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CITY SPOTLIGHT: The New Urbanist Renaissance of Downtown Redwood City | Congress for the New Urbanism

CITY SPOTLIGHT: The New Urbanist Renaissance of Downtown Redwood City

This post is part of our CITY SPOTLIGHT blog series. City Spotlight shines a light on the latest news, developments and initiatives occurring in cities and towns where CNU members live and work.

This City Spotlight post highlights the downtown renaissance of Redwood City and is written by Redwood City's Downtown Development Coordinator, Dan Zack, CNU-A. Read our previous 4 Part Series on San Bernardino here.

It is unknown to many New Urbanists, but one of the most dramatic downtown comeback stories of our generation is taking place in Redwood City, California. I have been lucky enough to serve as Redwood City’s Downtown Development Coordinator for the past ten years, and to play a role in its renaissance. This dynamic district, formerly ridiculed as “Deadwood City,” has seen an amazing turnaround due to an aggressive program of code reform, a strong investment in public spaces, and a strategy of using entertainment as a catalyzing force.

Founded in 1852 as a port on a creek leading to San Francisco Bay, Redwood City took its name from the redwood lumber that was shipped from there to build Gold Rush-era San Francisco. When San Mateo County was broken off of San Francisco County in 1856, Redwood City was designated the County seat, and the town grew slowly but steadily around shipping and government. It became one of the primary towns on the San Francisco Peninsula and had a strong downtown until the middle of the 20th century. 

As with so many American downtowns, it declined with construction of nearby malls and other shopping centers. A redevelopment plan was drawn up in the 1960s to completely demolish historic districts, create superblocks, and pedestrianize primary streets. Thankfully, this plan was never implemented, and Downtown Redwood City limped through the late 20th century struggling economically, but physically intact. 

The citizens of Redwood City had long desired for their Downtown to be revitalized, and steadily demanded that actions be taken to improve the area. Some good steps were taken, such as the the 1989 preservation of the former fire station and its adaptive reuse into the main city library, the construction of a new city hall in 1997, and the development two city-assisted housing projects in 1998 and 2002. Some missteps were also taken, such as the construction of a suburban-style shopping center directly next to the Downtown commuter train station in 1994. However, the turnaround really began in earnest at the turn of the millenium and is now a juggernaut. It has progressed generally as a three-phase process.

Phase One was the creation of activity generators and great public spaces. By the close of the 20th Century, Downtown Redwood City had become very sleepy place. Businesses struggled to survive due to a lack of foot traffic. It was clear to city leaders that the district needed a big burst of activity. An attraction needed to be brought in that could create a similar effect to an anchor store in a shopping mall: attract large numbers of people ot the area, who could then patronize other businesses in the vicinity. A cinema was determined to be just the thing. Movies attract people fairly steadily throughout the year, and our area was underserved. Redwood City had one 12 screen cinema, and the next closest cinemas were about 10 miles away to the north and south. 

The City’s Redevelopment Agency assembled a site and issued a Request for Proposals for a developer. A development firm with excellent local experience, and a partnership with the only local theater operator, was selected. Selecting this developer not only helped to ensure that a good building would be built, but that the existing Redwood City cinema would be closed, making the Downtown cinema the only place to see movies for miles around. This helped assure its success. A city-operated underground parking garage, ground floor retail, and dramatic streetscape improvements were important parts of the project as well.

The Cinema

At the opposite corner of the same intersection was the site of another important key to Downtown’s future. There sat the historic San Mateo County Courthouse, which was built in 1910 in the Beaux Arts style and which featured the largest glass dome west of the Mississippi. You wouldn’t have known it, though, because it sat behind a Depression era annex which not only obscured the front of the building, but which sat squarely in the location of the city’s former town square. The City’s Redevelopment Agency, in cooperation with San Mateo County, demolished the annex, reconstructed the facade of the Courthouse, and created a new Courthouse Square. The square, which is less than ½ acre in size, was designed to serve as the community’s living room. It is a simple hardscaped space that is flanked by fountains and pavilions and that has been used as an additional entertainment venue for Downtown, hosting hundreds of events every year.

Courthouse Before

Courthouse After

Phase Two was the complete reconstruction of the zoning regulations and planning approval process for Downtown development. The cinema and Courthouse Square were certain to infuse Downtown Redwood City with a needed burst of activity, but it was understood by city leaders that this wouldn’t be enough to achieve the dramatic revitalization that they desired. They knew that thousands of office workers and residents would be needed to support the retail amenities that the community desired, to nurture a vibrant streetlife, and to create healthy property values and tax receipts.

So as construction blazed forward on the cinema and Courthouse Square, planning staff, with the support of New Urbanist firm Freedman Tung & Bottomley (now Freedman Tung & Sasaki), moved forward on a new form-based code for Downtown. The idea was to create a code which would allow privately financed development to be a profitable venture in Downtown area. After the expense of Courthouse Square and the cinema, the City’s Redevelopment Agency didn’t have any capacity left for additional tax-increment financing, and other funding sources weren’t available in significant enough amounts for the city to financially participate in many more projects, if any. If the desired development was to occur, developers needed to be able to purchase site on their own, construct the buildings, lease them out at the going rate, and achieve the profit margins that the needed to make the endeavor worthwhile. 

This forced the city to deal with the traditionally sensitive subjects of height, density, parking, and architectural style. We started the entire process of creating the plan with a very interactive public process. We used workshops to learn what the public was concerned about, what their hopes were, and what their tastes were. We also used these workshops to educate them about what makes downtowns tick, and how higher concentrations of people can support the amenities that they desired. In the end, density wasn’t even an issue, because people understood the benefits that extra people would bring, and they understood that the most important factor in creating a nice place was the form of the buildings and public spaces, not a number. 

The final plan included important features wanted by the public, such as heights which stepped down toward single family neighborhoods and design guidelines requiring traditional architectural character in the areas with the highest concentrations of historic buildings. It also had many form-based regulations dear to New Urbanists, such as strict requirements for active frontages, base-middle-top compositions to facades, and hidden parking.

The Downtown Precise Plan was adopted in early 2007 with broad community support. Sadly, it was immediately hit with a lawsuit from a disgruntled property owner under the California Environmental Quality Act. The lawsuit alleged that the plan’s Environmental Impact Report did not adequately evaluate the impacts of the plan on historic resources and on shadows. The judge hearing the case agreed and required the plan to be repealed. We created an entirely new EIR for the plan, including an extensive shadow analysis. City staff also reworked the Downtown Precise Plan to reduce maximum permitted heights near historic resources and public open spaces to reduced shadow and aesthetic impacts on them. Since we were modifying the plan anyway, we reorganized it to be easier to use and improved some regulations which had caused confusion. The new Downtown Precise Plan was adopted on January 24, 2011 and was not challenged.

Phase Three, private development, is now underway. 421 residential units are under construction, 280 more units have been approved, and 471 more are under review. The 1,172 units that have been undertaken in the two years since the Downtown Precise Plan was adopted represent more housing than was constructed in the preceding five decades combined. Furthermore, all of it is privately financed, without a penny of City subsidies. On top of that, 300,000 square feet of office space is under way. All projects have received Planning approvals in six months or less and have had no opposition. 

This success has come about because developers understand that Downtown Redwood City is place where they can eliminate a lot of the uncertainty that can undermine them in other cities. NIMBY battles don’t exist, because the public meetings to figure out what kind of development was right for our Downtown happened before the plan was created. Now, we are simply reviewing projects against that plan. The regulations in the plan are tough, and often push developers to do things that they otherwise wouldn’t do, but they are very clear, so everybody knows what they are getting into before they submit a development application. 

Projects which are proposed, approved, or under construction

There is more work to be done, but Downtown Redwood City is more active and economically successful than it has been in decades. Retail vacancies have fallen and an eclectic dining and pub scene has materialized. We have emerged as one of the entertainment capitals of our region, with our new cinema becoming one of the busiest in the area, and our summer events bringing in thousand of visitors each week. Tech startups are not only flocking to the district, but they are expanding within Downtown as they grow and prosper. Most importantly, everyone agrees that Downtown is only going to get better, and the public feels great pride in what it has become.

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