Durable Growth

Northern California tour: Carmichael, one step forward, one step back

Downtown Carmichael

Downtown Carmichael

Over recent weeks, I’ve been recounting a Northern California daytrip I took in late February.  My goal was to look, however briefly, at destinations that I hoped would offer urbanist insights.  I began my day with stops in Suisun City, Woodland, and Freedom Park Road in North Highlands.

Today, I reach the far extent of my outing, the unincorporated community of Carmichael, northeast of Sacramento.

Like many children of my era, my parents relocated several times during my youth as my father pursued greater professional success.  I don’t begrudge my parents the moves.  I’m pleased with how life turned out for them and I even believe that the occasional childhood move is good training for making new friends and learning how to live in new places, although I wouldn’t have minded if the number of school year moves had been fewer.

Luckily for me, the moves ended shortly before I entered high school, so I was able to spend those key years in one place.  That place was Carmichael, which I still describe as my “hometown”.

Carmichael was a good place to spend those final years of youth.  I retain largely fond memories of my time there.  Over four decades, I remain in contact with several old classmates, some of whom even read this blog on occasion.  Indeed, I communicate more regularly with my high school friends than with my college friends, which seems to speak well to the years in Carmichael.  Also, I met my wife during my Carmichael years.

With that said however, Carmichael had a land use pattern that was horribly misdirected.  Arterials lined by strip malls surrounded by vast expanses of residential, much of it far beyond the quarter-mile that is a reasonable walking distance to retail.

As a high school student, I was disappointed that most of friends could only be visited by a risky bicycle ride or by parental car, but it was the land use pattern to which much of my generation was accustomed.  It was just the way things were.  It took decades before I realized that my high school discontent wasn’t surliness but the germ of an idea that better land use patterns were possible.

My mother still lives in the home from where I attended high school.  So I’ve had a continuing reason to visit Carmichael over the years.  Like many communities that experienced their greatest growth immediately after World War II, it hasn’t aged well.

The strip malls have deteriorated, working their way down the economic scale.  It’s not uncommon to see a strip mall with over half of its space available for rent on a corner, while new strip mall is being built only a block away, as our tax codes and land use rules further undermine the already weak walkability.  (The Walk Score for Carmichael is 40, with the note “Most errands require a car.”  I think they overestimate the walkability.)

The stores upon which many residents rely, such as supermarkets, have concentrated into fewer locations, further overburdening already congested streets.

The community remains proud of their lack of sidewalks, although I suspect that the pride is stronger among those who are behind their steering wheels than those walking the narrow line between rushing traffic, raveling pavement edges, and roadside ditches.

The transit system is limited and more suited for commuting to workplaces in Sacramento than for local chores.

Against that backdrop, I was pleased a few years ago when Sacramento County, aided by a committee of Carmichael residents, began to assemble a plan for turning the community toward urbanism, at least along the main arterial.  The Fair Oaks Boulevard Concept Plan was a strategy to convert the land for a block or two either side of the arterial into a walkable, transit-oriented setting.

I watched from afar as the plan came together.  On several occasions, I even considered traveling to Carmichael to testify at public hearings on the plan.

My comments would have been simple and to the point.  I would have lauded the community for their farsightedness.  Then I would have cautioned that the adoption of a plan, no matter how well conceived, is only a minuscule step along the path to urbanism.  That the real hard work comes in convincing developers that the commitment to urbanism is real and in securing the funds for the infrastructure improvements to complement the new development.

Eventually, I choose not to testify.  The trip would have been long and I was unsure that four years of living in a community nearly a half-century ago, no matter how many fond memories I may have collected, entitled me to participate in their process.

Fair Oaks/Marconi intersection

Fair Oaks/Marconi intersection

Perhaps that was a mistake by me.  The plan was eventually adopted and remains a good template for turning Carmichael toward urbanism.  But when a small amount of funding became available for improvements along Fair Oaks Boulevard, the money didn’t go toward building a path for urbanism.  It was instead dedicated to improving a street intersection within the plan area.  Rather than building a place that might be better suited for people, the county once again improved the world for cars.

I’m not suggesting that the intersection improvements weren’t needed.  Traffic has increased since the intersection alignment was first established and multiple incremental fixes had gradually made the intersection awkward and difficult to drive.  But intersection improvements shouldn’t have been the highest priority.

It’s true that the intersection improvements included new sidewalks.  But how many pedestrians can be seen on those sidewalks?  It was only me with my camera and a scruffy gentleman awaiting a bus.

If the supposed goal of the community is a move toward urbanism, spending scarce resources on street improvements fails to open the doors to urbanist developers.  Even worse, it sends a message that the commitment to urbanism is, at best, half-hearted.

Just because one lived in a place years ago, and remembers it with affection, doesn’t mean that the community should make wise decisions long after one left.  But one can hope.

Schedule Note

Another meeting of Petaluma Urban Chat is upon us.  We’ll meet at the Aqus Café at 2nd and H Streets in Petaluma on Tuesday, April 8.  We’ll convene for conversation at 5:30, with the discussion beginning at 5:45.  The discussion will again be about “Happy City” by Charles Montgomery.

As attendance was below average last month, we’ll return for a second time to the first five chapters of the book, giving all a chance to comment on the logical framework that Montgomery has begun to construct in support of his argument that human happiness is strongly tied to well-designed urban settings.  Even if you haven’t read the book, you should find the conversation engaging.

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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