After leaving Denver I went to the Lake Tahoe area in Northern California / Nevada for my friend Jesse’s wedding. (Which went great, incidentally. Mazel tov to the happy couple.)

Along the way, I stopped in for a visit to Truckee, California, which recently elected a friend of mine, Morgan Goodwin, as vice mayor. Truckee’s a town of around 16,000 people that was originally set up as a railway stop in the late 1800s but only incorporated as a town in 1993. Since then, its population has grown almost fivefold, which has brought a variety of challenges and opportunities.

Here’s a picture of Morgan standing on main street during Truckee Thursdays, an open streets event the downtown merchants association runs every week during the summer. (He’s in the process of waving to a passing friend.)

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Truckee Thursdays was pretty busy, but apparently it’s usually even busier. The mix of foods, merchandise, and music on offer reflected the interesting demographics of Northern Californian towns: ski bums and alternative-lifestyle types mixing with blue-collar hunting and fishing types. E.G.:

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Truckee’s historic downtown is small but vibrant: starting in the 1990s the old shopfronts started to get occupied by new businesses. There’s a mix of art and jewellery stores that mainly cater for tourists as well as bars, cafes, and restaurants that draw in more locals. To support pedestrian vibrancy, the town has rebuilt and extended the half-mile of sidewalk that they started with in 1993:

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On the whole, the Truckee main street reminded me a bit of the university town where Morgan and I studied: lots of opportunities to bump into people you know and start conversation.

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Although it’s small, Truckee’s facing the same pressures as many other growing towns and cities in the American west: housing and infrastructure. It’s riding the same property wave as the rest of California – money earned in San Francisco often translates into holiday homes purchased near Lake Tahoe. And long-term fiscal sustainability is a challenge, as the town has to maintain a lot of roads for its population.

Since being elected, Morgan’s gotten interested in the Strong Towns movement. I think that’s a common experience for a lot of small-town politicians seeking to manage long-term fiscal challenges in the US, as growth has often been done in a way that leaves funding gaps for future generations. Truckee’s submission to the recent “Strongest Town” competition, which Morgan helped write, highlights some of the things that the town’s doing to change that dynamic.

One of the key moves is a new mixed-use, mid-rise development on the railyards near the historic downtown. Because Truckee originated as a small railway town, it’s got a large railyard and balloon loop immediately adjacent downtown. That’s an obvious way to expand the historic downtown – i.e. to get more buildings like the one above – and ease future infrastructure challenges.

Here’s what the site currently looks like:

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Here’s the site plan and some renders – you can see a bit more of the detail on the project website:

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The development has been a long time in the making. The town council is currently voting on the rezoning proposal, development plan, and infrastructure contributions. But all up, it’s taken over a decade to pull the project together, including a lot of work with a Sacramento-based developer and with a whole bunch of other agencies responsible for roads and rails. There’s also been a whole bunch of work to rope in subsidies for affordable housing and sustainable development. (Belying the US’s lassez-faire reputation, it is awash in subsidies for development.)

What’s really interesting about the Railyards development is its scale. Truckee’s not a large town – it’s around the same size as Feilding – but it’s getting on with a pretty big project to extend and improve its downtown and expand the mix of housing and retail. To an extent, this is due to the fact that Truckee’s riding a West Coast-wide economic and housing wave. But it also seems to have a vision of what kind of place it wants to be. Smaller towns in New Zealand could do well to think about how they will choose to change.

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5 comments

  1. It’d be wonderful to have some mid-rise apartments here in Feilding. We have one three story apartment building and it doesn’t open out onto the main square. I suspect most of the two story buildings in the CBD have their upper levels vacant. It’s a real shame, potential for a lot more vibrancy but then I guess NZ culture can’t even imagine living in an apartment in a small town so it’s not likely to ever happen due to zero demand. Having said that it could be a great alternative to retirement villages for older folk who no longer want a large property to maintain.

  2. Is the rail used as a stop for services into larger cities?
    Would be good to see places like Pokeno develop further with shops, businesses etc provided rail is used for commuters. Would be a nice weekend day trip for city folk to get out to the countryside too.

    1. Agree, I could imagine Pokeno being another Matakana, but with people arriving by train rather than vehicle so it’s not overrun with SUVs trying to find a park.

  3. “Truckee’s not a large town – it’s around the same size as Feilding – but it’s getting on with a pretty big project to extend and improve its downtown and expand the mix of housing and retail”

    Yeah but to be fair, Truckee (as part of North lake Tahoe) gets a share of around 3.1 million tourism visitor days annually,
    It has 500 hotel rooms, and 50% absentee ownership of its homes and units,

    – its more comparable to somewhere like Wanaka than Feilding,

  4. I grew up in Sacramento, a few hours west of Truckee. As a tourism hub for the area, Truckee makes alot of sense. It’s on the long distance train line and the intercity bus corridors. It’s also a really vibrant town centre to base oneself while skiing at Northstar, Squaw Valley, etc. Issues are really the lack of intercity bus/train frequency from the valley and no early morning services during the ski season (except for some private ski shuttles) and to cater for weekend short stayers.

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