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Sunday, September 3, 1995 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Neal R. Peirce

The Suisun City Miracle: Success On Its Own Terms

Washington Post Writers Group

YOUR town's in trouble, so what about an aquarium, maybe a speedway, a cinema complex? A riverboat casino may generate a few jobs. Or how about a big-box retailer?

The sobering truth is that city after city is chasing the same off-the-shelf solutions. And even when the typical fixes work, the profits fly out of town to big national corporations.

Enter Suisun City, Calif., and what one could call the home-grown, self-help, smart-dollars model.

Six years ago, this old harbor town of 26,000, located 44 miles east of San Francisco in fast-suburbanizing Solano County, was in deep trouble. Boarded up storefronts, vacant lots and auto body shops pocked the town's historic Main Street. An oil distributing complex sat at the head of heavily polluted, silted-up Suisun Channel.

Even worse, a post-World War II slum of fourplexes called The Crescent - overrun by drug dealers, racked by crime - sat cheek by jowl with the old town center. A San Francisco Chronicle survey identified Suisun City as the worst place to live in the San Francisco Bay Area.

Today, 150-year-old Suisun City is redeveloping fast - its way. And the theme's a pleasant one - new restaurants and shops sprouting along Main Street, for example, where the city's facade-improvement program is helping restore many long-neglected historic buildings.

Credit for the revival is spread around from Mayor Jim Spering to Redevelopment Director and City Manager Camran Nojoomi to Boris

Dramov of ROMA, a San Francisco design group.

But the city council and citizenry, favoring a revival to celebrate Suisun City's old-town flavor, created the political space for innovation.

Nojoomi led in creating partnerships with private businesses. He sold the town on a "tax increment district" to embrace the entire city. Revenue increases - not just from downtown improvements but across the city - were committed to pay off the $50 million of bonds sold to spark the inner-city redevelopment projects.

Nojoomi got full sway to experiment as the city's once-separate housing and planning departments were put under his redevelopment agency.

What if the redevelopment investments had backfired? It could have all gone sour. "I had some sleepless nights," Nojoomi now confesses.

Working to redesign the historic city, the ROMA group created a master plan to keep commercial spaces small enough so they'd be affordable by local firms and entrepreneurs - and less likely to go to chain operations.

The channel at Suisun City - the name means "west wind" in the language of the Patwin Indians - was dredged in 1993. Rotting metal prefab warehouses were torn down and a handsome waterfront promenade - eventually to be 5,500 feet long - begun. A new 150-berth marina, a new Town Plaza and Civic Plaza came into being.

The old railroad station (circa 1910) was revived for intermodal use - passenger trains, Greyhound buses, and CityLink bus service to Sacramento 45 miles to the east.

Ordinary working-class folks in an old waterfront town (57 percent white, 19 percent Asian, 17 percent Hispanic, 15 percent black) have begun to create a special town environment for themselves. The plan creates room for hometown entrepreneurs and flavor. The faceless malls are left for surrounding Solana County's suburbia.

Some highly unconventional steps have been taken. The Crescent neighborhood presented such a cesspool of crime there'd been talk of erecting a wall between its decayed apartments and downtown.

Instead, Suisun City decided to demolish the entire neighborhood. The city agreed to subsidize residents' rents for four years, anywhere in northern California.

A Victorian Harbor project with traditional architecture arose on the old Crescent site. Leading the design work, Boris Dramov of ROMA went for one- and two-story frame houses with front porches instead of driveways. Autos are consigned to the alleys. Streets are narrower than most new communities, but the sidewalks are wider, and there are more trees.

It feels like a real neighborhood - reflecting the spirit of the highly trumpeted design philosophy of "New Urbanism." But here the neighborhood is in an inner city.

In a sense, there's no "miracle" to the Suisun City story. All it shows is that an American town, however dilapidated and besieged, can revive and do well.

But it has to build on its own strengths. It has to shake up major parts of local government to reflect new realities. Government and citizens need to remember that physical design is critical, and insist that it fit their city's special character.

And, a city needs to remember the value of experimentation and the old saw - "no risk, no gain."

(Copyright, 1995, Washington Post Writers Group)

Neal Peirce's column appears regularly on editorial pages of The Times.

Copyright (c) 1995 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.

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