Redevelopment Repairs Economy and Environement
The Park Avenue Project in the City of South Lake Tahoe is not the largest or the most expensive downtown plan ever contemplated in California, but it might be the most ambitious. I can't name too many other downtown projects that undertake, all at once, to remove blighted buildings, provide all-new urban design, build a new resort hotel, retail space, high-end condominiums and an ice-skating rink, erect a gondola that carries visitors to two local ski areas — and undertakes major environmental protections.
In short, the $500 million Park Avenue project seeks to bolster the town's leading industry (tourism), protect the environmental wellbeing of its major attraction, (Lake Tahoe), and fully mitigate its water- and traffic-related impacts (both on-site and off). As such, Park Avenue is attempting to expand the scope of redevelopment, and makes us wonder why other cities do not approach redevelopment as an activity that has more than one purpose.
At Park Avenue, for example, all the stormwater will be filtered twice before flowing toward the lake. The participating land owners are required to contribute $5 to a Mello-Roos assessment district to restore wetlands near the southern shore of Lake Tahoe and build sediment ponds to divert urban storm runoff. To minimize the use of cars, an on-site transit center is to be built into the site, encouraging visitors to park their cars and use local trolleys and taxis. I almost forgot to mention that the entire development is designed to preserve viewsheds to the mountains in the north.
Currently under construction on a site about a half-mile south of Lake Tahoe, the Park Avenue project is a near-total makeover of an aging, poorly maintained commercial area that was built with virtually no planning. Prior to construction, the city is demolishing four old retail buildings, five motels built in the 1950s and '60s, and two retail strips.
But the city had to sell both property owners and environmentalists — who agree on little at Lake Tahoe — before it could move forward with the project. After long negotiations with local landowners, the city convinced the owners either to sell or to build new projects acceptable to the agency. The environmentalists agreed to support redevelopment projects, "as long was we removed outdated or environmentally harmful development and replaced it with environmentally friendly development," said Redevelopment Manager Jaye Von Klug. The settlement of a 1989 lawsuit from a local environmental group, Save Lake Tahoe, was the "foundation" of the city's commitment to environmental mitigation, she said. Mitigation measures for each redevelopment project must benefit the surrounding area, not merely the immediate impacts of the project alone.
At first glance, the site plan prepared by Design Workshop Inc. of Aspen, Colorado, looks suburban: The plan is a series of large, discontinuous buildings on enormous "superblocks." (The 34-acre project is contained within two giant blocks, although individual developments are divided among 11 different parcels.) A closer look, however, suggests that the design is sensitive to the streetscape by lining much, but not all, of the street frontage with new construction, and locating parking inside the block rather than between the street and the buildings. Like suburban projects, the buildings have big setbacks of about 60 feet. But Von Klug said setbacks were necessary to protect pedestrians from being splashed by passing cars. Formerly, motels and retail buildings were separated from Highway 50 only by a five-foot sidewalk that was easily blocked by snow cleared from the road.
The construction program calls for an existing shopping mall and grocery store to be upgraded and expanded, while the hotel, the transit center, the ice rink and the gondola are all new. Much of the mall is landscaped, and clearly intended for pedestrian use, not automobile circulation.
The ice rink is situated among several buildings, giving the rink the feeling of an urban plaza. The gondola, which could have been the centerpiece of a magnificent plaza, however, stands alone. As the centerpiece of the Park Avenue project, the gondola should be visible from the highway, according to Von Klug. Additionally, mountain views are more important in South Lake Tahoe than a "street wall." The city's redevelopment agency, in fact, had to win some concessions from the Tahoe Regional Planning Agency to build at all; the regulatory body has traditionally discouraged construction that blocked mountain views from Highway 50.
The most interesting parts of the project, arguably, are the elaborate environmental controls. As mentioned above, all of the project's runoff will be filtered first by a sand-and-oil separator system directly beneath the surface, and then scrubbed a second time by a filtration system located downstream and offsite. This fits well within the "Keep Tahoe Blue" campaign that is intended to block sediment from the lake. The Mello-Roos district is also paying for three sedimentation basins, to be planted with native species, to remove contaminants from storm runoff. Another environmental amenity is the replacement of eight acres of asphalt with pavers that allow rainwater to percolate through to the soil.
It is not surprising that Park Avenue is loaded with environmental mitigations. Communities that depend on the health of Lake Tahoe and the surrounding region have both strong commercial motivation and strict regulations to protect the quality of the air and water. But even those of us who do not live at the shore of Lake Tahoe might learn something about controlling impacts — especially as storm runoff and flooding become increasing dangers throughout the state.
More than that, Park Avenue represents a project that has been designed to serve several purposes, not just the single goal of generating revenue for a city government. This is a project that actually mitigates itself; the developers have been required to do something more than pay an impact fee, or buy some new traffic signals for the next town. At a time when redevelopment is increasingly the excuse to build mediocre retail projects that blight the landscape and offer little or nothing in urban design and pedestrian activity, the example of Park Avenue in little South Lake Tahoe is a reminder that there are other ways to rebuild our cities.