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Designing A Downtown With Character

How can Riverbank create a unique character for its downtown? What kind of businesses do we want to see there? How can we provide a variety of activities to draw visitors to the city's heart?

Those are some of the questions posed by city consultants in land use and urban design, Ian Ross and Dave Evan of City Design Collective (CDC) at a community meeting hosted Wednesday, Jan. 9. There will be another meeting on this subject on Wednesday, Feb. 6, at 7 p.m. in the Community Center.

Community Development Director Tim Ogden began the gathering by noting it did not concern the downtown redevelopment project that is already under way with replacement of underground utilities. This was rather an effort to gather ideas on retaining and expanding businesses and activities in the downtown.

Sketching the position to date, Ross noted that downtown Riverbank was founded at the intersection of a river and a railway but now must compete economically with newer cities that grew up along highways. The city core is losing business. First the older downtown stores moved to the city's outskirts in search of more parking and more patrons. Then the new big box stores joined them along the highways.

How does the downtown create an identity, become a desirable destination, offer something better or at least different both from the stores that settled first on the west side of town and then the Crossroads Shopping Center?

Not that the big box stores don't have their place, Ross said. They offer a great variety of goods at reasonable prices but he said they and their huge parking lots are soulless places ... you go to shop and then you leave.

"Downtown should be a place for families, both residents and visitors, a place to stroll, shop, eat, take in the boutiques and maybe a show, a place to meet friends and spot familiar faces."

Ross invited suggestions and received plenty from an audience that included all sorts, from City Manager Rich Holmer, Mayor Chris Crifasi, Vice Mayor Virginia Madueno and city Community Development Director J. D. Hightower to city activists Scott McRitchie, downtown resident Evelyn Halbert, downtown merchant A. J. Meyers, restaurant owner Daryl Daniel, ex councilmember Allen Trawick and Chamber of Commerce member Bob Cairns.

Halbert stood up for the downtown residents who she claimed "had held the place together as the businesses left one by one." The residents, she claimed, did not get enough consideration in the city's plans compared with the storeowners.

One businessman said the first thing a potential storeowner looks for is parking and the downtown is too cramped to provide that.

Holmer noted the city would be providing more parking at the site of the former Reed's Auto on Third Street and at its intersection with Sierra Street when the Oak Valley Hospital medical clinic moves out.

Daniel said many of his employees at the Sno White Drive In were of low to moderate income. He would like to see more affordable housing in the downtown for them.

He also suggested, if the downtown is to flourish at night, it will need better lighting; so too the area surrounding it like Atchison Street to the north.

McRitchie suggested more "urban development" with businesses on the first floor and apartment housing above in the manner of the Bank Building at Santa Fe and Third streets.

Ross pointed to the example of San Francisco where the upstairs apartments look "very ordinary on the outside" but "are gorgeous inside."

Hinting at the classy touches possible downtown, another speaker mentioned the Christmas parties thrown by the Chamber of Commerce in its office in the Bank Building.

"People dressed up, there were lights everywhere, and carriage rides. It was really exciting," she said.

Dave White, a Crossroads resident and former local fire district chairman, said he's a family man who would like to bring his family downtown if there was some entertainment for them. A Chuck E. Cheese or a sandwich shop would be nice, he suggested. So would a brewery of the kind he's seen in Mountain View's downtown.

Not everybody likes the plans for the downtown; Trawick criticized the downtown redevelopment plans for advocating wider sidewalks.

"We're known for our wide streets. Let's keep it that way," he said.

For entertainment, Holmer noted, the city has bought the Del Rio Theater, is supporting local groups in staging live theater there, and thinking of introducing other uses like specialty movie screenings, a dance studio and an art gallery.

Holmer advocated "a connectivity" between the abandoned cannery just west of downtown that the city would like to buy, develop and connect to the downtown with a bridge over the railroad tracks.

McRitchie mentioned a pharmacy, a bank and a hobby shop as desirable stores in a future downtown.

"If we could get the cannery, we could put in a bunch of businesses at the same time and give them a better chance than doing it one by one in the downtown," he added.

"We had all these businesses back in the 70s," said another speaker. "But they didn't work out. Why bring them back? Landon's was there for 50 years, now it's leaving because it can't compete. What incentives do small businesses have to come and stay?'

Crifasi advocated the city doing more to help small retail businesses and perhaps professional offices get established downtown, even suggesting experts offer them seminars in good customer service.

Madueno suggested a "Web portal for professionals," an Internet connected office for the many young professionals moving into the Crossroads area. Perhaps Queen Bean, the new coffee shop downtown might be interested in offering this service.

Chamber of Commerce member Bob Cairns said much of the future downtown's success would depend on what happened with the bypass plans. Would the substitution of Claribel Road for Atchison Street as a state highway increase or decrease interest in the downtown? He was of the opinion Claribel Road would simply take the trucks off Atchison Street and leave plenty of commuter traffic.

Hightower said a bypass would give the city "a chance to reclaim" Highway 108 (Atchison Street and Patterson Road) and improve it for its own purposes. Redevelopment elsewhere proved a city's sales taxes rose, not fell, when a bypass siphoned off through traffic. It would even allow the city to install traffic lights on Atchison at Third Street and so draw attention to the main entrance to the downtown.