The Visalia of 2030 will look much like the Visalia we know today, and that’s a good thing say those responsible for shaping the city’s future.
“I envision the city looking a lot like it does,” said Andrew Chamberlain, a former senior planner at Visalia City Hall.
Chamberlain–who after 33 years with the city now works as a private planning consultant–was one of four panelists invited to discuss Visalia’s general plan and the city’s future during 210 Connect’s September forum. Joining him were the city’s principal planner, Paul Scherbel, Visalia City Councilman Greg Collins and Mary Beatie, a member of the city’s Citizen Advisory Committee and a senior planner at the Provost and Pritchard Consulting Group.
210 Connect is a series of monthly discussions sponsored by the First Presbyterian Church of Visalia and the Visalia Times-Delta.
A Centered City
Those familiar with the other cities of the San Joaquin Valley know Visalia is different, and that’s no accident. Rather, says Scherbel, Visalia’s unique character is the result of well-considered planning for growth that goes back more than a century.
“You live in a very smart, heads-up city, and it’s been that way for a long, long time,” he said.
While the careful consideration of how Visalia would grow goes back to its founding, the city’s first general plan was adopted in 1964, and the document has been updated periodically in the decades since. Though the plan has been tweaked and reworked over the years, those who’ve guided the changes have stayed true to the idea of “concentric development”–what Scherbel describes as a desire to “pressurize growth from a central core.”
Evidence of growth from a central core is obvious on a map of Visalia, with the city spreading more or less evenly from its original center at Oval Park. That even development was also an intentional decision, and it is another distinguishing characteristic of Visalia’s evolution.
“The general plan had a commitment to all four quadrents,” said Collins, who is also a city planner. “It’s not necessarily equal. A lot of cities don’t have that.”
Making Good Choices
The idea of even growth is one in a series of wise decisions enshrined in Visalia’s general plans past and current. Others include the idea of the Mooney Boulevard commercial corridor, the preservation of agriculture within the city, growth boundaries and the scenic corridor on Highway 198.
Another choice of past planners that’s contributed greatly to Visalia’s charm is the integration of the city’s commercial center with its downtown.
“It’s literally amazing you can go north on Mooney Boulevard and connect to the downtown,” said Chamberlain.
Scherbel says the general plan “sets the table for success” in Visalia’s downtown and will continue to do so as the reimagining of the downtown moves east.
“If you try to rent a building, it’s getting expensive because it’s a success,” he said.
Additionally, Beatie says, choices made in traffic circulation have enhanced the downtown area.
“The one-way street and parking just add to the quality,” she said. “All four quadants (of the city) feed to the downtown. There have been a number of decisions made along the way that have made downtown what it is.”
Those decisions include keeping Kaweah Delta Medical Center downtown, the restoration of the Fox Theater and connecting the convention center to a major hotel.
The choices have not always been easy ones for those who make them. The city’s financial backing of the hotel-convention center complex was a major point of contention when the choice was made.
“I still have PTSD from those days,” said Collins of the choice to support construction of the hotel. “I think it’s like a bottle of wine; it improved with age.”
Putting It All Together
Improving with age means making sure the resources the city needs will be there in the future, and that’s why the general plan addresses issues such as the availability of water and the city’s carbon footprint.
“All the elements have to mesh,” said Scherbel. “That’s one of the hallmarks of a good plan.”
He points to the city’s preparation for changing environmental laws as an example of the city’s forward thinking. Visalia began using collected rainwater to recharge the aquifer before state mandates to do so were enacted, and the city paid for a study of its greenhouse gas emissions that has resulted in quicker approval of development plans.
“It allowed us not to have to do greenhouse studies for each project, and it’s incorporated into the general plan,” Scherbel said. Those decisions have in turn sculpted the city.
“It encouraged a certain appearance,” said Collins. “It’s almost a European model.”
Into the Future
As 2030 approaches, those who plan for its future have already sized up what’s to come. Scherbel says Visalia can expect a 2.3% growth rate over the next decade or so. That translates into some 33,000 new residents who will occupy some 11,000 new homes, all of which will be supported by changes in services, education, transportation, employment and agriculture.
Much of that growth, Collins hopes, will be “up instead of out,” with mixed use of some areas, such as adding residential space downtown or the conversion of shopping malls to so-called “lifestyle centers” that re-imagine commercial zones following the move to online commerce.
“It’s almost a city within a city,” Collins said.
Visalia’s general plan will of course require changes and updates in the future, and the best way to influence its direction is by staying tuned-in, the experts say.
“An informed and engaged citizenry makes for a good plan,” said Beatie.
Of course participation is also key, and simply showing up consistently when the city calls for public input has earned some individuals greater influence, said Chamberlain.
“They have followed the city for years and years,” he said.
Room to Grow
In the end, a general plan for a city is a compromise that meets as many of the citizens’ needs as it can while remaining equitable. The city’s General Plan Committee had 23 members and took five years to write the current plan.
“If somebody’s really happy about a general plan, there’s probably a problem,” said Scherbel. “If everyone thinks it’s livable, you’re OK.”
And the general plan leaves much room for interpretation. While city-owned land Ben Maddox Way and Goshen Avenue has long been intended for city offices, the scope of that project is still being decided.
“The vision has gone from a civic center where anyone can do business to a $26 million police station,” said Collins.
Cost of constructing the station, which Collins opposes, will draw down the city’s reserves, he says. Collins also opposes plans to possibly sell the current City Hall on Acequia Avenue, along with the adjacent police and fire station. The fire station would be relocated across the street at a cost of some $3 to $4 million, and the city council would be left without a chambers. Council meetings could be held at various city-owned locations around town.
The better move, Collins says, would be remodeling the current emergency services building, providing a savings of $15 million. Visalia’s citizens, he says, need a new civic center more than a new police station, especially considering the cost.
“I will continue to bang the drum that that area needs a civic center,” he said