Until recently, Downtown Redwood City was known pejoratively to some Peninsula residents as "Deadwood City"—a place with very little activity on the streets, struggling businesses, surface parking lots, and underutilized historic buildings. It lacked a "there" and the city lacked a common place for people to feel a sense of civic belonging.
The city's transformation of Downtown involved imagining what might be possible using historic assets, and what might be possible through additional public and private investment. It identified potential catalysts for attracting people downtown and spurring investment—a historic courthouse, theatre district, and fine grained street network linking the downtown to a Caltrain station one half hour from Downtown San Francisco and Silicon Valley's job centers. The most unconventional and transformative step was the demolition of a surplus county building to create space for a plaza and open up the historic courthouse building behind it to the street. The courthouse was refurbished as a county history museum that frames a busy square. The city's Redevelopment Agency (now defunct) refurbished many of the Downtown's historic theatres— which are now used for lectures, plays and musical performances—and added a new movie theatre to create a successful entertainment district. It also invested in sidewalks, street trees, and other amenities to invite daytime office workers and evening visitors to stroll.
The city's public investments did not immediately spur private investment, but provided the community with a common space. People of diverse backgrounds have embraced the square as a shared resource: a place to relax, meet new people, experience art and culture, and celebrate old traditions and create new ones. The square hosts a farmers' market, and food and music festivals.
During the recession, community members set the stage for future investment by adopting a Precise Plan for further transforming the Downtown. With the economic recovery, the plan has unleashed private investment from developers seeking a genuine "place" for tech businesses and their employees to live and to cultivate innovative ideas in coffee houses, bars and restaurants. Already, more than 1,200 homes and a half million square feet of commercial space are completed or under construction. Following the Precise Plan, each private development builds out part of the adopted pedestrian network and adds green space.
Interview with Bill Eckern, Director,
Community Development Department, City of Redwood City