It was April 27, 2017, a beautiful sunny and comfortably cool Central Valley day, when a team of six planning professionals arrived in Kingsburg, California. The small agricultural community, just 24 miles south of Fresno on State Highway 99, had invited the team for a three-and-a-half day visit to help community leaders prepare a strategy for revitalization of its aging downtown.
These planners were not paid consultants; rather, they were volunteers under the APA California Chapter's new Community Planning Assistance Teams (CPAT) program (based on APA's CPAT program), offering pro bono planning services to a community that could not afford to hire its own full-time planning staff.
Map of Fresno County, California, and Kingsburg, California, with Kingsburg city seal.
The team of professionals included as team leader a retired planning manager who had served as planning director in major cities on both coasts (Robert Paternoster, FAICP), a Central Valley economic development specialist (Mike Dozier), an urban designer with extensive work in Northern California and China (Tom Ford, AICP), the president of a Los Angeles urban economic consulting firm (Stan Hoffman, FAICP), a senior designer with a Pasadena wayfinding consulting firm (Emily Morishita), and a zoning specialist from Beverly Hills (Cynthia de la Torre).
The team was greeted at lunch by a welcoming committee that included the mayor, city manager, and several community leaders. They were led on an escorted bus tour of the city and its adjacent orchards and farmlands, and a walking tour of Draper Street, downtown's five-block quintessential main street of commercial buildings dating back to the 1900s.
The planners were impressed by the attractiveness and cleanliness of the downtown area. Lovely street trees shaded sidewalks and curbside diagonal parking spaces, beautifully landscaped sidewalk bulb-outs graced the intersections, and colorful banners welcomed visitors to the Swedish Village.
Downtown Kingsburg. Photo by Stanley Hoffman, FAICP.
The branding of the downtown to reflect Kingsburg's Swedish heritage was seen by the team as an obvious strength, although most tourists apparently drove by on Highway 99 completely unaware of the unique attraction. In accordance with design guidelines, the architecture reflected a "Swedish architectural style," but the team saw few Swedish shops and no Swedish restaurants.
Where were the shoppers? The sidewalks were quiet and the stores empty. The desirable continuous retail frontage did not exist, interrupted frequently by vacant storefronts or by office and other non-retail uses.
The team was informed that most of the shops are owned and operated by small local merchants who close their doors on evenings and on weekends. Many of the property owners are absentee landlords who would rather rent to a dependable office use than work with a local merchant to establish a viable restaurant or retail business. Kingsburg residents travel to nearby Selma, Fresno, and Visalia for major shopping and for entertainment and dining.
One of the few Swedish-themed stores in Kingsburg's Swedish Village. Photo by Cynthia de la Torre.
The team conducted a community meeting that evening to obtain input on community values and aspirations, and held one-on-one meetings with 23 key community stakeholders on Friday to gain further insight on the problems and opportunities facing Kingsburg.
The team's hard work then began with an intensive charette through Sunday morning. By 1 p.m. Sunday afternoon, the team was prepared to make its recommendations to the community at a special city council meeting in city hall.
Residents and merchants showed enthusiastic participation during the kick-off meeting with the volunteer team. Photo by Stanley Hoffman, FAICP.
The meeting was well attended by an appreciative community, and the Kingsburg City Council responded positively to many of the team's recommendations. Among the team's 31 specific recommendations:
- Downtown merchants and property owners should form a Downtown Business Association, or even a Business Improvement District (BID), to speak with a strong single voice in a three-way partnership with the city and the chamber of commerce to promote downtown Swedish Village.
- A major effort should be made to attract to the downtown quality eating and drinking establishments, unique specialty shops, and a specialty movie theater (for art, foreign and/or classic films) to bring Kingsburg residents back to their downtown.
- The city should immediately abandon its present signage and create a distinctive and cohesive wayfinding system based upon the Swedish Village brand to attract tourists from Highway 99 and direct them to the downtown core.
- The Downtown Business Association should work with tour bus operators to make Kingsburg a regular stop for such bus tours.
- The city should work with the Fresno/Clovis Convention and Visitors Bureau to promote agri-tourism in Kingsburg, building upon its existing raisin (Sun-Maid is its largest employer), orchard, wine, and olive oil enterprises.
- The city should amend its Downtown Form Based Code to prohibit office uses on the ground floor frontage on Draper Street, permitting only retail, restaurant and personal service uses.
- The city should focus on the redevelopment of four catalytic sites in the downtown, by offering development incentives and by introducing quality commercial developers to existing absentee landlords who lack development experience. One five-acre site adjacent to the interchange with Highway 99 should be developed with a quality hotel within walking distance of the downtown core. The other three sites on Draper Street should be redeveloped with three-story mixed-use buildings with ground-floor retail and residential or office above.
The Kingsburg CPAT project proved to be a productive and rewarding experience for both the volunteer team and for the city and people of Kingsburg. The final product was a 62-page report that was forwarded to the community on June 15. City Manager Alexander Henderson expressed his appreciation for the team's work and committed to move forward expeditiously to begin implementation of its recommendations.
Starting Your Own Program
California is one of seven APA chapters to start a program that assists communities with pro bono planning services. If you're interested in starting a program at the chapter or division level, please visit the CPAT chapter and division resources page that includes a webinar presented by chapter members from around the country involved with pro bono programs.
Top image: APA California CPAT members with Kingsburg city officials, from left: Stan Hoffman, FAICP (CPAT volunteer); Alexander Henderson (city manager); Cynthia de la Torre (CPAT volunteer); Michael Dozier (CPAT volunteer); Robert Paternoster, FAICP (CPAT volunteer/team leader); Mayor Michelle Roman; Tom Ford, AICP (CPAT volunteer); Emily Morishita (CPAT volunteer); and Jolene Polyack (economic development advisor). Photo by Laura Brown.
About the Author
Robert Paternoster, FAICP, was the team leader of the APA California CPAT in Kingsburg.