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UnSprawl Case Study:  Suisun City, California

Unsprawl: Remixing Spaces as PlacesAnnouncing Unsprawl: Remixing Spaces as Places, by Simmons B. Buntin with Ken Pirie
Planetizen Press
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Originally appeared in Issue No. 3.
By Simmons B. Buntin

Suisun City Downtown Redevelopment Site Plan
Site plan of Suisun City´s downtown and Old Town redevelopment area. 
Graphic courtesy of Suisun City Redevelopment Agency.

Origins and History of
Suisun City´s Downtown Redevelopment

Suisun City is located about halfway between San Francisco and Sacramento just south of the rapidly developing Interstate 80 corridor, in central Solano County, California.  Though its population is only 27,000 people today, it has grown from just 2,900 in 1970. 

Nearly all of that growth, however, has been on the edges of the city, in typical bedroom community-sprawl pattern:  walled residential subdivisions comprised of two-story, identical houses;  homes with garages in front set on curvilinear, overly wide streets with extended curbs as sidewalks;  the occasional strip mall here and there—all automobile-oriented.

Meanwhile, Suisun City's Old Town and city center became areas of disinvestment, as industrial oil facilities along the harbor polluted the ground and water, businesses failed on Main Street, one neighborhood comprised primarily of fourplexes used about half the City's police resources to fight drug dealers and high crime, and the City Hall's once-temporary trailer housing became permanent long ago.

In 1982, with the City struggling to provide services, the Planning Department brought together a group of concerned citizens, regional architects, and planning staff to develop a Specific Plan for revitalization of Suisun City's Old Town and adjacent harbor.  Before long the group completed a plan for redeveloping entire portions of the downtown area.  But for years no actions were taken, and the city's economic, environmental, and social conditions worsened.

By 1988, the situation was so bad that a San Francisco Chronicle survey of the quality of life in the Bay Area's 98 municipalities ranked Suisun City dead last.  But a growing group of citizens and a frustrated City Council, lead by Mayor Jim Spering who was elected in 1989, decided that it was time again to develop a plan—a feasible redevelopment plan—for bringing life back into Suisun City's Old Town and adjacent downtown areas.

Artist's Rendering of Redeveloped Suisun City
An artist´s rendering of a redeveloped downtown. 
Graphic courtesy of Suisun City Redevelopment Agency.

The intentions of Suisun City's redevelopment—which seven years later has completely turned downtown around—are demonstrated in the five goals developed in the revised Specific Plan, released in November 1990.  These goals were developed by the Mayor, City Council, city staff, and a 13-member citizens committee:

  • Strengthen the economic viability of the Historic Old Town, Waterfront, and adjacent areas and the city as a whole.
  • Preserve and enhance the historic character of the area.
  • Facilitate appropriate water-oriented and economic uses of the Suisun Channel and adjacent land areas.
  • Protect and enhance natural open space and recreational amenities of the Suisun Channel and adjoining areas.
  • Foster participation between the public and private sector in carrying out a program of revitalization for the Planning Area.

Rather than developing a land use plan and approval process for redevelopment projects as the first step, the city instead decided to look at what the citizens want, and then let the Specific Plan follow.  That satisfied two criteria.  First, it allowed the city to define what it wanted to accomplish—based on citizen input—up-front, and therefore design incentives and disincentives for what it did not want.  Second, it allowed the city to let developers and business owners know what the city's plans were, so they could prepare appropriately.

Suisun City's Town PlazaThe first step for the city was bringing in assistance for redevelopment in the form of Camran Nojoomi as Redevelopment Agency head, and the San Francisco-based Roma Design Group to develop conceptual plans and design guidelines (based on citizen input).  Under Nojoomi, the city then reformed the Redevelopment Agency—with autonomous administration and budget under California law—by merging the functions of Planning and Housing within it.  This allowed expertise to be shared by skilled staff, and avoided discrepancies often apparent when general and redevelopment plans are developed and implemented under separate agencies.  It next defined redevelopment boundaries as the entire city rather than the downtown itself in order to "capture tax increment financing from projects happening all over town," according to Mayor Spering.

The city's approach was to utilize staff expertise, input from the citizens committee, and the Roma Design Group to revise the Specific Plan for downtown Suisun City which would concentrate on the redevelopment of six primary areas:  the Civic Center (City Hall, at that time in trailers), the Crescent neighborhood, the Waterfront (and a new Town Plaza), Main Street and Old Town, and the Train Depot.  While the city initially hoped to obtain one developer who would take on the hefty task of redeveloping the entire downtown, none were willing.  It then found itself in the precarious role of "public developer," as Camran Nojoomi calls it, and decided to undertake a series of steps to promote redevelopment of specific parcels.  The Specific Plan was revised in November 1990.

Redevelopment Process:  Constraints, Rules, Systems, and Policies

In 1991 the city issued $58 million in tax-increment bonds to provide for overall downtown design, purchase of dilapidated properties along the Waterfront, infrastructure including new water and sewer pipes and streetscaping, facade improvement programs, construction of Town Plaza, dredging and restoration of Suisun Channel and wetlands in the adjacent Suisun Marsh, and other activities.

Many of the rules were modified or developed anew as the process went along.  Use of a redevelopment agency in California is not mandatory, but provides an opportunity for the renewal of stressed places.  Suisun City bent the rules in a proactive manner by merging Housing and Planning within the Redevelopment Agency.  The maneuver has facilitated a more effective relationship between city staff, allowed the Specific Plan to be integrated with the general plan, provided mechanisms for marketing the redevelopment, and allowed for separate financing of redevelopment efforts. 

A major rule which the city has been forced—and indeed seeks—to follow is that of public involvement.  In addition to the citizens committee, public involvement is facilitated through mandatory public hearings and City Council meetings.  While city staff and consultants had ideas of what they wanted a renewed Suisun City to look like, it was imperative to ask citizens, and then work with them toward a more livable downtown.

Suisun City's Marina with City Hall in the Distance
Suisun City's marina, with the new City Hall in the background.

Another bent rule was in establishing boundaries for the redevelopment district.  Normally, boundaries are established only around that area which is to be redeveloped.  Yet the city's approach in this case allowed it to receive tax increment to repay bonds from the entire city, especially those (primarily residential) areas continuing to grow at its edges. 

And other rules regarding financing applied, as well.  When the bonds were issued in 1991, the lowest interest rate the city could get was 7.5 percent, even though the bonds were rated at A-.  In 1993, however, the city was able to refinance at the lower 5.75 percent rate, as well as obtain insurance for the bonds.  This enabled the city to borrow $10 million more than in 1991.

It also followed the appropriate rules to utilize money from other sources.  For example, state transportation funds were available to renovate the circa-1910 Train Depot, which now serves as a fully restored multi-modal transportation hub, providing both rail and bus service.  The city also utilized a feasibility study and a $5.6 million loan from the California Department of Boating and Waterways to construct the 150-berth Marina, completed in early 1994.  Loan payments were deferred until 1998, when the Marina was projected to be fully leased.  Additionally, the city expected to build a $2 million reserve fund to provide a financial buffer for Marina operations by the time payments begin.

Suisun Marsh
At 84,000 acres, Suisun Marsh is the largest
contiguous estuarine marsh in the United States.

Other rules are not so much written as understood.  In redeveloping the Crescent neighborhood into the traditional neighborhood development called Victorian Harbor, the city worked with fifty developers before finding one—the O'Brien Group of San Mateo, California—that would comply with 90 percent of the city's goals, including pedestrian orientation, front porches, Victorian-style architecture, alleys with garages, narrow streets, and others.  Most developers were stuck on conventional "snout" houses, and were not giving credit to the uniqueness of the neighborhood in how it would sell.  The developer was richly rewarded, however, as the homes were among the fastest selling in the down-turned economy of the state in 1994.

The rule of  "prove to us it will work by other examples or we won't do it" applied to commercial development along Main Street and the Waterfront, as well.  No examples of comparable land sales or values were present in Suisun City.  Though oil tanks and other industrial facilities were removed, opening up both access to the Channel and new commercial development opportunities, developers had no baseline in which to gauge the parcels through traditional means ways such as land sale prices and lease rates.  They had no evidence of reduced development risk.  In order to lessen developer risks, the city implemented its Enterprise Zone programs, which include negotiable land acquisition terms for city-owned land, development and business license fee waivers, architectural design assistance, permit assistance, and mixed-use flexibility.

Suisun City's Historic Train Depot
The circa-1910 Train Depot hosts Salano County's only passenger rail
stop between San Francisco/Oakland and Sacramento (Top). Across
the street, the bus stop and park-and-ride provide bus commuter
service for transit iders along Highway 12 and Interstate 80 (Bottom).

Suisun City's Regional Bus Stop

Perhaps the most formal rules came from the state and federal governments as the city worked to clean up and dredge Suisun Channel, the waterway leading through the adjacent 84,000-acre Suisun Marsh, to Suisun and Grizzly Bays, and eventually to the San Francisco Bay.  Camran Nojoomi crafted an agreement with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to place dredge materials on an island just south of the Channel, and in the process developed a successful and environmentally benign pilot project that communities in similar situations can use to effectively dispose of fill while creating new wetlands.

Four specific systems of design policy have played important roles in determining the form of Suisun City's redevelopment:  the Specific Plan, Design Standards and Guidelines, Enterprise Zone programs, and Crescent neighborhood resident relocation program.

Suisun City's Amended Downtown Specific Plan of 1995, which amends the 1989 version, provides an introduction and redevelopment concept; discusses existing uses and policies; details goals and objectives; sets forth land use regulations including traffic and circulation, open space, and public facilities; reviews design standards and guidelines; and discusses Specific Plan.  It is the legal tool that ties the redevelopment process into the city's general plan and zoning ordinances, and which provides a clear vision of what the city and its citizens want in the redeveloped downtown: 

    That Downtown Suisun City has the opportunity to become a unique waterfront town that is pleasant to live in and at the same time serves as a regional destination.  The Plan draws on an unusual mix of characteristics—a working Waterfront, an Historic Main Street, established neighborhoods, direct freeway access, an Amtrak/Intercity Rail Station, a rich natural environment, and a location that is in the path of regional growth.

The Design Standards and Guidelines provide the basis for developers and the reviewing Architectural Review Board, Planning Commission, Redevelopment Agency Board, and/or City Council to ensure that any new development or facade renovation supports existing and desirable historic characteristics of Old Town.  The Residential Guidelines attempt "to create a traditional townscape throughout the Downtown/Waterfront area which fosters community activities, social interaction, and a strong cohesive image," while the Commercial Guidelines "are intended to preserve and enhance the historic character of the Downtown commercial area and to ensure that new developments are compatible."  Both are pedestrian-oriented. 

Bab's Delta Diner
Bab´s Delta Diner, adjacent to Town Plaza and the marina, is a commercial diner on the first floor with the owner´s residence on the second.

The Enterprise Zone incentive programs have been established to facilitate local and small business development along Main Street and the Waterfront.  Babs Delta Diner, the first business to move into Harbor Plaza—located between the Town Plaza, Main Street, and the Channel—is a good example of the types of businesses the incentive programs are trying to attract.  Babs Curless owns the two-story Victorian-style building with the diner on the first floor and her residence on the second.  Her move from another part of town to the redeveloping Waterfront was facilitated by the Redevelopment Agency's willingness to finance the purchase of the land, waive development and business license fees, provide free architectural design assistance, and assist in preparing permit applications required for city and state agencies.  For a small business owner of a restaurant or specialty retail, these services may be essential.

The resident relocation program may not initially sound like a design policy, but its exact purpose was to move residents out of the dilapidated Crescent neighborhood of styleless fourplexes so that the neotraditional Victorian Harbor neighborhood could be built.  470 units were demolished in 1991, and 300 new, entry-level priced ($130,000 to $180,000) Victorian-style single-family houses have been built in their place.  Relocation assistance was provided to Crescent residents which included four years of subsidized rent anywhere in Northern California.  Most of the residents took the assistance, while others simply disappeared.  After the fourplexes were removed and the new neighborhood constructed, some residents have returned, pleasantly surprised to find the attractive Victorian Harbor where decay and rampant crime formerly reigned.

There are a number of public policies reflected in the redevelopment of Suisun City's downtown.  These are perhaps demonstrated best by the Specific Plan's organizing elements:

New Commercial Development
New commercial development adjacent to the marina and Town Plaza.
The entire Downtown needs to be focused on the Suisun Channel which is its major and central feature.

By acquiring and removing run-down industrial facilities along the Channel, the city has provided public access to the water for the first time in fifty years.  The actions taken by the Redevelopment Agency, and the redevelopment "site" plan, demonstrate clearly that the entire redevelopment is geared toward the Channel.  The redevelopment plans build upon the Channel, undoubtedly one of the city's greatest attributes.

The northern end of the Channel must be expanded to accommodate a marina and create a stronger image of the Waterfront.

While the marina has not been extended to the northern end of the Channel from its present location between Harbor Plaza and the Civic Center on the west and east sides, respectively, there are a number of plans for redeveloping the northern edge of the Channel.  These include the creation of 125,000 square feet of specialty retail and office uses which will be combined with a historic riverboat—the Grand Romance—that is moored at the Channel's northern end, and which includes entertainment, recreation, a restaurant, and Channel/river tours.   The area has already seen the removal of 27 oil storage tanks and 160,000 cubic feet of contaminated soil.

The Waterfront should maintain its extraordinary mix of natural wetlands and urban edge.

Redevelopment of the waterfront includes a seawall and promenade along much of the Channel, yet also incorporates the natural wetlands of Suisun Marsh as the Waterfront Park between the north end of the Channel and the Civic Center.  Additionally, Suisun Marsh is permanently protected along both sides of the Channel as it enters the Marsh.

The commercial activities of the Downtown should be integrated with an expanded new marina at its northern end and a Town Square at its southern end.

While the physical locations have changed since the 1989 Specific Plan, the results are similar.  The marina is located at the southern end of the Channel, while the Town Plaza has been constructed between Main Street and the Channel on its west side.  Commercial activities are being integrated as developments in Harbor Plaza and infill and renovation along Main Street continue.

The existing Sheldon Oil site needs to be redeveloped as the center of the Downtown Commercial District and the Waterfront .

Industrial facilities have been cleared from the site, and soil contamination has been cleaned up.  Construction continues for the specialty retail and office space, as well as a hotel and conference center.

The area to the east of the Channel offers an opportunity for the creation of several new low-density residential neighborhoods.

Victorian Harbor, a noticeably high-density, single-family neighborhood, is now complete northeast of the Channel.  The city has, in order to promote pedestrian orientation, revised this element so that new residential plans proposed for the Todd Park area east of the Civic Center are neotraditional in design, as well.

The west of the Channel offers an opportunity for a medium-density residential neighborhood.

A unique live/work, high-end neighborhood called Delta Landing has been proposed for the area west of the Channel and below Harbor Plaza.  At full buildout, 26 lots will host custom homes ranging from 1,800 to 2,600 square feet, with commercial spaces from 200 to 2,200 square feet, as well as full landscaping, streetscaping, and a "pocket" park.

Suisun City's Historic Main Street
These buildings along Suisun City's historic Main
Street face Town Plaza and Suisun Channel beyond.

The Downtown needs a more cohesive street system that allows for a greater distribution of traffic.

Street improvements are outlined in the Specific Plan, and have been completed in conjunction with those sectors of redevelopment that have been completed.

The Downtown needs a cohesive Open Space system that enhances the pedestrian experience of the townscape and the Waterfront.

All redevelopment projects provide for both open space and pedestrian access.  Victorian Harbor relegates garages to alleys and provides wide, landscaped streets and pathways for pedestrian access.  A promenade has been constructed along the Channel, linking the Civic Center, Victorian Harbor, Main Street, Town Plaza, Harbor Plaza, Rail Station Plaza, and other areas, including ball parks and schools.  Pedestrian pathways have been constructed along the Waterfront Park, and sidewalk widening projects are occurring along Main Street.  Open space has been provided in the form of "pocket" parks by the Civic Center, Victorian Harbor, and Delta Landing (proposed), and larger public open spaces include the Town Plaza, the natural Waterfront Park, Todd Park (proposed, across from the Civic Center), a plaza on the north edge of the Channel, and wetlands of Suisun Marsh itself.

Redevelopment Components

The Suisun City Redevelopment Agency has, since 1989, worked with citizens, the City Council, and the San Francisco-based Roma Design Group to redevelop major portions of its 200-acre downtown in a manner that is economically, environmentally, and socially sustainable.

The first and perhaps most symbolic step was to build a new city hall on the eastern shore of Suisun Channel.  "Before the city built its new Civic Center as one of the first steps in Suisun City's revitalization," recalls Mayor Jim Spering, "its offices were located in a group of mobile trailers.  We had the only city hall in California that was registered with the Department of Motor Vehicles." 

Victorian Harbor Neighborhood

The Victorian Harbor neighborhood replaced the run-down Crescent neighborhood, which was comprised of fourplexes on single-family lots built in the mid-1970s as an attempt to bring life into Old Town.  At the same time, the city helped private developers fund land purchases on the provision that it house low-income families.  While 106 units just south of the new, neotraditional housing development were salvaged, and another 52 were rehabilitated, 470 units in all were demolished while 2,000 residents were relocated.

The neighborhood that replaced Crescent is a direct attempt to capture the turn-of-the-century flavor of Old Town in a pedestrian-oriented manner.   The single-family homes all  have  front  porches, Victorian-style architecture, lushly landscaped front yards, garages relegated to landscaped back alleys, and small lots.  The neighborhood incorporates pedestrian-friendly, traffic-calming elements such as roundabouts, narrow streets, and cutout curbs for on-street parking.  Sidewalks are separated from the streets by grass, flowers, or shrubs and trees, and traditional streetlamps ensure nighttime safety without creating a flood of light pollution.

By the end of 1993, 94 homes were built, and an additional 206 Victorian-style homes have been added since.  Additionally, nearby residential developments have incorporated the neotraditional approach.  And all are within walking distance of the train depot, Civic Center, Old Town, marina, and other amenities.

Victorian Harbor
Single-family housing in Victorian Harbor replaced
the crime-ridden fourplexes of the Crescent
neighborhood (Top). Architectural details abound
on these newly-constructed period houses
east of the Suisun Channel (Bottom).


Main Street Improvements

Main Street's improvement is actually a series of programs promulgated by the Redevelopment Agency.  The city's Historic Facade Improvement Program, for example, has allowed businesses along Main Street to restore facades through city funding, thereby attracting additional customers.  Infill projects that meet the city's design guidelines for historic structures are also encouraged, and construction is underway for several buildings on Main Street. 

The city has also fostered the conversion of a number of buildings to uses—and even locations—that benefit the residents.  In a last-ditch effort to save the circa 1855 Lawler House—once slated for torching as a fire department demonstration—it was moved from the eastern end of town to an area just east of Main Street, adjacent to Town Plaza and waterfront redevelopment.  It has been fully restored and now houses office uses.  Others have been similarly restored (though not relocated):  the circa-1876 Bank of Suisun is now a coffee shop, and the old post office is home to a microbrewery and pub.

A former grocery store east of Main Street is the new home of Solano Community College's drama department and theater, as well as the Harbor Theatrical Group.  The building was recently converted into the 170-seat performing arts Harbor Theater which includes classrooms, several small stages, and a main stage.

In anticipation of increased business along Main Street, the city has also constructed 300 landscaped parking spaces and installed new infrastructure including water pipes and storm sewers.

A Historic Building Along Main Street
Historic buildings along Suisun City's Main Street are being
renovated with the assistance of the city's Redevelopment Agency.

A Historic Building Along Main Street

Town Plaza

In order to provide public space and a true community center, Suisun City built Town Plaza along Suisun Channel.  The site was previously occupied by prefabricated metal warehouses and vacant lots, but now adjoins a promenade along the channel and includes landscaping, patterned walkways, a granite and bronze stage area, and a gazebo.

Adjacent to the town plaza, the city purchased and demolished a number of industrial warehouses and laid out small building pads for local businesses.  The Harbor Plaza retail pads range from 4,700 to over 11,000 square feet, and fall within the city's Enterprise Zone and its subsequent incentive programs.

Suisun City Before.... And Suisun City After...

From polluted industrial harbor to pedestrian-friendly, festival-attracting city core:  Suisun City—before (left) and after (top and right)—is a true UnSprawl success story.
Photos courtesy of Suisun City Redevelopment Agency.

And Suisun City After...

The redevelopment of downtown Suisun City is a striking example of how calculated public involvement can greatly influence—and for the better—physical design.  The success of this series of redevelopment projects is gauged not only in economic development, environmental preservation, and social enhancement, but also in the physical design and appearance of the downtown.  Suisun City has succeeded in using public policy to preserve its cultural and historical heritage while enhancing its proximity to the water.

For more information, visit the Suisun City Historic Waterfront website at www.suisunwaterfront.com.


Simmons B. Buntin is the founder and editor-in-chief of Terrain.org: A Journal of the Built & Natural Environments. With Ken Pirie, he is the author of the new book Unsprawl: Remixing Spaces as Places (Planetizen Press, 2013). His books of poetry are Riverfall (2005) and Bloom (2010), both published by Ireland's Salmon Poetry. Recent work has appeared in North American Review, ISLE, Versal, Orion, Hawk & Handsaw, High Desert Journal, and Kyoto Journal. Catch up with him at www.SimmonsBuntin.com.
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Just the Facts.

Suisun City
Downtown Redevelopment

  • 27,000 city population, 210,000 people within 10-mile radius
  •  Located in Solano County—Northern California's fastest growing
    • 200-acre Old Town settled in 1848
  • Redevelopment of Old Town, downtown, and Suisun Channel
  • Oriented around dual transit: train and regional bus
  • Mixed-use commercial core based on historic preservation
  • "New Urbanist" principles utilized
  • Preservation of the Suisun Marsh
  • Public-private partnerships create redevelopment opportunities


In a sense, there's no miracle to Suisun City.  All it shows is that an American town, however dilapidated and besieged, can revive.  But it has to build on its strengths and 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.

— Neal R. Peirce
    The Sacramento Bee




Berke, Arnold.  March/April 1996.  "Turnaround Town,"  Historic Preservation.  Pg. 72.

Editors.  December 1996.  "1996 in Review:  Suisun City shining brighter than ever," Suisun City Discovery.  City of Suisun City, Calif.  Pg. 2.

Editors.  May 1996.  Livable Places Update.  Center for Livable Communities, Local Government Commission.  Sacramento, Calif.

Lockwood, Charles.  November 1995.  "Small Town:  The Rebirth of Suisun City, California — Neo-Traditional Town Planning Comes to the Real World," Hemispheres.  United Airlines:  Chicago, Ill.  Pace Communications, Inc.:  Greensboro, N.C.  Pg. 90.

Lockwood, Charles.  May 1995.  "Suisun City, California:  New Urbanism in the Real World," Urban Land.  ULI - the Land Institute:  Washington, D.C.  Pg. 21.

Peirce, Neal R.  September 6, 1995.  "What Suisun City knows about revival," The Sacramento Bee:  Sacramento, Calif.  Pg. B7.

Shone, Andrea.  December 27, 1996.  "Community is reborn by going back to its roots," USA Today.  Pg. 4A.

Suisun City Amended Downtown Specific Plan.  November 14, 1995.  City of Suisun City, Planning Commission:  Suisun City, Calif.

Suisun City Website.



Suisun City Historic Waterfront

City of Suisun City

County of Solano

Solano Community College

Suisun Wildlife Center


All photos by Simmons Buntin unless otherwise noted.


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