Urban Design Placemaking Process Small Towns

Tactical, High-Impact Improvements for a Small Town Main Street

Not all planning projects are costly or take years to complete and/or implement. Small, tactical moves can make a big impact in a small amount of time. The Main Street Concept Plan for the City of Colfax, California is an example where simple tactical design concepts were successfully used to improve a historic small town Main Street. What began as a quick solution to a short-term problem, evolved into the possibility of a safer, more vibrant downtown – with expanded outdoor dining, more thoughtful use of irregular and underutilized space, and improved community gathering spaces that will help businesses thrive.

Located at the foothills of the Sierras, Colfax has a population of 2,000 and a historic downtown located adjacent to a train depot on the Southern Pacific railroad. It prides itself on its “small town” feel, one that lets you personally know your neighbors and shop locally-owned businesses. It is a quintessential Gold Rush Era downtown and main street with charming brick buildings with metal galleries spanning sidewalks in front of many of the buildings. In the Spring of 2020, the social-distancing requirements due to COVID-19 were posing a threat to the businesses on Colfax’s Main Street, so City leaders devised a quick solution to help them stay open. The City used hay bales to delineate underused parking space to create spaces for outdoor dining and retail, and in the process realized that there was a lot of extra, underutilized space that could be used to enhance the downtown experience for their citizens, business owners and visitors.

The realization that the Colfax Main Street could be more prompted City leaders to reach out to the Sacramento Area Council of Governments (SACOG) for assistance in realizing their vision. With SACOG sponsorship, the City retained the services of the Local Government Council (LGC) to manage the process.

Needing a trusted partner for this quick effort, LGC turned to Opticos to lead the design and to communicate possibilities to the community, building on more than 15 years’ experience of successfully worked together on similar projects. According to Josh Meyer, LGC’s Community Design Program Director, “Opticos’ expertise and collaborative approach was key to helping the City of Colfax in partnership the LGC and the SACOG work with merchants and residents to translate preferences into both creative quick build and longer-term visionary solutions to help carry this community’s historic Main Street through the pandemic and beyond.”

Community Visioning and Virtual Workshop

Opticos prepared two design concepts addressing the downtown’s current issues, as well as placemaking opportunities to create a new identity for Colfax’s historic downtown. Similar to many small downtowns, Colfax’s Main Street faces competition from new retail development located at the freeway access to Colfax less than a mile away. To thrive, Downtown Colfax will have to offer a different shopping, dining, and pedestrian experience, building on its historic setting as a station on the Southern Pacific railroad, the small-town charm, and walkable urban pattern that can provide a strong experience very different that the suburban alternatives nearby.

The design concepts sought to spotlight this heritage and incorporated the historic depot building (currently used as a museum) and a caboose with the proposed transformations to the streets and public realm. The team relied on simple 3D-models and illustrations to highlight the proposed improvements and to communicate the potential improvements and their benefits to community members.

A virtual community workshop was held in December, where the community was encouraged to provide their input on ways to help Main Street continue to evolve as a vibrant and welcoming place for residents and visitors. Attendees were encouraged to share their feedback on the two design concepts presented, focusing on safety and traffic calming; enhanced sidewalks for outdoor activities; landscaping, art and beautification; and more.

Design Concept One

Design Concept Two

Next Steps to Implement the Plan

In addition to the input received from the virtual workshop, the City took the design concepts to individual Main Street stakeholders and collected their opinions as well. Based on the overall feedback summarized by the LGC, Opticos came up with a ‘final’ concept merging the most popular ideas from the two preliminary concepts. The City, helped by the LGC, is using the work done to date to apply for a Caltrans grant. If the City is awarded a grant the next steps will be to create a detailed Master Plan for Main Street, along with engineering drawings and studies to make the project implementation-ready.

The City of Colfax found the partnership with LGC and Opticos effective in addressing the streetscape needs of the downtown. The team provided a collaborative environment that further enhanced the project success and the community’s experience. Colfax staff was pleased with the final design concepts and looks forward to continuing the streetscape design in the near future.

— Wes Heathcock, City Manager, City of Colfax