete, they both built downtown malls, a pedestrian mall in Riverside and a full-scale million square foot shopping mall in San Bernardino. In both cases, the malls didn't really bring back the downtowns, although for different reasons. The mall in San Bernardino took up a huge amount of space in the manner of its suburban counterparts, with sprawling parking lots and a design that turned its back on the street. Ironically, it arose on the site of San Bernardino's once lively Main Street. 

Riverside's pedestrian mall, even though it was in an urban setting and the site of the venerable Riverside Inn, was unable to create the same sense of vitality as a shopping center. In fact, it had the opposite impact, creating a place which seemed too quiet and inaccessible. 

Both cities further followed suburban trends by widening streets and traffic lanes downtown to make even more room for speeding automobiles. They also barred certain activities that actually could bring more people to their streets, like street vendors or outdoor cafes. 

The end result was a loss of place. As vacancies increased and people left the downtowns, both San Bernardino and Riverside established extensive revitalization efforts that had begun to make steady progress, from facade improvements to new developments like the restoration of the Mission Inn. 

To increase involvement by a broader community and to bring a new kind of interest and excitement, however, the economic development agencies in both cities asked for guidance from Project for Public Spaces (PPS), a non-profit planning and design organization that works together with communities to help revitalize their downtowns. PPS begins its work with the precept that communities must have a hand in determining their fates if they are to have an interest and a stake in future progress. 

For example, PPS worked together with the San Bernardino community to generate ideas and a vision for the downtown area in a series of brainstorming sessions, workshops and interviews, with outreach programs to school groups, various neighborhoods and through newspaper "calls for ideas". A variation of this approach was applied in Riverside in a series of meetings and community vision sessions that were attended by over 400 community members. Out of these meetings came many recommendations that now are being implemented by the local downtown management organizations in partnership with the city agencies. 

The major focus of these new programs has been to renew as well as newly create special places for people that help reestablish the two downtowns as special places in their communities. For example, in San Bernardino, people wanted to see more events and activities downtown, from art festivals to outdoor dances, yet there was no convenient place to do this. As a result, a brand-new town square was built in less than a year on a former derelict-space-cum-parking­lot. Managed by Main Street, a division of the Economic Development Agency, it now has become a popular meeting spot for crowd-gathering events like concerts, art shows, farmer markets, and even two weddings since it opened last May. 

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Thousands of people have been coming to downtown San Bernardino as a result of this one change. More importantly, this and other short-term improvements have helped build the momentum for major development, from a new sports bar to a new state office complex the city's Economic Development Agency helped attract. Other development projects in the works include a major cinema complex as an anchor for a downtown entertainment district that is already emerging as well as an expansion of the downtown mall so that it faces its perimeter streets and invites pedestrian use. A new Downtown Business Association has been organized to address issues like improved security. 

Similarly, at Riverside's mall, landscaping has been trimmed or replaced with new plantings and floral displays, giving a clearer, more welcoming view of retail and other activities, including a new well-used outdoor cafe. Concrete walls have been replaced with seating, and areas have been created for retail and community-oriented uses, such as community chess, markets exhibits. The Riverside Downtown Association, working in cooperation with the Redevelopment division of the city's Development Department, has been carrying out management and maintenance activities, including retail recruitment, organizing merchants and holding numerous events that have brought people back downtown. 

The new cafe and other elements, such as signboards, banners, and displays of merchandise, would be prohibited under Riverside local law, were it not for a new "bureaucracy free" zone that has been set up specifically to allow such uses. A special downtown arts and cultural district also is being developed, in which public buildings, including two art museums, the public library, two churches, the municipal auditorium and a theater, are working together to extend their buildings' interior uses outdoors to create visible public uses and better public spaces within the district. The library plans a major expansion to make its facilities and front plaza usable for community activities, such as children's programs and book sales, establishing a new presence and importance as a civic gathering place. 

Another key element of these programs is emphasis on restoring a more comfortable walking environment. Speeding up vehicles and increasing traffic movement through a downtown is counterproductive to creating an active and vital commercial milieu that can draw people back to the street. It becomes unpleasant just to walk along a street, much less to try to cross a street with five lanes of moving traffic. In addition, once the street is given over to cars, there's rarely much room left for walking. 

Diagonal parking has been one of those approaches used in both cities to help develop a people-friendly atmosphere and also increase on street parking. Diagonal parking narrows down the street, forcing traffic to slow down and cutting the distance pedestrians have to watch for cars in crossing. It compels drivers to be more careful than when they parallel park, because they have to look out for traffic when they back out and be more alert to cars pulling out when they drive down the street. As a result, they become more aware of pedestrians. 

Diagonal parking also has the advantage of speedy and flexible implementation, so that it can be tried out on a test basis and adjusted accordingly. Riverside also is experimenting with traffic light signal changes to be calibrated based on pedestrian needs. Improvements like these can set the stage for longer range efforts to reclaim street space for pedestrians and amenities, like widened sidewalks and the landscaped median that is being planned for an overwide street in Riverside.

Ironically, as more people are attracted to these downtowns, as development occurs, and as streets better balance pedestrian and vehicles, new challenges are emerging. Traffic and environmental standards in California do not necessarily support the creation of strong urban centers - centers that are necessary, of course, in the long term to get people out of their cars and into public transportation and alternative transportation like ride sharing or even bicycling. Standards meant to facilitate the movement of cars through a downtown and improve air quality force cities to widen streets, remove on-street parking and create pedestrian-unfriendly places. Clearly new models are needed for helping people get from here to there while preserving community life - and the activities that people want to experience in the city. 

What is happening in San Bernardino and Riverside is also happening throughout the L.A. Region. New interest in downtowns from Pasadena to Santa Monica is creating new centers of community life that are a far cry from the suburban mall. Although there's still a long road ahead for bringing back meaningful central places, these efforts in San Bernardino and Riverside are showing how much people value community and how eager they are for opportunities to come out to comfortable public spaces where they can walk and mingle with others. As the Los Angeles area edges away from suburbanization to a new form of urban life, we should remember that the challenges are more than just creating buildings. We also must set the stage for fostering a sense of community that will bring people together and help cities address the many problems of the years ahead.

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