Durable Growth

You can’t go home again, part 7: A pair of sluggish downtowns

Klamath Falls residential building

Klamath Falls residential building

With this post, I’ll conclude my urbanist observations from a recent trip to the Pacific Northwest.  The previous post in the series is here.

During my drive from the North Bay to the Northwest, I took several breaks.  And as I often do when traveling, I wandered around downtowns, camera in hand, looking at what’s working and what’s not.  On this trip, my main photo stops were in Klamath Falls, Oregon and Marysville, California.  The thoughts that jumped into my head are below.

 

Klamath Falls downtown

Klamath Falls downtown

Observation #13: Good bones aren’t nearly enough – No reasonable observer would describe the downtowns of Klamath Falls or Marysville as healthy.  In both places, I spied a few successful businesses and a handful of pedestrians, but nothing like the level of activity that can be found in most North Bay cities.  The downtowns of San Rafael, Santa Rosa, Sonoma, and other North Bay cities have a vitality that far eclipses the street life in Klamath Falls and Marysville.

And yet both Klamath Falls and Marysville have fine-looking downtown buildings.  Rehabilitation would probably be needed required to return some of the buildings to full utilization, but it’s always better to begin with a downtown that has buildings, especially well-constructed buildings, instead of empty lots.

It’s easy to visualize a bustling downtown against a backdrop of the existing buildings in either city.  But neither city has that bustle.

Marysville downtown building with underused upper story.

Marysville downtown building with underused upper story.

It’s a reminder that architecture isn’t enough.  Urbanism doesn’t spring from buildings alone, but from a complicated calculus of downtown residents, businesses, jobs, other magnets, and well-managed parking.  The next time someone argues that a building will revitalize downtown, look deeply into the proposal and think about Klamath Falls and Marysville.  Buildings are essential but not sufficient for urbanism.

Observation #14: Helping hands are expensive and should be used well – Downtown Marysville has arches at a number of intersections.  The arches are a good addition to downtown in both their aesthetics and their reference to local history.  They give Marysville a more interesting and memorable downtown.

Marysville arch

Marysville arch

But there is an apparent mismatch between the arches and the vacant buildings that stand near many of the arches.  It’s as if a fondant frosting was applied to a wedding cake made of sawdust.

This comment isn’t intended as a criticism of the Marysville City Council which pursued the funds for the arches.  Nor is it an argument that historical elements aren’t appropriate.

Instead, it’s a condemnation of a funding system that dictates the funding priorities of cities.  Whatever funds were devoted to the arches could have been better spent in any number of areas, such as infrastructure upgrades, historic building renovation tax credits, or rent subsidies for a new wave of risk-oblivious downtown residents.  As a result, Marysville got arches and a comatose downtown.

Cities have always been and will remain a primary economic driver in national and state economies.  But the current model is to divert the revenue to Sacramento or to Washington, D.C. and then to release it back to cities with funding priorities set from above.  And so we get arches instead of people.

The arches are a beautiful addition to downtown Marysville.  But what would be truly striking would be sidewalk cafes full of diners enjoying the evening breezes at the end of a North Valley day.  Whether or not the arches are in the background.

And with that, my Northwest observations are at an end.  The life conditions that allowed me to prosper during almost two decades in the Northwest have passed, never to return, but I still enjoy visiting the region.  I’ll be looking for an opportunity to return.

As always, your questions or comments will be appreciated.  Please comment below or email me.  And thanks for reading. – Dave Alden (davealden53@comcast.net)

Written by Dave Alden

Dave Alden

Dave Alden is a Registered Civil Engineer. A University of California graduate, he has worked on energy and land-use projects in California, Oregon, and Washington. He was also the president of a minor league baseball team for two seasons. He lives on the west side of Petaluma with his wife and two dogs. The blog that he writes can be found at http://northbaydesignkit.blogspot.com.

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