Reimagining Commercial Corridors | Comstock’s magazine

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Jason Kline and his wife, Cecilia Yi, knew they had found the
right location for their first School of Rock when they saw the
two-story, former
Odd Fellows building
on a corner of Elk Grove Boulevard in
the old part of town. The setting suited the local franchise,
which began offering private music lessons and band practices,
along with musical instruments for sale, when the business opened
in 2017.

Old Town Elk Grove’s resurgence attracted the couple, who saw an
opportunity as both real estate investors and business owners.
“(We) have always had a great interest in historic infill
developments and believe in restoring them to their former
glory,” Kline says. “Although a lot of these projects don’t
immediately pencil out in terms of ROI, with much persistence and
passion they are a great investment for the long-term gain and
greater community impact.”

The entrepreneurs later opened a second location on Vernon Street
in downtown Roseville, another historic area experiencing a
rebirth. The third School of Rock opened in 2020 on Fair Oaks
Boulevard in Carmichael, noticeable by a purple Volkswagen bus
often parked outside.

Elk Grove’s School of Rock has far exceeded their expectations,
Kline says. Elk Grove Economic Development Director Darrell Doan
says children and adults come downtown every evening to attend
the music school. For Doan, the business’s success illustrates a
major shift for the neighborhood, once home to the former
stagecoach stop and hotel that first put Elk Grove on the map in
1850
.

“There are some great businesses down there already — the
barber shop where I get my hair cut, some antique shops, some of
those clothing stores, Boulevard Bistro and Brick House
Restaurant,” Doan says. “There’s some good pieces we want to
build on. You have to be careful with historic districts too. We
don’t want it to be a tourist destination where you go to
experience old-timey, wallow in nostalgia for the good old days.
We want modern uses blended in a historic context.”

The City of Elk Grove has engaged in a multiyear effort to
preserve that history, while reimagining its oldest commercial
corridor, giving residents more shopping options on their way to
dinner within walking distance, perhaps with a festival to enjoy
afterward and a nightcap at a brewery down the street.

Cities throughout the Capital Region are taking aging and
forgotten corridors — most of them historically commercial
and retail-based — and making them more desirable places. This
effort is especially critical as customer retail spending
continues its move from brick-and-mortar to online. Case in
point: Over a third of all online products bought or sold online
in the U.S. go through Amazon, according to a
2020 report by Stantec
on how shopping has changed over the
past century. Additionally, millennials are more likely to shop
online than in physical stores. Just as struggling malls have
been forced to pivot in recent years and as small mom-and-pop
stores have adapted during the pandemic, so too have city
governments found themselves reimagining commercial corridors in
new ways, so that they offer both economic and social benefits.

Roseville: three corridors transforming

Some of Roseville’s major gateways into its city are, frankly,
not very attractive. Drivers exit Douglas Boulevard from
Interstate 80 to large roads and traffic, aging infrastructure
and big parking lots.

Development occurred around the Douglas Boulevard, Sunrise Avenue
and Harding Boulevard area in the 1950s and ’60s, during the rise
of American car culture. “You’re looking at commercial areas that
instead of being right up on the street, are set way to the back
behind a very large parking lot — these days, many of which
are empty most of the time or underused,” says Roseville Senior
Planner Lauren Hocker. “Those were all built-out during an era
when the car was the thing you planned for.” 

Another gateway leads to the oldest part of town along Atlantic
Avenue, adjacent to Roseville’s large rail yard, a lasting ode to
the industry that prompted the city’s incorporation in 1909
— a city once called Junction because of its location along
rail lines — and spurred subsequent decades of growth.

Since
May 2021
, the City of Roseville has been laying the
groundwork to reinvigorate these three commercial corridors
— Douglas and Harding boulevards, Douglas Boulevard and
Sunrise Avenue, and Atlantic Street — by developing specific
plans that contain design guidelines for commercial reinvestment
(new landscaping, window replacements and other cosmetic
changes); commercial redevelopment (construction, expansion or
replacement of buildings); and multifamily housing (allowing
residential as a permitted use of commercial property). Roseville
City Council is expected to
vote on these plans in November
.

“The focus of planning now is on trying to make streetscapes
look attractive, bringing buildings forward to the streets so
you can easily walk to them and create a community environment,
and not just a place for people to drive to get their stuff.”

Lauren Hocker, Roseville senior planner

Modern planning now focuses on elements beyond brick-and-mortar
retail and commercial. Community events, alternative
transportation with safe travel for pedestrians and bicyclists,
and redesigned streetscapes with drought-tolerant landscaping
have become central considerations. “The focus of planning now is
on trying to make streetscapes look attractive, bringing
buildings forward to the streets so you can easily walk to them
and create a community environment, and not just a place for
people to drive to get their stuff,” Hocker says.

Additionally, these specific plans could accommodate up to 850
new multifamily residential units. More people living nearby
means more customers and more vibrancy in areas where businesses
typically close earlier in the evening. Businesses and property
owners should then have more money to reinvest into their own
improvements. “The more people are activating those spaces,”
Hocker says, “the more those spaces can be improved and enjoyed
by the entire community.”

Stockton: Miner Avenue facelift

In the early 1840s, an immigrant from France named Charles M.
Weber acquired about 47,000 acres of land on the east side of the
San Joaquin River. Weber is considered the founder of Stockton,
which became a chartered city in 1850; the following year, he
deeded all the streets, channels and public squares of his
settlement to the burgeoning city, according to “An
Illustrated History of San Joaquin County, California
,”
published in 1890.

Soon, Stockton’s
downtown
began taking shape, including the important
thoroughfare of Miner Avenue, where churches, service stations
and automobile shops, hotels, ice cream shops, construction and
building supply firms and other businesses once thrived. Locals
considered Miner Avenue one of Stockton’s most vibrant streets
— until disinvestment in the city’s downtown contributed to
its downturn.

“Although downtowns are experiencing a resurgence, from 1975 into
the 2000s, downtowns were abandoned and the migration of commerce
and leisure activities went from city centers to the suburbs or
the outer ring of a community’s central business district,” says

Stockton City Manager Harry Black
. “However, this trend
appears to be reversing itself, with renewed interest in our
downtowns. There is greater interest in the socialization
possibilities that downtowns present.”

Construction of the $18.4 million
Miner Avenue Complete Street
project kicked off in September
2020 and was completed in
March 2022
. It involved repaved roads, a roundabout to calm
traffic, more parallel parking and buffered bicycle lanes,
drought-tolerant landscaped medians, decorative benches, and the
reduction of car lanes from two to one in each direction. The
improvements extend from Weber Point Events Center to the entry
of the Robert J. Cabral Station, operated by Amtrak.

The complete streets concept refers to smart growth where streets
are designed to be accessible for everyone and various modes of
transportation. Proponents say complete streets can stimulate
economic growth because these areas better accommodate
storefronts, restaurants, outside dining and housing all in a
walkable or biking environment.

“People are able to see change happen. Miner represents the best
of urban planning and design,” Black says. “It is something that
we can be proud of and build upon in terms of community pride and
optimism. Miner Avenue adds to the critical mass necessary to
transform our downtown, which ultimately will add to our overall
city transformation efforts.”

Sacramento: equity and inclusion prioritized

With its Stockton Boulevard Plan, the City of Sacramento is
working with community members on revitalizing the 4.5-mile
corridor in a manner that benefits existing residents and
businesses, rather than making change at their expense. More than

1,600 residents live and 12,000 jobs
exist within a
five-minute walking distance of the boulevard.

“We’re really focusing resources, time, money on: What can we do
to prevent the current folks from being displaced?” says
Sacramento Senior Planner Elizabeth Boyd. “How can we help them
to take advantage of the economic opportunities that are coming
to Stockton Boulevard?” 

Workforce and economic development, housing, streetscape
improvements, financial empowerment, equity and anti-displacement
measures (for example, assistance with rent or home repairs) top
the priority list for this specific plan, a working version of
which has been released to the public. Sacramento City Council is
expected to vote on the plan next year.

Stockton Boulevard was once a major transportation corridor
connecting Sacramento to Stockton. It also had a streetcar
service. Inevitably, change came, like when
Highway 99 was built in 1961
, redirecting traffic away from
the boulevard, although it remains today a heavily traversed
thoroughfare between East Sacramento and south Sacramento.

Elk Grove’s Dust Bowl brewing company, located in a former depot
building, is an example of the adaptive reuse projects bringing
life back to the city’s Old Town neighborhood. (Photo by Jordan
Kazemi, courtesy of D&S Development)

Another project to undoubtedly alter the area is the development
of UC Davis’ Aggie Square, a mixed-use innovation district
adjacent to its
medical center
. The project will bring over 1 million square
feet of state-of-the-art research, wet labs, commercial space and
housing in phase 1, which has a capital investment of $1.1
billion, according to the university.

But
Aggie Square
has also brought concern for neighbors and
businesses unsure how an influx of new growth could affect them.
“As much as we want to revitalize our commercial corridors, we
have to be sensitive to the fact that revitalization can cause
negative impacts,” Boyd says, adding, “So much of what we’re
doing is closely tied to race and we’re being very explicit in
saying this is something important to us.”

The project’s pilot Community Ambassador Program includes
representatives from local Vietnamese, Chinese, Spanish and Black
communities, who are improving dialogue between residents and
city officials — and trying to ensure equitable outcomes.

Sacramento native Conrad Crump, the Black ambassador, says the
program reaches certain demographics historically precluded from
participating in civic life in a meaningful way due to language,
cultural or other systemic barriers.

“We have monthly meetings that provide space for a two-way
conversation to really hear about the opportunities that are
shared with the community, and also for the city to be able to
hear and learn about issues and challenges that are very real
issues for various communities,” he says.

Crump says the city provides ambassadors with a toolkit to
streamline and simplify government information, which they can
then spread through email, social media or even fliers, like at a
local barber shop.

Old Town Elk Grove: stimulating investment

Darrell Doan has been Elk Grove’s economic development director
since 2015, having arrived after stints in Baltimore and Alameda.
He quickly realized that Old Town Elk Grove could use a shot of
adrenaline.

“When I got here, it was pretty clear to me that it was an
underperforming retail center,” he says. From a merchandising
standpoint, Old Town lacked an adequate mix of retailers. Unlike
a shopping mall where the landlord makes leasing decisions based
on creating the right overall tenancy, in a historic district,
buildings typically have different owners with varying
motivations, capabilities and sources of capital, Doan says. That
explains why Old Town has several hair and nail salons, but needs
more coffee shops and sandwich spots, fitness boutiques like
cycling or yoga studios, and national credit tenants. 

The district, however, has good bones, and now improved
streetscape thanks to recent investment by the city in attractive
benches, nice sidewalks, crosswalks, landscaping, lighting and
the construction of Old Town Plaza, a 47,000-square-foot open air
venue. Additionally, a new library is in its design phase. 

The city is working on an incentive program to get landlords to
install sprinklers, replace old windows and make utility upgrades
— modifications that allow modern uses to plug into older
buildings. The next step is encouraging merchants and landlords
to organize themselves into a merchants association and a
business improvement district, which requires the property owners
to petition the city to tax themselves and then dedicate those
revenues toward signage, lighting, pressure washing, docents and
other measures to keep the area clean and safe.

The city’s boldest move, as the private sector failed to drive
enough investment, was its purchase several years ago of
distressed properties, and then partnering with D&S
Development, which specializes in adaptive reuse and historic
rehabs, to develop the sites. This Railroad Street Redevelopment
Project includes Dust Bowl Brewing Company (in a renovated former
depot building), the Railroad Courtyards development (17
residential for-rent bungalows) and a new restaurant concept from
the owner of LowBrau in Midtown Sacramento (also in a renovated
depot building).

“These are examples of the strategy working right,” Doan says. “A
neighborhood that didn’t have the right mix of tenants to create
a critical mass, a city that saw we can influence that by doing a
couple of our own projects and then hoping the private investment
would follow. We are seeing that happen.” 

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