September 2010 home page

  Why Go Downtown?
John Kerridge | El Amigo Road

As we confront the challenge of revitalizing downtown, perhaps through adoption of a Form-Based Code, we must ensure, as acknowledged by the ad hoc Form Based Code Committee, that such revitalization conforms to the Community Plan. Maybe we need to remind ourselves of the vision that the citizens who drafted the Plan had in mind for our downtown area. This is what we find:

“Focus major retail and office activity into one economically viable, pedestrian oriented and attractive area that serves the needs of both Del Mar residents and visitors and is well integrated into the residential fabric of the community.”

Respectful of the fact that Del Mar is primarily a residential community, the framers of the Plan clearly visualized the downtown area as a place where Del Mar residents, as well as visitors, would enjoy a pleasurable environment. So it’s worth asking, what is it that makes what is essentially a commercial environment attractive to a resident, so that he or she can derive pleasure simply from being in that environment, beyond the relatively straightforward satisfaction of making a worthwhile purchase?

One way of approaching this issue is by asking ourselves: What experiences have we personally enjoyed, in other places and at other times, that could guide us in creating comparable pleasures here in Del Mar? Which leads to the next logical question: To what extent were those earlier pleasures a result of the environments in which they were experienced? What connections can we trace between the nature of the surroundings and the pleasure we found there? Can we identify features of those surroundings that could usefully guide us in designing public spaces here? Somewhat facetiously, we might ask: Is there any relationship between degree of gratification and floor-area-ratio?

More concretely, here are some suggested elements that we all might agree would contribute to a memorable experience:

The physical surroundings are agreeable, authentic, well maintained, respectful of indigenous cultures, inviting. Seating is available for those who desire or need it.
The pleasure area is accessible, laid out in a manner that encourages strolling from one source of entertainment, food and drink, or merchandise to another. The lighting is not obtrusive but provides adequate illumination.

Available entertainment is diverse in nature, well produced, dynamic but not intrusive, preferably with a local signature – not just what you can see or hear wherever tourists congregate.

Food and drink in the immediate neighborhood are of good, but not pretentious, quality, available at reasonable prices to satisfy a diverse range of customers, both resident and visiting.

Among the crowd having a good time, one finds both a significant number of friends from the community and not a few people, either locals or visitors, who are strangers to you, but who end up enlarging your horizons.

The noise level is high enough to support a festive atmosphere but not to a point where it inhibits conversation. (And let’s spare a thought for the nearby residential neighborhoods.)

These elements, and others that you could supply from your own experience, add up to a vision of an attractive downtown that is probably close to that which inspired the framers of the Community Plan. As we grapple with the revitalization issue, let’s hold fast to that vision and let our experiences in other towns around the world inform us of the relationship, perhaps quite subtle at times, between personal pleasure and land-use policy.

Would a Form-Based Code provide such a relationship? Right now, the answer is not clear. So it behooves us as a community to spend the next few months exploring that issue, and voting accordingly when the FBC appears on the ballot.

The framers of the Plan wanted us all to have a good time downtown. Let’s make it happen.


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