Durable Growth

Northern California tour: Folsom

Historic district sewer cleanout lid

Historic district sewer cleanout lid

In several recent posts, I wrote of a one-day roadtrip I took through Northern California, sampling urbanism both successful and not.  My first stop was Suisun City and my last was the Laguna West subdivision in Elk Grove, which is where the saga could have ended.  But a few days later, I had a professional meeting in Folsom, so will make that historic city the coda to my wintertime urbanist travels.

I spent my high school years only a few miles from Folsom and retain fond memories of the community.  Looking around with older eyes, I still see the historic and walkable downtown that appealed to me.  But I can also see that the walkability lessons weren’t applied as the town grew.  And grow it did, with an explosion of drivable suburbia continuing to the present day.

The result is that this historic district, which is primarily Sutter Street, now sits isolated, a theme park surrounded by a sea of suburbia.

And that’s a shame because Sutter Street has much to teach us.  I’d prefer more residential within walking distance of Sutter Street, but Sutter Street is a comfortable, walkable place.

Several years ago, the city secured funds for a full historical restoration of Sutter Street.  The project triggered disputes about the removal of elements, such as shed roofs over sidewalks, which had been added over the years but weren’t consistent with the historical character.  In most cases, I’ll give the nod to function over historical authenticity, but I think the Sutter Street vision worked out fine.

Sutter Street

Sutter Street

In particular, I’m impressed by the solution for commercial deliveries.  Designated unloading spaces are provided on alternating sides of the street.  If all the loading spaces are in use, motorists must traverse low-speed chicane along Sutter Street, regularly yielding to opposing traffic.  Meanwhile, car parking is provided by insets behind the gutter line, tucked between street trees.  It’s a fine solution and consistent with the multi-user nature of the street.  And it precludes any need for a “Twenty is Plenty” standard.

Near the west end of Sutter Street is the historical railyard area, with the turntable still in place.  It’s a nice bit of history.  But it’s also where the walkability of Sutter Street begins to break down.  Adjoining the turntable, and set far back from Sutter Street, is a structure that is predominantly parking garage.

Turntable and parking garage

Turntable and parking garage

On the far end of the garage is the Historic Folsom Light Rail Station, which is a fine element for a historic district.  But it’s removed from the historic district, separated by the garage, so lacks the interest and usefulness that walkability needs.  And the 102 parking spaces allocated for the light rail passengers are a poor and inadequate replacement for walkability.

The residential areas that might feed the light rail station are little better, with many of them missing sidewalks.

Overall, Sutter Street is a lovely place, but it’s a reminder of how we lived more than a century ago.  Although the opportunity was there, it fails to provide a template for how we might live in the future.  And that’s a disappointment.

Historic Truss Bridge

Historic Truss Bridge

Before closing, I should mention the Historic Truss Bridge, only a long block away from Sutter Street.  The bridge carries the American River Bike Trail over the American River.  The bridge was built in the 1880s, but was soon made inadequate by the heavier vehicle weights allowed by internal combustion engines.  It was moved to Siskiyou County, where it served weight-limited duty for nearly a century.

In the 1990s, the County decided that the bridge needed replacement and began making demolition plans.  At about the same time, the City of Folsom needed a bridge to carry the bike trail across the river.  My late father, who spent much of his post-retirement passion in the research of historical bridges, spotted the opportunity, made the introductions, and then stepped back and watched as the old bridge was returned to its original abutments.  As a result, the bridge today carries a second title as the Donald W. Alden Memorial Bridge.

Dad was more of a bridge guy, but understood my passion for urbanism.  I suspect he’d share my wish that Folsom could have more of a functioning, walkable downtown, not a historical theme park.

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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