A quarter-century ago, quiet Sunnyvale, California, decided it was time to do what every self-respecting suburb was doing: build an indoor mall. Away went the downtown street grid with its clusters of stores and restaurants. In its place arose the Sunnyvale Town Center, a hulking, boxy, brown structure. The town, located in what would become the heart of Northern California’s Silicon Valley, was just keeping up with the rest of modern America.

The mall still stands at the heart of the city, near Sunnyvale’s train station. These days, however, the mall is far from the pinnacle of commercial development it was meant to be. Few cars cruise into its parking lots. Many of its stores have folded, leaving empty, lifeless retail spaces. The shoppers who do come do not tarry long in the dreary corridors. “This mall was a disaster to begin with,” says one resident. “The place right now is like a ghost town.”

Once seen as the future of the city’s retail sector, the mall has gradually become a symbol of everything that’s wrong with Sunnyvale’s downtown: boring, shoddy, ugly, and a poor substitute for the street grid it destroyed in 1976. Now, after more than two decades of downtown stagnation, the town is finally poised to take action. Following the lead of suburbs from Atlanta, Georgia, to Pasadena, California, Sunnyvale’s leaders are talking these days about urbanizing their suburbia. Out with the bland, uninviting suburban streets devoid of people, say urban planners and city officials, and in with the traditional street grid, dense with pedestrians, shops, apartments, and the general bustle of people buying, selling, talking, yelling, and laughing.

This new vision of community life can be seen in the city’s Urban Design Plan, which was unveiled in March. The plan intends to create “an enhanced, traditional downtown serving the community with a variety of destinations in a pedestrian-friendly environment.” In part, it’s a bid to keep Sunnyvale competitive with neighboring suburbs like Mountain View and Palo Alto, which either have or are creating “traditional” downtowns to attract businesses, shoppers, and residents.

After months of deliberation, the plan was approved by the city council and is now undergoing an environmental impact review. Whether it will deliver on its promises, however, is hotly contested by both residents and experts. Some critics doubt whether urbanization schemes like Sunnyvale’s offer anything more than band-aid solutions to the problem of suburban sprawl. After all, they point out, urbanizing Sunnyvale ? a twenty-five-square-mile concatenation of single-family houses, strip malls, office parks, and the scattered remnants of orchard fields that were once its hallmark ? will be a massive undertaking, requiring much more than just a spiffy new plaza and a few office buildings. For its supporters, however, the city’s plan for downtown is the best remedy to what they see as a declining standard of suburban life. Over the years, traffic snarls have worsened, and land has become too expensive and far-flung for the old practice of building low, sprawling developments. The hope is that the increased density of buildings in the proposed downtown layout will ease housing demand and create a more livable environment. “Sunnyvale has a need for a place that it can call its own,” says Robert Paternoster, Sunnyvale’s director of community development. “There’s no ‘there’ there.”

City on the edge

On Charles street, “the city has got that much
closer to our backyard,” says a resident. (Nick Hoff)

Sunnyvale (population 131,000) calls itself the “Heart of Silicon Valley” ? a reference to its geographic location along the Palo Alto-San Jose corridor and to the hundreds of technology companies that make Sunnyvale their home. No longer merely a suburb, Sunnyvale is part of what urban planners call an “edge city” ? a suburb in a dispersed region that has all the jobs and retail its residents require, making a traditional urban core unnecessary.

Critics of sprawl hold that edge cities suffocate cultural and communal life with their low building densities and automobile-centric designs. Another oft-cited problemis “unifunctional zoning” ? regulations that allow only one kind of building, like single family houses, to be built in a given area. “Before unifunctional or negative zoning dictated land use,” writes sociologist Ray Oldenburg in Celebrating the Third Place, “little stores, taverns, offices, and eateries were located within walking distance of most town and city dwellers, and those places constituted ‘the stuff of community.'”

Today, most suburbanites have nothing within walking distance but a 7-Eleven ? if they’re lucky. They have no public spaces that are a pleasure to be in, no places where they can walk and want to walk, no places where they can meet people and feel comfortable talking to them. In today’s anonymous suburban landscape, there are no places with nooks and crannies and walls that create and define spaces, that make you feel like you are somewhere ? not lost in a sea of lawns or undefined streets or whizzing thruways.

Sunnyvale bears the telltale signs of suburban isolation. Its bleak downtown mall, rambling subdivisions, countless strip malls, and lack of a street grid have destroyed whatever pedestrian-friendly prospects the town might have had. Sunnyvale has instead become a broad, monotonous blanket of one- and two-story single-family homes, sliced by major traffic arteries and their attendant Safeways, Wells Fargos, and Blockbusters. In the new Cherry Orchard strip mall (named in honor of the trees it supplanted several years ago), residents sip lattes in the faux authenticity of Starbucks, where the “graffiti” on the milk and sugar stations and the dark (cherry?) wood tables attempt to create precisely the sense of authentic place that Starbucks and Sunnyvale don’t have.

According to locals, the only pleasant part of downtown is a block-long section of Murphy Avenue. Constructed at the turn of the century, the street was built for humans, not automobiles. The street’s width is approximately the same as the height of its buildings ? a rule of thumb for well-proportioned thoroughfares. The buildings come right up to the sidewalk, and there are no garages to break up the flow of shops. From this pedestrian-friendly design arises a sense of enclosed space ? a sense of place ? that makes people feel comfortable being there. It is therefore the hottest spot to go in Sunnyvale for a beer, a cup of coffee, or a plate of pad thai.

The rest of the downtown, approximately thirty square blocks, is made up of small homes, a couple streets with one-story Town and Country shops, and the gargantuan eyesore that is Sunnyvale’s mall. Originally dubbed the Sunnyvale Town Center, the mall nowadays is officially known as the WAVE (Walking and Village Entertainment), though some residents prefer to call it other names ? “the manure pile,” for instance.

The Walking and Village Entertainment mall, built in 1976. A quick walk-through of its brown-tiled interior reveals empty store after empty store chained up, dark, and littered with the unwanted paraphernalia of the last tenants. Macy’s, JC Penney, and Target are flanked by desolate parking lots on each of the mall’s four corners.

Sunnyvale’s new plan calls for removing the mall’s roof and opening it to pedestrian traffic from adjacent Murphy Avenue. But the mall itself will not be razed: city planners and consultants argue that its anchor stores are great assets. “If you wanted these department stores today, we’d have to spend millions of dollars to get them here,” says Paternoster (even though, he concedes, “you wish you could start from scratch.”). Besides improving the general aesthetics, the mall remodeling effort is aimed at attracting higher-end stores like Barnes & Noble and the Gap, as well as a large multiplex.

Renovating the mall is only one part of the much broader downtown redevelopment plan. The plan also calls for increased density in the surrounding thirty-block area by zoning for over 2,000 units of apartment buildings and five blocks of six-story office buildings. A public plaza, now under construction, will greet train riders returning from work (and, planners hope, arriving to work) in the new downtown. The plaza will also open onto the courtyard of a planned eight-story apartment complex, which will also house retail stores on its ground-level floors ? only a stone’s throw from three office buildings already nearing completion. (So far the only elements of the plan under construction are the office buildings, the plaza, and the two-story parking garages on the mall’s corner lots, all of which were already zoned under Sunnyvale’s current general plan. The other elements are proposed zoning changes that will await a developer if the plan is approved.)

For a city that until recently had no building more than three stories in height, the redevelopment plan promises a radical transformation. And not surprisingly, many Sunnyvaleans ? especially residents who live near downtown ? are concerned about the proposed changes. Even though some of them profess their preference for more traditional, denser downtowns like those in nearby Palo Alto or Los Gatos, they fear that any modifications to Sunnyvale’s center might spell the end of their quiet suburban neighborhoods. In particular, they worry about the increased traffic that a vibrant downtown will inevitably bring.

Sunnyvale resident Mark Matizinger is among those who oppose the plan’s dramatic scope. A forty-two-year-old hardware salesman, Matizinger lives within view ofthe three office buildings already under construction. “I bought my house to get the neighborhood flavor and the convenience of downtown,” he says. “But the city has got that much closer to our backyard.”

Andy Maloney says he is all for a “traditional downtown,” but insists that the plan is a disaster. Maloney is co-director of the Friends of Sunnyvale, a citizens group that says it is in favor of “smart growth” ? that is, development that avoids sprawl. Maloney argues that the plan’s proposals for six- and eight-story buildings will create “stone canyons,” rather than the “traditional” downtown that could be achieved with three-story buildings. Further, the proposed high density will bring such increased traffic that few will enjoy going downtown. The plan will not address the downtown’s central problem ? its lack of a street grid ? because it refuses to uproot the mall, whose stores and parking lots have gobbled up the old grid. As a result, claims Maloney, the plan will do little to boost pedestrian traffic or improve the circulation of cars in the downtown area.

Supporters of the plan counter that something has to be done to improve the downtown situation. Among their numbers are a few long-time Sunnyvale residents, like Monica Davis, of the Charles Street 100 Neighborhood Association, who looks forward to walking to dinner, movies, and concerts in the new plaza. Many of the plan’s supporters, however, are newcomers to Sunnyvale ? young, educated professionals who work in the hi-tech industry that now dominates the region. “I can’t stand sprawl,” says Daniel Simms, a twenty-nine-year-old computer programmer. “I hate driving everywhere. It always feels like more urban areas have a tighter sense of community.”

Driving to your ‘walkable’ community

Sunnyvale’s downtown dwellers will still
depend on their SUvs, sedans, and sportscars. (Nick Hoff)

Even if the numerous proposals for Sunnyvale’s downtown were all carried out, however, they would not change one crucial fact: Most Sunnyvale residents will still have to drive to get downtown in the first place. And so some critics say that the city’s vision of a pedestrian wonderland is just a pipe dream ? beyond the power of Sunnyvale, or any other municipality for that matter, to realize, unless more profound changes in the nation’s outlook and habits take place first. “There will not be much new urbanism if we don’t address our dependence on the automobile,” says Peter Bosselmann, professor of architecture and city and regional planning at the University of California at Berkeley.

In the absence of specific policies to decrease America’s reliance on cars, says Bosselmann, suburban city planning initiatives across the country will at most create small urban oases amidst vast seas of sprawl. Residents will still drive everywhere; it’s just that apartments and offices will be closer together, piled on top of huge parking garages. Given the dominance of the automobile, there’s also reason to doubt that these new urban centers will even be able to get off their feet. When everyone has a car, there’s no incentive for businesses to relocate to more central, and more expensive, locations.

Getting around Sunnyvale will certainly not be any easier if the city’s plan is fully executed. Sunnyvale’s public transit amounts to a sparse bus system, used only by those unfortunate enough to not have access to a car. The denser housing called for in the plan will increase traffic but won’t substantially reduce the number of times that residents will need to get in their cars every day. Even those who live within the new “walkable” downtown will need to drive to buy groceries and other necessities, and probably to get to work. What’s more, the proposed new apartment complexes will need to be equipped with either completely underground garages ? which the mayor of Sunnyvale thinks might be too expensive for developers ? or partially underground garages that take up valuable street-level space.

Sunnyvale’s chief planner, Robert Paternoster, recognizes that “a lot of mistakes were made” in this country’s last century of city planning, when the “automobile was given precedence over people.” But, he notes, in this automobile-dominated culture, urban planners must accommodate the car if they hope to attract people to their projects. Since Sunnyvale, in his opinion, doesn’t and never will have the kind of transit system that could make owning a car unnecessary, Sunnyvale’s plan must welcome the car ? otherwise no one will live downtown or visit there.

Even if the plan can’t do much to change people’s reliance on automobiles, Paternoster sees good things coming out of its proposals. The increased building density, he thinks, will give residents the opportunity to live within walking distance of their jobs and favorite restaurants. Most, he concedes, won’t work downtown and won’t eat their meals at those restaurants ? “but they’ll eat some.” It seems, then, that if the plan creates just a touch of walkable vibrancy it will be deemed a success.

Whether residents will be satisfied is another question. Daniel Simms will still have to drive most everywhere — and to create a sense of community, he insists, you must at the very least “get out of your cars and see people.” Of course, he and other local residents, if they come to the new downtown, will certainly have the chance to get out of their cars — as they walk to Murphy Avenue from deep within the mall’s new two-tiered parking lots.

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