Tuesday, February 5, 2013

Downtown Mountain View Secrets of Success: One City’s Experience

Originally a farm town, surrounded by orchards, on the Southern Pacific rail line south of San Francisco, Mountain View, California grew up as a stepchild to its more famous neighbor, Palo Alto, the home of Stanford University.  As high-tech industry began to grow and prosper near Stanford, Mountain View became the dormitory for high tech workers. Where most cities are 2/3 single-family residential, Mountain View became 2/3 multi-family. It was said in those early days that Mountain View was where you lived when you got out of school or after your first divorce.

The rise of shopping malls in the 1960s seriously damaged Mountain View’s downtown.  A 12-story office building, an early attempt at downtown revitalization, sat uncompleted and empty for 10 years right in the center of downtown.  As a security measure for the vacant building, German shepherd guard dogs roamed behind the smoked glass of the retail space on Castro Street, the city’s main street.

Some years ago Mountain View embarked on a major effort to revitalize its downtown and to remake its image.  The effort succeeded.  Mountain View’s downtown is well used and well loved, and Mountain View is now world famous as the home of Google.

Here is the Mountain View story in a nutshell.  What we did right and wrong, and what we learned from it.

1.The community, not a consultant.  Mountain View started off wrong.  The planners did the usual thing.  They hired a consultant to prepare a wonderful plan and presented the plan to the community.  A disaster – the community rebelled.  So, we learned from that and started with the community.  We put together a group we called the Downtown Task Force and we worked together to understand our downtown and what needed to be done to make it a great place.
2.Understanding, not just approval.  As we began to work together we began to realize we didn’t know how to make a good downtown.  We didn’t understand the ingredients for success.  Instead of asking a consultant to do it for us, we began to learn together.  We read about good downtowns.  We visited other downtowns and walked around and talked about what we liked and didn’t like, and why.  And we met a young man, Michael Freedman (the founder of Freedman Tung + Sasaki, in San Francisco) who began to teach us that there is a simple, understandable system about how to make a good downtown and a good city.  We learned about city design – not design in the artistic sense, but design as putting the pieces of the city together so they fit right and work together well.  He showed us images of good downtowns and we talked about what we liked and disliked and learned from those conversations.
3.A place, not a project.  One of the things we learned was we were planning aplace, not a project.  There would be projects in our new downtown, but we were planning our downtown as a good place that smaller individual projects would fit comfortably into.  A neighboring city took a different approach.  They saw downtown as a project, and they tore down their traditional downtown and replaced it with a project – a regional shopping mall.  The mall later failed and was replaced, and it is now in the process of being replaced again.  We feel we did better because we saw our downtown as a real place for people, not a shopping mall.
4.A dream, not a plan.  When revitalizing a declining area many cities think the important thing is to have a really good plan.  That was not our experience.  Before we had a plan, we had a dream.  Our dream was of downtown Mountain View as a wonderful place for people to live, work, shop and play in a people-friendly environment that makes you want to linger and come back.  And that dream was real to us; so real that we could see it in our minds.  Later we realized how important that was.  Once we saw our dream clearly we could use staff and consultants to help us write a plan to achieve our dream.  That plan to implement our dream became known as the Downtown Mountain View Precise Plan (an up-to-date version is available on the City of Mountain View website).  Some cities write a plan without a dream and wonder why it doesn’t change their town into a great place.  The answer for us was to have the dream first and then write the plan to turn the dream into reality.
5.A dream, not a consultant study.  Many cities stress the importance of having a thorough consultant analysis so the plan is realistic.  In Mountain View we didn’t do a consultant study to find out whether our plan was realistic.  In hindsight that may have been wise.  An economic study might have proved we couldn’t do it, because at that time Downtown Mountain View had a second-class image that didn’t contribute to success. But we had a dream and we just went ahead and worked hard to realize our dream.  Dreams motivate us.  In the history of the world, no one ever built a great city because of a consultant study.
6.Don’t ignore economic reality.  Although we had a dream, rather than a consultant study, we had to understand and build on the reality of our regional circumstances.  At the time we were seen as a second-class city, but we were fortunate to be in an economically strong region – what later grew into Silicon Valley.  This regional economic strength contributed greatly to our success in Downtown Mountain View.  (And you can still see that economic strength in the groups of Silicon Valley employees coming downtown every weekday for lunch.)
7.Some Specific Downtown Tips.  As we worked together in Mountain View to make our dream a reality we learned some specific things worth considering:
a.Make it compact.  We are all used to sprawling shopping malls, surrounded by huge parking lots on wide streets.  A downtown is different – perhaps the opposite.  A downtown’s appeal, and its success, depends on it being a really compact place where everything is close together within a convenient walk.  In a downtown you park your car once and walk around from place to place, instead of driving.
b.Speaking of parking, it should never be between the street and the shops.  Parking between the sidewalk and the shopfronts destroys the important connection between potential customers walking on the sidewalk and the retail businesses that need to attract them.  And having the sidewalk next to the shops and restaurants makes it a much more fun place to walk.  Parking along the curb is good and it helps buffer the pedestrian from moving traffic.  Off-street parking should be in back, with pedestrian walkways to offer a convenient access to the main street.  You can see this in Downtown Mountain View.
c.Mix it up.  Our traditional downtowns were a convenient mix of retail businesses on the ground floor, offices and some residential on the upper floors and more residential close by within a comfortable walk.  This is still a good formula for good downtowns.  Don’t try to apply the suburban shopping mall standards that separate shopping from everything else.  A good downtown puts it all together so you can walk to work, or shopping, and home again without needing a car.
d.Make the pieces fit together.  When we mix home, work and shopping all in the same walkable neighborhood, it is important to make sure the pieces fit together comfortably.  One key is to continue to ask yourself, “If we built it that way, would I like to live and work there?”  If you want to see a good example of successful mixing, come visit Downtown Mountain View.
e.Buildings shape streets into comfortable outdoor community living rooms.  Look again at your traditional downtown.  See how the buildings are located at the back of the sidewalk and the buildings are tall enough to make you feel that you are in a good place when you are walking there.  The main street in a traditional downtown was the community living room.  Where we held the 4th of July parade and other events.  Where we met our friends and neighbors.  Where we might stop for coffee or a treat with a friend.  We need these community living rooms and using traditional downtown streets as a model, we can create them again.
f.Enough People.  The lifeblood of any retail business is its customers.  Without enough customers, the business will wither and die.  Traditional downtowns knew this and brought enough people together in a compact place to support shops, restaurants, and other services.  Remember, the more people living and working in your downtown the fewer people and cars that need to be imported from other areas for a business to survive.
g.Personal Mobility.  We all need to get around from place to place every day, so thinking about mobility is important.  To provide that mobility, traditional downtowns were often located on a rail line and a major road. Mountain View grew up in between the Southern Pacific rail line (now the Caltrain commuter rail line) and El Camino Real (The Royal Way) connecting San Francisco and San Jose.  Good downtowns need these choices of mobility.  Not just cars, but walking, biking and public transportation.  Doing this well helps reduce traffic and parking.
h.Stay with traditional downtown basics.  Many developers are accustomed to suburban shopping mall standards and they may suggest they can do a really good project in your downtown if you just modify your standards a little bit to fit with “what the market wants and needs”.  They may propose changes such as putting some parking in front of a proposed new retail business because that is how that retail business functions.  Don’t be tempted, or you will begin to destroy your downtown.  Stick with your traditional downtown development standards as you build your downtown for success.
8.Having a Downtown Plan is the beginning, not the end.  To succeed you will need patience and persistence.  But your dream and your plan can act as a powerful marketing tool.  Developers love it when a community has a community-supported dream and knows what it wants.  Another key element is leadership.  Don’t just hand your dream to a professional planner and tell him to go do it.  That is not how success works.  You will need at least one Champion – a key person who is on a crusade to implement the plan and won’t let anyone or anything get in the way.  Someone who will leap over tall buildings to implement the community’s dream.  Are you that Champion?

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