Thursday, February 09, 2006

Downtown Renaissance

Downtown Renaissance
By Claire St. John

Sculptures of a farmer and daughter harvesting fruit, honoring Vacaville’s agricultural heritage, sit on the corner of Main and Merchant streets, across from the new town square in downtown Vacaville. )Gary Goldsmith/Daily Republic file (2005))

Years ago, downtowns sprang up around railroad tracks that brought goods, and people to stock and shop local stores.

"Back in the 1800s, the downtown Dixon, that was Dixon," said Angela Meisenheimer, executive director of the Downtown Dixon Business Association. "That's where the train stopped, that's where all the commerce was going. When they got incorporated, everything revolved around the train station."

But with freeways and spreading communities, more shopping centers and then malls were built away from downtown areas, with more clustering near freeways to attract the most traffic.

In some towns and cities, the retail spread led to a desiccated and neglected downtowns.

Tear it down and start again?

Originally an Orange County oil town, Brea, for instance, voted to tear down its downtown and start fresh.

"By the '70s it was already deteriorating, as a lot of downtowns did, because of malls," said Sylvia Bianchi, executive director of Brea Downtown Owners Association.

The Brea downtown reopened in 2000 with a bevy of upscale shops and restaurants, designed by four different architects to avoid a uniform, mall-like look.

"I wouldn't recommend it as a fix-all for every little downtown because a lot have strong historic ties they need to hold on to," Bianchi said. "In this particular case, it worked out."
University trumps mall culture

Davis, lacking big boxes or malls and maintaining ties with its history, has always had a strong downtown.

California is experiencing a sort of downtown renaissance as city councils turn away from freeways and back to the heart of town. Tired of big-box and cookie-cutter stores, councils and residents are supporting unique dining, entertainment and shopping businesses.

"I know that growing up in the Midwest where everything was small towns, after years and years of malls, people like the downtowns," said Bob Vollmer, Downtown Vacaville Business Improvement District executive director.

With a university instead of a mall as its centerpiece, Davis' downtown has fared better than most, said Laura Cole-Rowe, Davis Downtown Business Association executive director.

The nearby university provides constant foot traffic and businesses oblige the young, diverse crowd by offering a wide variety of food, shopping and entertainment.

University events, such as Picnic Day, graduation and a host of others, also make for a thriving downtown. Although such events flow over into downtown regularly, Cole-Rowe said the DDBA is exploring options for a "signature event," something like Gilroy's Garlic Festival, or Fairfield's candy and tomato festivals.

"We're working on that right now but we're not going to reveal what we're thinking of right now," Cole-Rowe said.

The downtown does pretty well for itself on a day-to-day basis, too. With two movie theaters and a third opening soon, hardware stores, a co-op organic grocery store, lots of cute boutiques, coffee shops and restaurants, the downtown is a popular place to be.

"I think a wide variety is important," Cole-Rowe said. "We have over 70 places to eat or drink. As far as restaurants go, we have all kinds of different ethnic foods. We have Afghan food and Czech, and five different Japanese and three Indian, five Thai and two Vietnamese restaurants."

Davis' downtown is more of a grid than a single "main street," allowing for more parking, more shops and easier access.

Tracks and highways snarl Dixon events

Dixon's downtown, on the other hand, lies along a state highway under Caltrans' jurisdiction. Because the railroad tracks cut across the downtown, safety is a concern.

Lambtown, USA - a popular annual Dixon festival - used to be in the closed-to-traffic downtown, but as the event expanded and it became more difficult to secure the train tracks, the event moved to the Dixon May Fair grounds.

"The problem with downtown Dixon is it's a highway and we have to deal with Caltrans," Meisenheimer said. "It's about $20,000 for us to close the highway for one day."

Dixon has a vacancy rate that it's trying to lower by attracting retail shops and limiting assembly uses - such as churches and clubs that use a location only periodically - to upstairs units or off the main street.

Counterintuitively, Dixon's downtown business association welcomed the Wal-Mart that was built in 2003, Meisenheimer said. Wal-Mart actually improved business around town because instead of driving to Vacaville or Woodland, Dixon residents were staying in town and doing their shopping and dining in there. This reduced a problem that was harming businesses and the city, which depends on sales tax.

"We are going through a lot of growing and changing right now," Meisenheimer said "We've sewn up the hemorrhaging a lot."

Like Dixon's downtown business association supported Wal-Mart, so Davis' supports Target.

Emerging from the shadows

Vacaville has dozens of big-box stores, major chain stores and an outlet mall lining Interstate 80.

But past the strip malls and square-foot monsters is the newly renovated downtown.

"I can remember when downtown was not a fun place to come," Vollmer said. "The last five, six, seven years, things are cleaning up. The city's behind making it the anchor, as one of the go-to places in Vacaville, the heart of the city."

Vacaville is making headway with its longtime annual Fiesta Days, but it's also trying to attract people in a broader reach with its new Middle Earth Festival. Started last year, the festival celebrates all things Tolkien, and was an overwhelming success, Vollmer said.

The city is working to put more informative signs on the freeway to let people know there's something beyond the fast-food chains and retail heavy-hitters that stretch to Lagoon Valley.

Fairfield is in a similar bind, said Tony Brantley, Fairfield Downtown Association board member.

"Some of the challenges that we're looking to overcome is just getting the word out that we're a community-based downtown and let everyone know we're not a Solano, Fairfield mall; we're little stores," Brantley said. "When people shop, they're going to run to the mall. This is another alternative for them."

Cole-Rowe, who has worked to improve downtowns in Napa, Solano and Yolo counties, said she admires the efforts of all cities to get their core areas back on their feet. But she's partial to Davis.

"Regionally, we probably have the strongest downtown," she said. "As far as downtowns, this is a great one to be in."

Reach Claire St. John at or (530) 747-8057.

Copyright © 2005, 2006. Daily Republic.

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