Heart Surgery for Pleasant Hill

  • San Francisco Examiner
  • October 8, 1989
  • Bradley Inman

Revitalizing the burbs: A plan with promise

Regular readers of this column may have figured out that I’m not a big fan of the burbs. Bug cities and small towns are much more to my liking.

My reasons are simple. In her book “Cosmopolitan Culture,” Bonnie Menes Kahn made a case for cities when she wrote, “Men and women choose city life to escape the curse of tradition and the curse of small town acquaintances.” That’s why I left a small Midwestern town to move to Boston.

But Later I learned that cities have something in common with small towns: Big cities force you to interact with humanity just as much as you had to in small towns, and maybe that wasn’t such a bad thing.

Suburbs are safe places from urban frenzy and small town claustrophobia. I guess they give people selective control over their environment, but nothing is left to chance; new and unusual experiences are carefully avoided.

I consider it a little boring.

It may explain why the “perfect” suburban experience is always being scrutinized by urban planners and public officials who work and live in them. There’s a constant search to give these communities individual identity.

In some suburbs like Santa Clara, Walnut Creek, and Concord, t was tried with downtown hotels, office buildings and civic centers. Replicating ingredients of big city ambience was supposed to work magic in the burbs.

Indeed this remedy raised a pile of property tax revenue, but the approach missed the subtleties that might make the suburbs more livable. The scale was inappropriate, and people still never engage in spontaneous mingling.

So is there a different approach? Pleasant Hill City Manager Joseph Tanner has proposed a scheme for this Contra Costa County suburb that may overcome the wretched suburban model.

Pleasant Hill officials are working on a place for a 42-acre redevelopment site that would give this community of 30,000 people a center where people “could eat, shop, socialize and take a book out at the library,” says Tanner.

“We don’t wan to create a downtown San Francisco with 20-story highrises,” Tanner explains. “I guess we want small town U.S.A.”

Situated along Interstate 680 corridor off Contra Costa Boulevard, this patch of suburban sameness has lots of potential. Tanner calls the zone “blighted.” I’m not sure it’s that bad, but this hodgepodge of vacant lots, mini-malls and parking lots needs a major face lift.

And no doubt about it, Pleasant Hill could use a focal point. Under normal circumstances, the Pleasant Hill BART station should be the town’s center of activity. But it sits in unincorporated Contra Costa County and is targets doe mid-rise commercial construction.

The innovative mixed-use infill plan for downtown Pleasant Hill was created by the San Francisco architectural firm of Heller and Leake. With a two-block, two-lane traditional main street, all of the attached buildings will be two stories with the retail on the ground floor and small service business on the second floor.

To create a pedestrian emphasis, parking will be hidden but accessible in the rear with a ring of European-style townhomes on the parameter of the parking garages. While the parking should be adequate, automobiles aren’t front and center like you find in a typical suburban mall.

Classic urban elements in the plan include a plaza, open space, public art and sculpture and water-scaping.

In partnership on the project with the city is developer David Martin of Emeryville who says, “It’s an urban village model; we are trying to rebuild downtown Palo Alto or Oakland’s College Avenue.”

Bortolaso American of Pleasant Hill is a joint venture partner with The Martin Group on the $170 million plan.

The plan will be presented to Pleasant Hill civic and community groups next month. So far, no one has objected to the imaginative scheme.

“We have the full support of the City Council,” says Tanner. “Hey, its motherhood and apple pie.”

Pleasant Hill is classic bedroom community and ripe for a little change. “The only factory we have is the Molino Ravioli Factory,” says Anne Swanton, office manager of the Pleasant Hill Chamber of Commerce.