Editor’s note: City improvements tend to be targeted at high end demographics downtown and such. In this piece Rod Stevens and Gregory Tung talk about how the needs of industry for better quality places should not be overlooked, using San Leandro, CA as a case study.

Originally posted at Urbanophile.com.
By Rod Stevens and Gregory Tung.

In a recent posting on “The Promise and Peril of Rust Belt Chic” Aaron Renn contrasts the goals of self-affirmation with the Richard Florida approach of hipster havens. There is a division here between creating jobs and place-making, a gulf that has never been bridged between economic gardening and New Urbanism. Recently, we may have found a way of uniting these approaches, by focusing on the work districts themselves and the place-making needs of the firms already located there. We did this as part of a strategy for a 21st Century workplace district in San Leandro, California.

San Leandro is located just south of Oakland, in the San Francisco East Bay, and in recent years the city has seen most of the good new jobs go north to Berkeley and Emeryville. At one time San Leandro was an industrial powerhouse, a suburban center where factories were moving into farm fields. As California grew after WW II, this became a lunch bucket paradise where Portuguese and Italian families moving out of Oakland could earn a good middle class income working at the Caterpillar plant, the Dodge factory or one of a hundred other companies. By 1970, more than 20,000 people worked there in manufacturing. With its focus on making ordinary, everyday things, San Leandro was more like Muncie, Indiana than Mountain View, another Portuguese farm town to the south that was going electronic in what would become Silicon Valley.

Then, in the mid 1970s, the factories started to close and the jobs move away. The factory buildings stayed, but instead of being used to make things, they became places to store things. Today there are only about a third as many people working in manufacturing as there were 40 years ago.

Today the vacancy rate for this industrial space is just 5%, a rate brokers point to with pride, but their value is far less than in Berkeley, just 15 miles away, where there has been a renaissance of small, urban manufacturing. Like Brooklyn and San Francisco, Berkeley has become a center for making niche goods, not only food and apparel but also very technical items like scientific glassware. Those specialty skills have, in turn, drawn in companies that need them as part of their supply chain.

This realization that, effectively, many of the local buildings in San Leandro are barren of people led us to our first strategic goal: “IQ per acre”. This means raising the value-added in each building, whether by man or machine. This doesn’t have to require a masters degree. A lot of people are smart with their hands, and advanced manufacturing is all about combining technical skill with computer-controlled machinery that leverages this skill.

As we looked around the area and began compiling lists of interesting companies that worked there, we realized that much of the original DNA of making things is still there—but these companies had been forgotten or gone unrecognized by the city. We found companies still working in food processing, metals and machining, and instruments and process control. We also found vestiges of older companies that had moved away to cheaper places where it was easier to pollute, but in which the orphaned child had grown up and found success. INX Digital, founded as the subsidiary of a local paint company, now serves as the worldwide R&D center for a company that makes the inks that go in wide-bed printers. People working there wear lab coats.

As we talked with the managers of these companies, many of whom simply commuted into work there and felt no particular attachment to the place, we realized that some of their business needs were going unmet. They told us that they had no place to go to lunch and that local hotels were so tired that they put customers and suppliers up in other cities. They said that the curbs needed to be restriped to create more on-street parking, so that women coming off the night shift would not have to walk so far to their cars. They told us that the younger generation of tech talent coming from San Francisco and the North Bay could not take the BART trains, because the shuttle connections were too slow and infrequent. And they told us that their workers would like to have a nice place to walk to at lunch, someplace green that would be an alternative to the drab, industrial landscape.

This led us to our second strategic goal, “Serve existing customers first.”

Why? Because not only are these firms already there and producing jobs, but they are the best source of referrals for new business. You want them talking up the place at their next industry conference. You want them telling other companies in their supply chain that this is a good place to do business. But how to get them involved? A manager running a computerized chocolate factory probably is not going to take two hours off in the middle of the day to attend a planning meeting. You have to make it worth their while to get involved, to take care of that parking problem today. Only then will they get interested in the longer-term planning issues.

As we drove around the area, we realized that we ourselves were lost within it, despite many trips there. Key roads do not connect, most of the buildings are sun-bleached, and there are few landmarks. Nearby there is a Kinkos and there is a Starbucks, but they are buried in an outlet mall, across the freeway. In all, it reminded us of the movie “The Sheltering Sky”, in which Debra Winger wanders through the Sahara with nomads. How and where to create some oases that people could actually attach themselves to?

This led us to our third strategic goal, “Humanize the place”. With more than 2,000 acres to deal with, however, you cannot spread the peanut butter too thin. You have to concentrate the investment.

Our first tactic, then, became a “backstreets strategy” of attracting smaller companies to the cul-de-sacs and lanes with smaller buildings that are easier to change and upgrade, where changing a few facades, adding a parklet and improving parking will improve the overall place. The city has a façade program, but this has always been targeted at Main Street merchants, not factory managers.

A new, $1 billion Kaiser hospital is opening in the area, one that will bring more than 2,000 workers as well as countless patients, and so we encouraged putting a pod of food carts on its front door. Not food trucks but food carts. These are stationary and are far less costly to buy and operate than trucks. With more than 500 of these, Portland has proven that these can operate in a variety of places. Why not an industrial district barren of eating opportunities, next to a hospital where thousands of workers will want an alternative to the cafeteria?

And we recommended other bargain-basement ways to humanize this area. Things like pedestrian-level street lights that can be attached to the base of existing cobra-heads. Filling in the missing links on the bike routes, so that people can ride to work without fear of being side-swiped by a semi. Or, very simply, reversing the direction of the BART shuttle so that it does not have to make so many left-turns across traffic.

The fact is, we have over-looked the place-needs of industry for a very long time, simply taking the tax revenue from these places without reinvesting in them. A place like Detroit is proud of its Campus Martius Park, where Quicken workers can eat their lunch outside, but where is the equivalent investment for the machinist who makes jet engine parts, or the brewer who makes your local micro brew? More often than not, these people are sitting outside at a rough picnic table eating under razor wire.

Using place-making for economic development means taking care of the basic, day-to-day needs of business by providing safer, easier ways to get to work, service and amenities, and a nicer setting right outside the front door. It is no accident that there has been a kind of revenge of the cities in Millennials wanting to work in urban centers. These places are more convenient and interesting, in part because we have spent the last 15 years making them better places to live and shop. Now it is time to turn to the “productive” side of urban life- work, and in particular to making things, especially with advanced manufacturing.

In planning for these places, if we do it at all, there is a tendency to treat them as white spaces on the map, like “Indian Territory” to be settled by new white people. Yet there are successful businesses in these places, and the trick is to figure out how the place itself can make them more successful and draw in other companies in their supply chain. This requires the ability to talk to business, to tour the operations on the plant floor, what makes a given worker so good, and to listen for the opportunities to make the work district around the company better. This is the next frontier in place-making. The communities that do it well will be the economic winners.

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Rod Stevens is a management consultant on Bainbridge Island, WA.

Gregory Tung is an urban designer with Freedman Tung + Sasaki (FTS), based in San Francisco.