Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Riverside: Worth Saving: Part 1 (Canyon Crest)

Last year, I was inspired by the 2010 LA StreetSummit to try and show my fellow southern Californians that Riverside is not an endless wasteland of suburban sprawl- that, while we certainly have our challenges (see every other post on this blog), not every bit of the suburbs needs to be bulldozed or transformed into farmland. We're going to start with my neighbourhood, Canyon Crest- specifically the portion of the neighbourhood that is mid-rise apartments clustered around the Canyon Crest Towne Centre.


View Riverside: Worth Saving in a larger map

The blue shape on the map above is roughly what I'm thinking about when I talk about my neighbourhood. Locals will notice that this differs quite a bit from the official City of Riverside boundaries of the Canyon Crest neighbourhood. That's because, outside of this walkable bit, much of Canyon Crest is unrepentant suburban cul-de-sac hell. Even many single-family homes near the shopping centre have streets laid out in such a way as to make walking from them to the shopping centre difficult, as you can see on the map. Also, what may be unclear on the map but is abundantly clear to anyone on foot is that this area is in Riverside's foothills. While the apartments are generally relatively close in elevation to the shopping centre, most of the single-family housing is built up or down any of a number of hills, somewhat discouraging leisurely strolls.

What's Right:
2010-03-25 10.34.29

The centre of this neighbourhood is the Canyon Crest Towne Centre, a pleasant upscale shopping centre within walking distance of anywhere in that blue region above. This complex is more useful to daily urban life than most upscale suburban shopping centres- aside from the usual expensive restaurants and shops, there is a Ralph's grocery store and a 24-hour Rite Aid. There are also quite a few inexpensive dining options, both local shops and franchises. There is also a "contract postal unit"- a counter at the back of a Hallmark store that offers US Postal services- as well as a barber shop, a donut shop, a dry cleaning concern, an ice cream and drinking water store and a UPS store. Oh, and did I mention the local bike shop? Many of the restaurants are also quite tasty- our personal favourites include Romano's (not to be confused with the franchise Macaroni Grill), Smokey Canyon BBQ and the Tortilla Grille.

2010-03-25 10.35.31

As you can tell from the photos, this is no ordinary suburban strip mall. Fountains, benches and attractive landscaping create a pleasant environment for walking and shopping. Piped-in music always annoys me, but apparently no walkable place in the suburbs can be without it. Having this shopping centre within walking distance has made my life immeasurably simpler, as almost anything one needs in daily life is on offer here- and often on offer 20 or 24 hours daily.

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Beyond local shopping, the neighbourhood has a lot more to offer urbanist activists. Both major arterials through the area have bike lanes, and every street I've yet seen has well-maintained sidewalks on both sides.

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Bike lanes, specifically, are not in the door zone (as parking is prohibited on arterial roads), and many stoplights in the area have these convenient bicycle buttons on them. Off the arterials, neighbourhood roads are small and twisty, limiting speeds and making for pleasant cycling and walking. Crosswalks are well-striped and generally respected.

There are two parks in the area, the Sycamore Canyon Wilderness Park and Andulka Park. The former is a large expanse of land left to run wild, criss-crossed with trails that, I'm told, make for "world-class" mountain biking. The latter is a more traditional city park, with gazebos, picnic facilities, two children's playground, several ball fields, volleyball courts, a professional-grade tennis centre and even a small water play area for the kids in the summer. Sycamore Canyon is within easy walking distance of the Towne Centre, while Andulka is about a mile down an unpleasantly long hill.

Transit in the area is frequent and plentiful, at least by Riverside standards. Two routes serve the area during the day- routes 16 and 51. The 16 runs on a half-hourly schedule and provides a direct connection to the Moreno Valley Mall and associated shopping (along with transfers to Moreno Valley bus routes), UC Riverside, the downtown Metrolink station and downtown bus terminal (with transfers throughout the city). The 51 is a circulator shuttle that provides students access to the University and surrounding neighbourhood, though this includes many restaurants and the main post office. At night, the 51 is replaced by the 53, serving many of the same areas until half past midnight. My bus stop often sees 20 hours/day of transit service.

What's Wrong:

First off, the neighbourhood is somewhat lacking in true public space. The Towne Centre provides attractive plazas and seating, but it is a private shopping centre. I've never seen anyone kicked out for loitering, but the prominently-posted rule signs and overimportant security guards don't make for a welcoming atmosphere. The two public parks in the area are great, but one is truly wilderness and the other is in a very inconvenient location. Several locations would make for truly excellent pocket parks, but they have yet to be exploited.

Also, while the Towne Centre is definitely designed to provide a pleasant pedestrian experience, it (ironically, but in a tragically suburban fashion) only provides that experience for those who arrive by automobile. Take a look at this entrance:

2010-03-25 10.37.04

You'll notice the provision of high-speed automobile entrance and egress, and nothing else. And no, this isn't unique- most of the other entrances to the shopping centre are about the same. There are a couple of staircases for pedestrians, but they simply dump you out in the parking lot with all the other patrons. Pedestrian experience is treated here as something of a tourist attraction, something you drive to and enjoy.

The transit options in the area are definitely better than most in the suburbs, but they also vary significantly based on the season. The 51 and 53 only run during UCR academic days, and the 53 doesn't run on Fridays either. So that 20 hours of transit service? Only on UCR academic days that aren't Fridays. Granted, that's probably more often than not, but on other days there's just the 16, which shuts down at 9 normally, 8 on Saturdays and a pathetic 7:15 on Sundays (since the most recent service cuts). Also, half-hourly service is good for RTA (only one route in the system is more frequent), but verging on unpleasant anywhere else.

Last, though, driving is just too easy here. This area has easy freeway access from either wide, high-speed arterial. Traffic is almost unheard of, and most apartments come with two parking spaces per unit (and get poor ratings on ApartmentRatings if they don't). While the arterials don't, by and large, have on-street parking, neighbourhood streets most certainly do- free and unrestricted by the City's resident permit system. The Towne Centre has a vast parking lot, free to all comers, but little bicycle parking (despite my protests). Both parks have ample free parking, but only Andulka has any bicycle facilities- despite the "world-class" mountain biking. I speculated last year that this was why few people walk and bicycle even in a place that is relatively pedestrian- and bike-friendly.

What needs to be done:

Well, we need to fix what's wrong, obviously. Traffic calming on the major thoroughfares could improve things a bit, as could a reduction in the City's parking requirements for the Towne Centre. (I'm sure the owners wouldn't mind putting in more retail space.) Unbundling parking from housing prices, as well as trying to get some properties in on a universal transit pass, would help raise transit ridership. Getting actually decent transit wouldn't hurt, either- and the 16 Rapid should help with that, if it ever starts running. Neighbourhood pocket parks along the median between Canyon Crest and its frontage road would provide much-needed public space, especially if the street were traffic-calmed. Also, stationing a car-share car or two at the Towne Centre might convince some cash-strapped grad students that they can get by without their own.

So there you have it- my neighbourhood, what I think is the best place in the IE to call home. Stay tuned for further installments demonstrating why Riverside is worth saving.


Chewie said...

This is cool. Probably the way to go to encourage a more walkable suburb is to highlight things in the area that already work well.

Every commercial center is an opportunity site for redevelopment if you can take part of the parking lot, put up some housing/office and a parking structure (probably politically necessary in the real world).

Since suburban retail tends to be spread out in little clusters, or clustered in huge malls, you could build islands of walkability and leave most of the land, including the politically sacrosanct single-family homes alone.

Build one trendy spot and all the cities will be tripping over themselves to cash in on the sales tax revenue :)

Anonymous said...

Nice analysis. I should try to do the same with my neighborhood.

Could you clarify the pocket park locations that you mention in the last paragraph? What do you mean by "along the median between Canyon Crest and its frontage road"? What frontage road are you referring to, and when you say "Canyon Crest," are you talking about the golf course, town center, Canyon Crest Drive?? Thank you for clarifying.

JN said...

Anon- Certainly.
Along Canyon Crest Drive, opposite the Towne Centre between El Cerrito and Central, there is a wide, grassy median and a frontage road that seems to primarily serve as a City-maintained parking lot for the nearby apartments. Removing some of the curbside parking and extending this grassy median into it would allow for a pleasant, if small, linear park. You could also remove the other side of the road's parallel parking instead, if you wanted to buffer the park further back from traffic. Either way, it would create much-needed public space in a relatively shady and green atmosphere.