From Brownfield to Walkable Neighborhoods: Long-Term Implementation of One City’s Vision

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Opticos was instrumental in the high-quality implementation of Hercules’s Smart Growth vision in the Central Hercules District. As a Planning Commissioner in Hercules I relied on them as trusted advisors in order for us to get the details right.

Richard Mitchell, Planning Commissioner for the City of Hercules
It often takes a town architect to act as a bridge between developers and communities to ensure top-quality projects and attention to details.
Opticos planned the 30-acre LEED ND Gold-awarded Hercules Bayfront neighborhood, which includes a vibrant new main street anchored by a transit station.
Our civic center master plan transformed a suburban city hall into a vibrant urban center.
Several complete walkable neighborhoods were built by production builders that today serve as one of California’s best models for creating smarter and greener living choices.
We created great places to live and addressed complex site issues including challenging soils, steep topography, historic preservation, and strict stormwater regulations.
We created several sub-district Form-Based Codes in Hercules, replacing existing zoning, in order to effectively implement their new urbanist vision.

Sometimes we step in where others have tried and failed—and we respond with innovative and practical solutions. That was the case for the Central Hercules District in the town of Hercules, CA. Instead of a suburban sprawl of residential cul-de-sacs, there are now bustling neighborhoods where homes sit next to shops and cafes. We replaced old office parks with successful main streets where people stroll around local shops, see movies, and eat meals before walking, biking, or taking transit home. Rather than a blighted brownfield site, there are now flourishing habitats for endangered birds and trails that wind around the water. It’s all anchored by an Amtrak station and future ferry terminal that secure the region as a thriving, urban center where people live, work, and play.

In Hercules, we reviewed (and often redrew), advised upon, and designed projects for the city and developers to create some of the first and finest New Urbanist neighborhoods in the state. The result? Award-winning, high-quality, LEED-certified Smart Growth neighborhoods that are a model for other urban, transit-oriented communities.

From 2001 to 2010, Opticos was responsible for maintaining the New Urbanist vision and architectural ideals of the Central Hercules Plan and Form-Based Code. As the town architect, and serving as an extension to the city’s planning staff, we extensively reviewed all site plans and architectural drawings to ensure that well-designed places would be implemented. Over time, we became a trusted advisor to the planning commission and our work expanded to create plans and Form-Based Codes for smaller areas within the plan so that they better reflected the city’s desire for a walkable, livable community.

We designed five new neighborhoods, a town center, a transit center, a civic center, and a waterfront park and promenade. In addition, and because of our knowledge of the City’s long-term vision, our relationship with staff and decision makers, and expertise in new urban planning and coding, we were retained by the owner of the Hercules Waterfront property to master plan and entitle a 30-acre undeveloped portion of the CHP planning area. The project incorporates a planned Amtrak station and future ferry terminal to San Francisco, creating a dense, LEED-ND Gold-Certified, transit-oriented urban community. Our work addressed complex soil conditions and the design of an open space preserve while implementing best practices in sustainable planning, such as stormwater management and low-impact development. The project was entitled with a Form-Based Code.

Our nine years of long-term commitment to the Hercules, CA, central development district has been recognized with a number of significant awards, including Phase I LEED-Gold Certification, selection as a State of California Smart Growth Catalyst Project, Recognition by ABAG for a “Growing Smarter Together” award, and a Gold Nugget Award.

Originally established in the 1880s as the site for a dynamite company, the town of Hercules, CA, developed over the years into a nondescript suburban bedroom community with no defined downtown or pedestrian-friendly zones, and the decommissioned dynamite plant became a 450-acre brownfield site. In 2001, the city adopted the Central Hercules Plan (CHP) and Form-Based Code intended to foster a New Urbanist vision of the overall 700 acres including the creation of a walkable urban downtown for Hercules. This vision included a defined town center, walkable areas, a series of well-planned new neighborhoods, and a new Amtrak station, all of which were to incorporate a variety of traditional architectural styles.

Implementing a walkable, mixed-use project proved challenging for both a community and area developers that had focused solely on suburban projects over the years, and as a result, the city struggled to implement the plan as it was conceived. Opticos played an important role in helping the city to achieve their vision.