Downtown Academy Class Trip- A Tale of Three Cities

Posted by Kim Schoelen

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I’m so into downtown that in my spare time I do things like attend the Downtown Academy class from Fresno’s Leading Young Professionals.  Because, you know, I don’t get enough downtown during my 40 hours a week at DFP.  What excited me most about this class was that there is a mandatory field trip component.  I know, right? A field trip!  I’d assumed that my only chance for a field trip as a thirty year old would be as a chaperon on one of my kids’ trips to the farm or something.  It was with childlike excitement that I stepped onto the bus (A bus!) to Southern California for our class trip.  I was tempted to load up on candy and ride the sugar high over the grapevine like I would have as a 12 year old but I contained my excitement and kept to myself, quietly knitting.  I mean, this is a class of young professionals after all.

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So what was this trip all about?  The best way to learn about where you live is to look everywhere else.  We traveled to three different downtowns in a relatively close geographical region and were able to see and hear their revitalization stories and draw parallels with our own unfolding story.  Believe it or not, Fresno’s problems aren’t unique.  The best part is that the strategies that we’re looking at to handle our challenges kept coming up in these other cities with very successful revitalization stories.

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Our first city that we looked at was Burbank.  Honestly, I’d never really paid much attention to Burbank so I had no clue that there was a pedestrian mall designed by Victor Gruen at one point in their downtown.

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The name Victor Gruen should sound familiar to you- he designed the Fulton Mall.  The Golden Mall had two-way traffic reintroduced in the late 1980’s.

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This is San Fernando Boulevard now.  There is a gorgeous tree canopy, 90 restaurants in their downtown BID and traffic moves slowly through.  I often hear people complain that we won’t have trees and it will kill the pedestrian environment with cars rushing by when Fulton Street is restored.  This was like looking into our future.  There was no rush, no extra noise.  Plenty of pedestrian crosswalks made getting to the craft brew bar across the street a snap after we’d finished our lunch.  Now that’s what I call a field trip!

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And as for being pedestrian friendly, I wanted to share this shot of our group on the sidewalk in Burbank.  Their sidewalks are about 5 feet narrower than ours will be and we all fit pretty well.  Even people who weren’t part of our group were able to move past our crowd without too much dodging around us.  Just as a reminder, we’re looking at 20 foot sidewalks.  For me the most helpful takeaway of our trip to Burbank was being able to visualize what a mature main street would look like in a space similar to ours.

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Next we invaded Pasadena.  Pasadena has a very interesting and compelling revitalization story.  The city that is famous for it’s Rose  Parade down Colorado Boulevard is hopping with activity now, but it hasn’t always been that way.  There was a point where there was a strong suggestion to change the parade route because Colorado Boulevard was in such bad shape.  Then one voice of reason chimed in and said “Hey, instead of changing the route, why don’t we fix our city?”  And so it happened.  Well, not quite so simply.  Again, we’re looking at about a 30 year turnaround.  However, what used to be filled with pawn shops and adult stores is now housing places like Tiffany & Co and locally made ice cream sandwich shops.  Some spaces lease for around $11/square foot on Colorado, in comparison to the $3/Sq ft on the streets running parallel to it.  Also, we saw their ambassadors all over the place.  Their function has gone from more security to more of a friendly face/informational and less security as things turned around.

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Finally, we visited Long Beach.  I fell in love with Long Beach.  It was so bicycle friendly with really cool bike racks everywhere and dedicated bike lanes and bike traffic lights.  It made me feel momentarily guilty that I’m only cyclist in my mind. (The bike has a flat and has been in my garage for months!)

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What was interesting about the BID in Long Beach was how much ground it covered.  There was a definite environment shift between the arts district and the main street, it was intentional and palpable enough that it let you know you’d crossed a threshold to another part of downtown without actually telling you as much.  Also, I fell in love with this really cool record store, Fingerprints.  I seriously contemplated hiding behind the bargain bin of albums and never going home.  I know that’s kind of a dumb side note, but at the same time it isn’t.  You want those places in your downtown that people never ever want to leave.  I could have lived there and sneaked coffee and pastry crumbs at night when it closed up, I loved it so much.

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Also, Long Beach had ambassadors as well.  Well, Guides.  But still, same idea.

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Anyway, I’ll get off my soapbox.  (Taken in Harvey Milk Park in Long Beach.)  The greatest thing was seeing that nothing is new under the sun.  That seems so counter-intuitive to say since we all strive for individuality but when it comes from a downtown revitalization point of view, seeing the same patterns and solutions over and over again was unbelievably helpful.  Knowing we’re not the only city ever to deal with with parking problems or high vacancies or homelessness is a huge relief.  We can learn so much by looking at what other cities are doing and seeing how they might apply to Fresno.

Oh, and then, there was this:

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Because no matter how much I try to fit into that whole “young professional” mold, I’ll always inevitably end up making vampire faces above my slumbering class instructors (one of them is even my boss!) while on the bus.  Yay for field trips!

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