From Deadwood to Redwood City: Speaker on Revitalizing Downtown Davis


By Alan Hirsch

Everyone wants a sustainable, vibrant downtown Davis with retailing, entertainment venues, housing, street life and jobs. And no doubt during the revision of the Downtown part of the General Plan we are doing in the next year, we will envision one.  But how do we attract private money to actually build it … and build it in a way that is sensitive to existing neighborhoods and business and avoids parking gridlock?

The next Speaker in the Davis Futures Forum will describe the bricks-and-mortar realization of  the community’s vision for Downtown Redwood City – and how it dramatically improved the quality of life and the economic health of that community.

Dan Zack – a nationally-recognized planner who served for over a decade as the Downtown Development Coordinator for Redwood City – will share his experiences on Thursday May 25, 2017,  from 7 to 8:30 pm in the City Council Chambers.

Over the past decade, Redwood City has transitioned from a city ridiculed as “Deadwood City” to a vital, economically healthy place to live, work and play.  Happily, in light of the loss of redevelopment money, it was primarily  private investment that made it happen.  Developers and builders were attracted to the city by a new zoning code that made it clear to developers what was wanted and provided a quick approval process for those who complied.

Called a form-based code, this tool has been successfully used by communities throughout the country and is now being considered by the City of Davis for the pending Core Area Specific Plan and the General Plan update.

The first step in creating a form-based code requires that residents develop a consensus around a common vision. Redwood City devoted a significant amount of time working with residents to develop such a vision – briefly, an attractive, walkable downtown with a lively mix of old and new residential and commercial buildings, restaurants, entertainment venues, and a central community gathering space.

Much like many other cities in California, the entitlement process in Redwood City was expensive and time-consuming.  However, once what the city residents wanted was clear, a concise set of codes could be developed that would achieve the desired results via a simplified approval process.  According to Zack, the Redwood City zoning code is “a tough code, but the developers would much rather have that certainty. Once a couple of projects went through and the code lived up to its promise, the flood gates opened up.”

Zack’s work has earned awards for both superior planning and parking, and he has been a featured speaker at conferences throughout the US and Canada. He follows a basic model,  “Invest in public spaces and amenities, reform development regulations, and quickly approve the projects that follow the new vision.” Zack recently returned to his hometown, Fresno, to apply his experience and planning skills to the revitalization of the City’s downtown.

The May 25 event is part of the Davis Futures Forum series, a university-city-community collaboration that has brought nationally known urban planners to Davis.  It is the fifth in the series that has so far included Joe Minicozzi, Chuck Mahron, Daniel Parolek and Robert Liberty.

Zack’s  Thursday May 25 talk will be popular.  While walk-in seating is available, to assure a seat RSVP at

Those who want more information on Dan’s idea can also go to his highly illustrated blog  This article might be of particular interest:

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Disclaimer: the views expressed by guest writers are strictly those of the author and may not reflect the views of the Vanguard, its editor, or its editorial board.

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One thought on “From Deadwood to Redwood City: Speaker on Revitalizing Downtown Davis”

  1. Todd Edelman

    I really look forward to this presentation.

    However, I think that we need to learn more about how to use a form-based code (FBC)… before using it in Downtown.

    Am I skeptical?  

    My old friend Joel Crawford – a proponent of actual carfree cities and writer of a same-named book and the equally-amazing Carfree Design Manual has good things to say about FBC, and great things to say about the more progressive New Urbanists such as Peter Calthrope and the Krier brothers, whose designs are apparently part of Charter of the New Urbanism, presented briefly here and also in their well-known book, which is reviewed by Crawford here (towards the bottom of the page.)

    It’s hard to find much criticism – to say the least – about FBC from anyone but Libertarians of various sorts (Give “form-based code” a Google — the Lib-related links should be quite obvious.)

    But there’s also this interesting paper that responds to the main proponent of FBC’s, the Form-Based Code Institute, which for sure you’ve noticed if you’ve done that suggested Googling. It reports that the general consensus is that FBC’s have been worth the extra work in process – but then again, as I already mentioned to you, Alan – this would seem to “front load” the process and make all future community discussion take a lot less time.

    Though it wouldn’t apply to Downtown, a FBC would in other areas deal with Measure R issues at the beginning. That’s good.
    However, that report – and I only skimmed it – finally concludes: “While the respondents [those in the “consensus” mentioned above] provided qualitative assessments of FBC “advantages”, none of the planning directors had collected or analyzed any data to support their qualitative assessments. Due to the inherent biases associated with the opinions of consultants and practitioners vested in the success of these codes, determination of FBC’s impacts requires more rigorous assessment than most municipal planning departments can perform. The field would benefit from researchers conducting quantitative assessment of measurable FBC impacts (housing types, project approval time, staff hours required, etc.) or broad qualitative assessment (satisfaction surveys from the public , developers, elected officials, etc.).”

    That is a sort of a long-form version of your “… successfully used by communities…” claim. Bizarrely, the thousand-word picture you use in your brief description of FBC shows a space on a sunny and calm day – see the flag – with a quite dominant street – one car (oddly perhaps, its color matching the table umbrellas in the background) and a total of four people.
    Even if it’s not at lunch hour and on the weekend, there’s no excuse for this waste of space, so I’m left to wonder why it was provided by Mr. Zack as an example of success in Redwood City, or why you picked it.

    Now, if look the other direction, what do we see? Travel down it… a potentially human-scaled space between buildings of which nearly half is taken up by a car-facilitation space to provide a few passenger loading spaces, a total of three public benches all of which face the car part of the street — and the ubiquitous palm trees in the non-eponymous town. About the passenger loading spaces – I dunno, if you ask me these are being used for more than five minutes – and every large mall has much longer walking distances to walk or move without a car than what’s shown here. Somewhere I read that Redwood City downtown is called an “anti-mall”, but what’s “anti-” about all of this? Most of the space is private (the patios) or used for almost no cars — keeping this open for early morning deliveries or a fire lane is fine of course.

    But this narrow-er street is not contiguous with another identical or very similar space in term of width. It leads to the space at the front of the Fox Theatre, which is considerable, but is there any reason for more than a single lane – with contraflow cycling – on Broadway? Elsewhere nearby there are some nice raised crosswalks, some horrible bike lanes on the traffic side of parked cars including door zone lanes, and then look here’s what people can look forward to on the way to the train towards San Francisco. There is no under-track tunnel – a ubiquitous design in all but the smallest towns in Europe – so those on southbound trains have to cross the tracks to walk or wheelchair towards the center.  (Davis Depot is superior aesthetically, also has a huge parking in front of it,  but has a huge disadvantage compared to Redwood City as its more expensive trains run much less frequently, at least for now — there’s early discussion of a “short haul” railway to Sac and a few decades from now we’ll have a kind of low high-speed train stopping here 3 or 4 times per hour during peaks. At least the Redwood City train station parking is not free.)

    Frankly, most of Downtown Davis is already superior to this. But we need to quantify our current use of “walkable” – at a very minimum I would suggest that this never requires two steps to cross car-space from one corner to the one diagonal to it – “lively” and a lot of other cheerleading terms which, as is, are nearly void of meaning – when this is also called walkable – and should not be central to an important process that the community is likely going to use to improve Downtown Davis.

    Kudos to Zack for getting to work in his hometown of Fresno.


    Edit: Hey, let’s scrap the MRIC EIR and start the process again using form-based codes!

    (This a repeat of my original comment that was deleted in the server outage. Tip: I saved it in Google Docs, which seems to use the same default fault; also, nearly all formatting is preserved.)

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