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What I learned while designing for First Street

by admin on February 17, 2012

I recently got to design a major building for First Street. Then economic realities intervened, and the client decided to put it on indefinite hold for now. It was a bit of a bummer, though not all that surprising. For a glorious month and a half this project was real. This would probably be the project of my lifetime. A way to directly make that little corner of downtown live better for Benicians for decades to come, maybe centuries. It was critical to get it as good as could be. That included achieving major cost savings for my client and still have the design succeed in all the ways a design can succeed. For those forty days, this design was my mania.

My son joined in when he volunteered to create a 3D computer model of the building on Google Sketch Up – a very cool tool that let us study the building from any angle we wanted. Wesley did this so well that he is now in charge of that department here at the World Headquarters for McKee Associates.

In order to preserve my clients’ privacy I will refrain from divulging personal info about them or the building design that they commissioned for their use in planning the future of their property. Suffice it to say, the proposed building is pretty nice. I like to think so, anyway. I also like to think it will come to life again someday.

It’s two stories tall with restaurant and retail space below and apartments above. It isn’t unduly tarted up with tacked-on fancies, fake roof lines, or bizarre siding changes that add expense without adding livability. The heart of the scheme is a wide covered outdoor dining patio just off the sidewalk that’s been laid out for maximum usefulness, good people-watching, and all the other good stuff that comes when we experience that ergonomic blend of feeling nestled in our own space but also looking out to the bigger street scene.

The apartments are roomy. Each has a balcony large enough to allow for some outdoor life for the inhabitants, with beefy railings that keep them private from the street, but allow views down the street through the trees toward the water. One of my favorite features is the archway that creates a shortcut to the garden patio that sets off the main stairway up to the apartments. If I lived there, I would want things like that.

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After going through all this, I noticed some things about designing for downtown that bear mentioning.


The new “form based” zoning for downtown seems pretty good

In 2006 Benicia adopted a new code for the downtown area that uses physical building forms rather than the designation of land uses as the organizing principle. Many Benicians participated in workshops that helped shape this code. Form-based zoning can create a built environment like a good ol’ Main Street from the days before the automobile changed our cities. The parking is pushed to the back so that the sidewalk is given over to storefronts. User-friendly features like courtyards and balconies help soften this urban relationship between building and street. As the buildings transition to the residential neighborhoods down the block away from First Street, the zoning rules change to encourage a lessening density so that the buildings will transition to single family residences.

There are some goofy rules here and there in this code that really ought to be reconsidered. Such as: obscure glass is required in windows on the sides of your house wherever your house is extended back past your neighbor’s house. (Seriously?) But overall I thought about ninety-five percent of it to be mostly right-on and supportive of the feel for our city.


Opportunities for quality sidewalk dining must not be missed

For now, most sidewalk dining in Benicia consists of a dinky chain draped along the sidewalk with a few tables inside the chain. It’s better than nothing, but think instead how “can-do” cities create much better outdoor dining experiences with spaces for tables nestled into well laid out patios alongside the sidewalk. Never mind Paris or Prague – how about Walnut Creek! Last December while I was in the midst of my “design mania” I spent an evening in our neighbor-to-the-south exploring the many dining patios of Locust Street and Main Street and saw how simple it was to get this right – you just need to care enough to pay attention and get a few details and dimensions correct.

It’s a shame that some of the newer buildings on First Street didn’t make the effort to do this and instead opted for tacked-on representations of these patios rather than truly useful versions. We deserve better and our design review process needs to take the lead in asking for this.


A little effort with exterior lighting can work wonders

You know how fancy buildings will sometimes have lights shining right up along the face of prominent features like columns so that the play of light and shadow exaggerates and highlights key architectural features? Just a few well-considered up-lights can bring these buildings into extra exuberance at night. Well, even very minimal versions of this can be dramatic, such as a light on both sides of an entrance door that highlights the ornate trim work flanking the door. This is a simple way to add some zing to a building at very little cost, and all it takes is someone thinking about this during the design. A little elegance like this will stand out in an environment with mostly haphazard and uninspired lighting.


Massive city fees are killing good projects before they get started

In the last few years I’ve seen two very cool projects that would have surely drawn people to First Street instead end up on the scrap heap because of city “impact fees” that were over a hundred thousand dollars for each project.

Some of these fees cover actual city costs in providing services and utility hook-ups to the project, but some seem to be there just to raise money for the city in ways that have nothing to do with the impact of the project on the city. Meanwhile First Street languishes without the help of these “anchor tenant” projects.


Contextualism (fancy word for “blending in”) can work

It’s possible to honor and embellish Benicia’s modest urbanity by matching the context of the downtown buildings without having to pretend to be interesting by offering kitschy or caricature-like responses.

While designing my project I spent a couple hours cruising through the photo archive of the Benicia History Museum and came out of that experience marinated up to my eyeballs in what First Street was like over the decades. I was very excited to match the rhythm of the town I saw in those photos. We’re lucky that we live in an eclectic era that lets us fully embrace style and exuberance in buildings without feeling guilt. There is no reason a new building cannot add welcome harmony to the song that is downtown Benicia.

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Such a project may not be feasible right now while the vacancy rate on First Street suffers. Alas, for now there will remain a vacant lot. Know with certainty that the potential is quite exciting.


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