Small Towns

Building on a Town’s Historic Fabric

Turlock downtown-4
Turlock’s downtown is mostly made up of two-story buildings.

New Urbanists—Opticos included—often talk about increasing walkability through high (or higher) density, mixed-use development. Many small cities and towns across the country hope to become The Next Big Thing by opening up large areas to commercial mixed-use development, rather than concentrating development along the existing downtown corridor. But new development should not sacrifice the assets of a place—America’s small cities and towns need to fully recognize the quality of their historic buildings and spaces when planning for the future.

Principal Stefan Pellegrini recently visited the city of Turlock, located about two hours east of San Francisco in California’s San Joaquin Valley, to speak at a special workshop that aimed to refine the city’s vision plan. In Turlock, Pellegrini found a beautiful downtown core predominantly made up of historic two-story buildings, surrounded by an area of charming older homes interspersed with modern office buildings.

Turlock’s current General Plan calls for building “up” in order to preserve the area’s precious farmland—agriculture continues to be a driving force in Turlock’s local economy—however Pellegrini told members of the Planning Commission and local residents who participated in the meeting that respecting Turlock’s historic fabric when planning for infill is paramount. Rather than aiming for a wide swath of high-density development, smaller communities may be better served by building upon what they have. The goal is to create complete places, with a high quality public realm.

Pellegrini said that the starting point for new development should be the existing streets. “Central Valley towns have a strong tradition of wide, tree-lined streets that make great public spaces—if the buildings along them are designed well,” he said. On most streets in downtown Turlock, buildings up to three-and-a-half stories (45 feet) could be designed to be compatible with existing structures, provided that setbacks, frontage types, and building forms are similar in character. On wider streets, the street width can be used to one’s advantage in concentrating taller buildings—a 1:1 ratio of street width to building height is generally considered appropriate. The Turlock workshop focused on one area in particular that could create a higher density neighborhood in close proximity to the downtown and a future transit stop. This would protect the older residential neighborhoods from converting to commercial or mixed-use in a way that would be detrimental to their form and surroundings.

Demand for historic neighborhoods like these increasing.
Demand for historic neighborhoods like these increasing.

Laura Podolsky of the Local Government Commission joined the meeting to speak about current population growth trends. She said that over the next two decades, Stanislaus County’s demographics will shift, so that 80% of the population will be adults ages 65 and older, and young adults in their 20s and 30s. “These age groups will have a significant influence in your market,” said Podolsky, “and trends show that young professionals prefer central city locations.” The demand for the existing housing types that Turlock offers, just steps away from its downtown core will continue to grow. Both Pellegrini and Podolsky urged Turlock to protect its unique attributes when increasing intensity. “You want to create a place that you love,” said Podolsky. “I’ve heard [downtown Turlock] referred to as the ‘heart of the city’—it’s because you love it.”

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