Planning Category Name of Project: Park Avenue Redevelopment Project Location: South Lake Tahoe, California
Project Summary: The community of South Lake Tahoe overcame daunting environmental and economic challenges to create a $500 million, mixed-use redevelopment project. The 11-year planning, approvals, entitlements and construction process required the forging of a public-private partnership through intensive negotiations among widely diverse stakeholders. This public process guided locals to find the legislative support, revisions to regulations, and strategic deployment of development monies that have given the town a new future. The final plan won the support of the Sierra Club, the League to Save Lake Tahoe, and the Tahoe Regional Planning Agency; arguably the most restrictive development agency in the United States, to create a successful new heart for the community and protect the environmental quality of Lake Tahoe.
Purpose of the Project: Because of its recreational and gaming assets, the Lake Tahoe area became a popular vacation spot with Californians in the 1950s and 1960s. But the resulting rapidly built and unplanned development degraded the environment and scenic assets of the area, and despoiled the clarity and purity of the highest and clearest lake in the world. In response, the governors of California and Nevada created the Tahoe Regional Planning Agency (TRPA) in 1969 and enacted stringent environmental regulations. However, allocated funding was inadequate to the task and new investment in the area had essentially ceased because of the daunting challenges of the new environmental requirements. Conditions became dire: The water quality of Lake Tahoe had not improved; the TRPA had no money left for environmental work; the town’s economy was in serious decline; and there was serious in-fighting among stakeholders in the basin.
In 1984, the City of South Lake Tahoe asked the California state legislature to declare the city a blighted area. This granted the town new powers, which allowed a newly formed redevelopment agency to condemn land and relocate tenants so the town could acquire areas ripe for redevelopment and create a financial mechanism to fund projects through tax-increment financing and municipal bonds. As a solution to these challenges, the redevelopment of the 34-acre Park Avenue site, filled with multiple strip motels, parking lots and retail centers in response to the region’s recreational and gaming attractions, was conceived. By 1990, hotel occupancy was declining at an annual rate of 3% to 45% - below break even.
Role of the Landscape Architect: In 1992, the landscape architect was commissioned to develop a master plan for Park Avenue Redevelopment Area. The landscape architect led a team that included architects, civil engineers, transportation planners, market researchers and economists, soil scientists, hydrologists, native plant and tree preservation specialists, ski area planners, and gondola engineers. A complex negotiation between 27 property owners secured a plan that carefully considers the economic, community, and environmental future of South Lake Tahoe. The final product is a dense pedestrian-oriented base village that provides direct access to recreation, entertainment, shopping, lodging and skiing. In addition to creating the master plan and securing entitlements, the team, led by the landscape architect established the 10,000 foot-long gondola alignment, and designed the pedestrian and vehicular streetscape and five public plazas. The landscape architects proposed a transit center, linking public and private transit systems with pedestrian ways and the gondola, reducing car trips and improving air quality. The plan produced a 10% decrease from the 1986 traffic volume and reduced curb cuts from 27 to two.
To effect change, the landscape architects a built model of the development program as it would exist under then-current regulations. The agency had imposed a height limit of 32 feet in order to protect views of the mountains and also required any new development to reduce its footprint on the land. But the height limit meant the development had to spread out across the site, so ground coverage couldn’t be reduced. It also meant there was no space for setbacks and wide sidewalks. The team illustrated how allowing taller buildings could be moved back from the highway, views to the mountains and lake could be preserved and enhanced by creating specific view corridors and framing the landscape more artfully. The model also illustrated how TRPA’s ban on below-grade construction conflicted with the desire to conceal parking.
Special Factors: The village is an artful mix of public space shaped by the surrounding buildings and linked by pedestrian streets and plazas. Building edges relate directly to the adjacent open space. Placemaking occurs at Park Avenue because a diversity of uses exist throughout the site. Food, entertainment, and retail mix and overflow to the out-of-doors- a landmark opportunity for the success of this project. The Heavenly gondola building embraces the center of the major public promenade space, and the ripples created by the steps, seating walls and planted areas invite users to relate to the space in a way previously unimaginable.
In all, 700 hotel rooms that operate either as time-share or interval ownership hotels ensure a steady stream of income to the area. The design guidelines specify an architectural style similar to that of historic Tahoe mountain lodges. Over 100 existing mature conifer trees were preserved. Outdoor advertising was eliminated. The project sets aside 20 percent of all units for affordable housing to meet pressing community needs and diversify the social fabric.
Water quality was enhanced through a series of Best Management Practices which include the creation of man-made wetlands at the lake’s edge which filters and purifies approximately 1,000 pounds of existing contaminants annually. No fertilizer is utilized through the site because all of the plant material is native to the region and has adapted to the local soils. Lake access has been created through development bonuses.
Rather than making this a one-time zoning exception, the design team argued that they were actually creating a new standard for development in the area, one that would achieve the TRPA’s goal through the introduction of transit, mixed uses and intensive environmental measures. Gradually, agency officials realized that in some ways its regulations were at odds with the larger goals of scenic and environmental preservation, and they began to work with the team to rewrite regulations to accommodate development in new ways protecting of the natural environment and supportive of the community.
Significance: Park Avenue provides a national model of redevelopment which restores the natural environment, provides economic vitality, and creates an instrument for positive community focus. By transforming thirty-four acres of previously degraded land on the shore of one of the nation’s national treasures, the project has spawned a contagious desire for further community investment. Thirty acres of adjacent property are now proceeding with redevelopment. As a result, South Lake Tahoe has emerged from rock bottom to be an economically secure, environmentally progressive community – with tangible benefits for all.
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