BAREC And The Pied Pipers of Urban Planning

Opinion by Carolyn Schuk

Poor BAREC. The former UC agricultural Bay Area Research and Extension Center

at 90 North Winchester seems doomed to be a real estate Flying Dutchman: forever the future site of the next big idea in urban development.

Everything looked settled in 2006 when Santa Clara bought six acres from the state for low-income housing.

The state’s dissolution of the redevelopment agencies halted the plan for senior housing; throwing the six acres into the pot as a potential claw-back for the county. It took almost another five years to settle the Santa Clara housing agency’s ownership of the land.

By 2015, most agreed that things had changed since 2006. Not too many thought a 185-unit apartment building secluding elderly people behind acres of landscaping was good community planning or good stewardship of Silicon Valley real estate.

Enter The Next Big Thing: The urban farm community, the “agrihood,” promoted by the former Save BAREC group.

Santa Clara’s Council was smitten over the agrihood idea and proclaimed that BAREC—now dubbed Win6Village—was to be the South Bay’s first.

Win6Village promoters billed the development as a multi-generational “village” and “ecosystem” surrounding a community farm that would supply residents with picked-that-morning organic kale at their doorsteps. It would be home to “artisan shops, studios and an open-air market.” An elevated park was to soar above I-280, connecting something christened the “Tri-Village area.” The site’s history as a testing ground for insecticides was repackaged as “Farm to Table Heritage.”

CORE Companies offered a plan with many of these elements, including the low-income housing. When the City Council approved CORE’s proposal in 2015, cheered on by the Win6Village Brigade in matching tee-shirts, many assumed the organic kale would be sprouting by now.

But by the end of 2016, the Win6Village Brigade was back, demanding CORE’s project be halted and re-designed, re-interpreted, re-conceptualized, re-conceived, re-visioned, re-envisioned, re-created, re-imagined—in short re-anythinged except actually being built.

The agrihood romance was over and the Council remanded CORE’s project to the drawing board with the new design team hired by the City.

Now those six acres are to be ground zero for the Next Next Big Thing in urban design—place-making.

The Council’s current heartthrob is Fred Kent, President of the Manhattan-based Project for Public Spaces (PPS) and herald of the Place-Making Gospel.

Kent’s talk about grassroots place-making and the successes of Detroit and Pittsburgh in this regard leads to a rather different conclusion than the one that features a $120,000 contract with PPS. Intuitively, “Out of town expert” and “grassroots” sound mutually exclusive.

Places where grassroots place-making succeeds seem to be nearly-bankrupt cities where public attention is consumed by the problems of keeping basic services functioning and where the real estate is dirt cheap.

One example from Pittsburgh is the Carrie Furnaces, an early 20th century blast furnace plant shut down in 1983. Too far outside metro Pittsburgh to be of interest to urban developers, the site lay abandoned for 30 years.

In the face of civic disinterest things got interesting.

Artists visited at night and created a 40-foot wire deer statue made from material found onsite, honoring wildlife that’s returned to the abandoned acres. Graffiti artists painted the concrete walls around the plant. As this guerrilla art project developed, public officials were either too busy, too far away, too financially strapped or too wise to interfere.

Today Carrie Furnaces is enjoying a second life. It’s part of Pittsburgh’s River of Steel industrial heritage tour, with former steelworkers as docents. The vast machine shop now hosts art exhibits, social functions, beer tastings and dance and opera performances.

Without any ‘visioning’ except neglect, Carrie Furnaces is thriving. It’s been described as the “epicenter of Rust Belt chic” and netted $187,000 for Rivers of Steel in 2015, according to an article in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.

In another example of grassroots place-making, another Pennsylvania Rust Belt town, Oil City, invites artists—instead of consultants—to settle there.

The town has a wealth of available real estate, which you can buy outright for less than half the down payment on a Silicon Valley condominium. Oil City offers artists no-down-payment home buying choices—and mortgages to boot—and will help them find space to work, exhibit and perform (www.artsoilcity.com). In other words, the city invests in itself instead of consultants.

In place-making it helps, of course, to have actual places. Oil City also has a wealth of historic buildings, like the historic 1890 Standard Oil pipeline transit building, which has been repurposed into active spaces including artist studios, galleries, offices for non-profits, and a riverfront park (tinyurl.com/pa-mag-oilcity).

The artists make their own momentum. “The 20-somethings have started Art Mart, a free-spirited barter meet,” said Arts Oil City coordinator Joann Wheeler, herself an artist, in an email. “The 30-somethings who founded the Oil Region Indie Music Festival are going to expand on that.

“A group of studio artists is talking about starting a retail gallery of their own,” she continued. “One new initiative, Art Inside, has held pop-up galleries in empty store fronts this year, leading in two cases to rentals of the spaces.”

The town hosts Friday evening concerts and Wednesday noon concerts every week in July and August, the Oil Region Indie Music Fest, a Polka Festival, Oil Valley Center for the Arts, Arts in the Transit winter concert series, Oil Country Bluegrass Festival, and New Year’s Eve First Night family-friendly activities and music throughout the city.

The town reports that the program has added over $1 million to the local economy in the last 10 years. So far 45 artist households have moved into the town of 10,000 people, according to Wheeler.

Place-making can happen in Silicon Valley, but it’s harder to find that essential element of neglect. Downtown San José was one such place 40 years ago, which probably contributed to its renaissance.

But I’ve got a feeling no renaissance will happen any time soon at 90 N. Winchester with its bumper crop of experts and competing agendas.

I bet when the next sociological sorcerer comes hawking shiny new urban planning ideas in exchange for worn-out plans, the Win6Village Brigade will be back demanding another re-design, re-interpretation, re-conceptualization, re-visualization, re-envisioning, re-creation and re-imagining of those six acres. And the City Council will fall in love all over again.

Meanwhile, dust continues to blow at 90 N. Winchester. And six acres of well-situated and commercially attractive Silicon Valley real estate will continue to yield zero to Santa Clara’s treasury and community.

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