Economic Development Section
The CNU CA planning teams’ scope of work comprises Downtown Livingston, which, for the purposes of this report, is bounded by the Union Pacific rail line to the north, E Street to the south, 1st Street to the west, and 6th Street to the east. Main Street is the heart of downtown and is the historic north/south axis of the city grid; B Street is the perpendicular thoroughfare connecting Main Street to the Winton Parkway ramps of State Highway 99.
Urban design is a professional practice that provides for the physical forms that anticipate and coordinate land uses over time in a particular location. Economic development refers to the practical discipline of fostering business activity in a location. This report section summarizes the observations, findings, conclusions and recommendations of the Economic Development Section team as to the likely uses in the downtown. These economic recommendations inform and support the urban design recommendations given elsewhere in this report.
First, we describe the economic context relevant to land uses in the downtown. Next, we describe the current conditions in the downtown, and outline the key factors that must be provided for development in the downtown.
The Economic Context
Livingston has thirteen major economic assets:
- Population of 13,414 people comprising 3,256 households in 2013.
- Rich agricultural cropland, inside and near the City’s political boundaries, suitable and in production for sweet potatoes, almonds, grapes, and other crops, including a sweet potato farm that is the largest national producer in its segment.
- A poultry processing plant and feedmill that is the largest national chicken producer in its segment.
- Supplies, rights and distribution systems for groundwater and surface water, and a wastewater treatment plant.
- Various small industrial and agricultural production buildings and lots.
- Local utility infrastructure, including electric power from two utilities.
- Local streets and roads in generally good repair, with direct access to and from Highway 99 at two interchanges.
- Approximately 3,435 units of residential housing, 83% of which are single-family, in good condition.
- Civic buildings and institutions, including a municipal government and a locally controlled police force, two school districts, and a health clinic.
- Social halls, places of worship, and several historic buildings.
- A district of retail buildings and businesses oriented towards Highway 99, including a truck fuel stop, quick service restaurants, and other service businesses.
- A downtown district of local-serving shops and stores located on a small-block grid that is very conducive to pedestrian mobility.
- Vacant land suitable for development, including approximately 450 residential lots.
As shown in Table 1, nearly half of Livingston’s economy is organized around two activities: the supply of labor to the Foster Farms processing plant, and the production of crops from nearby fields. Educational services, health care, and social assistance activities constitute a second, smaller amount of economic activity. Wholesale and retail trades constitute a third sector of activity.
Livingston’s downtown is one of the City’s major economic assets. Planning for downtown must anticipate the economic roles played by the business and residential uses within this three-sector local economy.
Livingston, including the population in the unincorporated areas within three miles of City Hall, is growing faster than the U.S. According to Nielsen, Livingston’s population is expected to grow about 5% in the next five years, vs. about 3% for the U.S. Livingston’s population also is significantly younger, at a median age of 29, compared to 37.5 for the U.S. The median household income in Livingston is $44,251, which is about 10% below the national average.
According to Nielsen, consumer expenditures in Livingston, including in unincorporated areas within three miles of City Hall, will be $162 million in 2013, but only half of that figure ($82 million) will be supplied by local retailers. This means that Livingston residents are going outside the City for a large percentage of their retail needs, including for nearly all of their clothing, furniture, electronics, cars, sporting goods, office supplies, and general merchandise. Full-service restaurants also are underrepresented in Livingston, where less than half of such needs are provided by local restaurants. According to SitesUSA, there are 51 national-chain casual restaurants within a 30-mile radius of Downtown Livingston, but not a single one is located in Livingston.
Interviews with Livingston residents and business people confirmed that the lack of sufficient full-service restaurants was a serious concern. Building on this, many commented that the lack of after-hours things to do, including entertainment venues, hindered their enjoyment of the City as well as increased the likelihood that young people will not return to Livingston after completing school. A need for coffee shops and bars was expressed. The lack of a good supermarket in Livingston also was a repeatedly voiced concern, as was the lack of available space downtown for new businesses that may want to locate there. A forum or environment for community discussions and activities was also expressed as a need.
The Market Picture for Downtown
Livingston Civic commerce was the historical function of Main Streets in American towns and cities. “Civic commerce” refers to activities such as retail trade, cultural interaction, business headquarters, and municipal administration. Since World War II, some key functions of historical Main Streets have been relocated to separate automobile-oriented locations and buildings, resulting in the abandonment of the physical assets of many Main Streets.
Main Street’s Past
Downtown Livingston’s Main Street was platted and built chiefly for shop buildings and taverns. Main Street’s current form reflects these historical origins. Main Street likely would not be constructed in its current form by private real estate developers today, particularly when taking into account the lowering of Highway 99, which dramatically reduced the visibility of and access to downtown.
Main Street’s pattern of parcels and buildings is for the most part functionally obsolete relative to the current standards and practice of the national retail industry, though there are some recent projects in bigger cities that have been successful with this pattern. Parcels are small by modern standards. Ownership is fragmented, and management appears to be uncoordinated. Owners, for the most part, do not appear to be interested in collective marketing and business development, nor in participating in the success of their retail tenants. With the exception of the Rite Aid and True Value stores, very little new investment by the private sector in Main Street’s buildings is apparent.
Location defines a physical, retail market. Historically, Main Street was the most prominent location in town. Successive expansions of Highway 99 have progressively disadvantaged this location. Today and for the foreseeable future, Main Street does not have exposure to regional traffic. Thus, businesses on Main Street likely will serve primarily a market of local customers. Main Street businesses will attract regional customers only to the extent that people outside of town make it a destination, or a stopping point on a longer trip. For these reasons, we do not expect significant investment in Main Street by national retailers.
Main Street’s Future
We believe that sufficient local demand exists to support a somewhat larger number and size of local retail and service businesses. A cluster of restaurants in the downtown should be feasible and should be a long-term goal. A significantly expanded restaurant presence, in combination with new entertainment options, will dramatically improve the quality of life in Livingston. Restaurants are destinations that drive traffic, and the more restaurants that open and succeed, the more attraction there will be for other retailers to open stores. Growing this larger base of downtown businesses will require a greater degree of organization and municipal and community support than seen in the past, including a willingness to embrace change.
As noted, there is a very low supply of available, marketable space downtown. If Main Street is to serve a stronger role as the central location for retail, social and civic activities, new investment in buildings and businesses will be required. Since national or regional retailers are not likely to make such investments in the current situation, attention must turn to other sources. We believe the most likely near-term sources of investment could be funding for a relocated and expanded Community Health Clinic and private funding for a music and social hall.
Any successful retail district requires one or more “anchors”, or strong attractors of traffic. Today, the anchors are Rite Aid, True Value, and two markets. However, those retailers face strong competition from out-of-town shopping locations that are reachable within short driving times and that provide wider selections from more merchants. A successful Main Street will require one or more additional strong anchors, as well as a collection of complementary businesses that provide reasons for customer visits. A social service provider such as the Community Health Clinic and an institution such as a music hall could be both anchors and strong catalysts for additional investment.
Given the disadvantages of Main Street’s accessibility, visibility, and ownership pattern, it will be advisable to find or create an organization to coordinate and market Main Street as a coherent district. We also recommend that a program of technical and professional assistance be established to provide both property owners and business operators with the skills and confidence needed to grow retail and other customer-serving activity.
Downtown Livingston’s B Street corridor was not an original feature of the town. It was a residential grid street that assumed a stronger role when the Highway 99 access at Winton Parkway was given prime importance as the regional gateway.
Much of the land to the north of B Street is undeveloped but entitled for commercial uses. Most importantly, an approximately 55,000-square-foot neighborhood grocery store, with additional pad buildings, will soon be constructed at the corner of Winton Parkway. While the addition of a new grocery shopping option is welcome, this location likely will have the effect of denying Main Street of a very important potential activity anchor. Future land use decisions should consider the distinct roles of Main Street and B Street corridors.
With B Street’s relatively new role as an east/west conduit from Highway 99 to downtown, we are suggesting the eventual construction of a tall, distinctive building or structure located at the intersection of B Street and 5th Street to terminate the eastward vista down B Street to provide a powerful visual reference point for downtown. There is a long tradition in American cities of tall city hall buildings. This building and its prominent tower feature could be a dignified future city hall for the fast-growing City of Livingston.
Plan Economic development is by nature a long-term activity. In summary, we recommend the following actions be organized, funded and executed by the leadership of Livingston, comprising municipal government officials; owners of major businesses and land; nonprofit executives; other government and civic officials; and capable, long-term citizen volunteers.
- Adoption of Plans and Design Regulations – The City of Livingston should formally adopt this or a revised action plan and associated master plan and SmartCode for the revitalization of downtown. All three components have essential roles for a high-quality outcome. In the spirit of maximizing property values and quality of life, wherever possible, the City should insist that what gets built strives to be beautiful.
- Governance – Livingston should identify a knowledgeable champion within the City who will be the primary contact for all downtown revitalization efforts; this person or an outside consultant with strong qualifications should take the lead on the coordination of all revitalization efforts. The City also should establish a citizen’s advisory committee to advise the municipal leadership on redevelopment issues; at least one committee member should be knowledgeable about the master plan and urban design regulations, including about the New Urbanism theory behind them.
- Design Review Process – The City should formulate and adopt a rigorous multi-stage design review process for the review and approval of downtown redevelopment projects. A key to the success of such a process is the retention of an outside design review consultant that fully understands the master plan and urban design regulations—and whose opinion is respected by the City. A proper design review process provides developers with predictability and fairness, both of which are strongly desired.
- Downtown Marketing Organization – To help compensate for the downtown’s fractured property ownership structure, the City should establish an organization to support Main Street merchants and property owners with centralized management of downtown marketing, and to provide coaching to develop these firms’ capacity. This organization also should target and contact restaurants and retailers that are desired in the downtown. A Business Improvement District (BID) is a structure to consider for this organization.
- Health Clinic – Work with the Livingston Community Health Clinic to identify and procure a site downtown for a new, approx. 30,000+ s.f. building which will contain an expanded clinic and new wellness center on two floors, plus new ground-floor space (with minimum 12 ft. ground floor floor-to-ceiling heights) to be leased to retailers; rooftop terrace for wellness classes and events; attractive architecture that is compatible with the new urban design regulations. The proposed project is viewed as a very important catalytic step to spuring additional investment in the downtown.
- Music Facility/Social Club – Work with interested members of the community to identify a location for a Portuguese Marching Band facility in the downtown. A new facility featuring live performances and events will add to the community’s currently limited entertainment options and quality of life and will help bolster the business case for restaurants to return to the downtown. This also is viewed as a very important catalytic step to spurring additional downtown investment.
- Restaurants – The attraction of a cluster of restaurants, coffee shops, bakeries, ice cream/yogurt stores, and a few bars to the downtown is a longterm priority. A sequential stream of such establishments can be expected to be initiated if some of the other catalytic investments, such as the health clinic relocation and music facility/social club construction, take place. The proposed downtown marketing organization or BID can spearhead the targeting of and outreach to desired restaurants and related establishments.
- Library – Work with Merced County and interested members of the community to identify a location for a larger, modernized library (preferably featuring inspiring architecture and a delightful reading room) in the downtown. Libraries can be good anchors for downtowns.
- Historic Theatre – Determine the cost to stabilize the historic Court Theatre, and stabilize the building to prevent further deterioration. Determine the cost to rehabilitate the theatre to as close to the original condition as possible, subject to needed modernization for functionality. The theatre’s poor condition may make demolition tempting, but renovation may become more viable in a few years if some of these other projects are successful. Preservation of as much of the building as is feasible (the front facade at a minimum) will give the rehabilitated theatre more authenticity – a desirable goal – than will total reconstruction. As with the Music Facility/ Social Club, an attractively renovated Court Theatre will add a desperately needed entertainment venue that will catalyze additional downtown investment.
- City Hall – Explore the possibility of relocating City Hall to another building or buildings that are in the downtown but not on Main Street in order to vacate the existing buildings for leasing or sale to retailers, restaurants, and/ or conversion to entertainment use. In keeping with the American civic building traditions, a new city hall featuring strong architecture, including an iconic and impressive tower feature that is prominently placed, would be dignified and would provide an opportunity for a powerful terminated vista that would contribute to placemaking.
- Housing – Encourage the development of high-density, multi-story housing downtown, with ground-floor retail required if the housing has frontage on Main Street or on B Street.
- Hotel – Establish as a long-term priority the development of a 3-5-star hotel with meeting space, either in the downtown…or near the City (on land to be annexed), surrounded by farmland and modeled after Napa’s 5-star Carneros Inn. Contact hotel operators to promote Livingston and to gauge interest. Livingston needs a hotel, as hotels are the living rooms of cities.
- Downtown WiFi – Create a downtown-wide free WiFi hotspot to encourage downtown’s use as a Third Place by pedestrians.
- Public Art – In the spirit of creating a beautiful city, the City should identify locations for public art and encourage its installation. Administration of an art program may be undertaken by the new downtown marketing organization.
The lowering of Highway 99 years ago badly damaged Livingston’s downtown, and the downtown has yet to recover. The City will need to make significant investments in its downtown if it wishes to see it become a vibrant, interesting place to visit and to stroll. Indeed, cities rarely are able to achieve robust health when they have moribund downtowns, and the long-term consequences of a declining downtown can be dire. Livingston is in competition with other cities for people, businesses, and investment, and it is our strongest recommendation that the City take decisive action to turn around its downtown, which is placing the City at risk.
We are confident that if the City of Livingston takes the above steps and orchestrates the construction of the specified projects, Downtown Livingston will experience a dramatic Renaissance, and the result will be elevated property values, improved revenues, and most importantly, a better quality of life for Livingston’s residents.