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Photos by Janet Orsi.
Dead/Alive: While some Cloverdale businesses, like the Wheel Cafe, have closed since the Highway 101 bypass, the town will soon boast a downtown pedestrian plaza.
In the wake of the Highway 101 bypass, Cloverdale survives and even thrives
By Zack Stentz
IN APRIL 1994, when Highway 101 was finally routed around Cloverdale, many expected the town to "dry up and blow away in the wind," as longtime resident Bonnie Goodman puts it. The freeway, that once bisected the town of 5,700 had dominated Cloverdale's existence for the previous 40 years, and tourists passing through on their way to Anderson Valley, Mendocino, or Clear Lake could be forgiven for thinking Cloverdale consisted entirely of a strip of gas stations, liquor stores, and drive-in restaurants serving greasy fries and goopy soft-serve cones, punctuated at the south end by the makeshift shrine built where Polly Klaas' body was found.
Once completed, the bypass changed Cloverdale so radically and rapidly that even natives had a difficult time recognizing their hometown. "When the bypass first went though," Goodman recalls, "a lot of the kids coming home from college would get lost because they didn't know which exit to turn off at. It can be pretty confusing."
Indeed, the Cloverdale of 1996 is a starkly different place from the town that existed just two years ago. The exhaust-spewing steel river of 24,000 to 30,000 cars, trucks, and Winnebagos that once flowed through Cloverdale each day on an average weekend (40,000 on Labor Day) has slowed to a trickle of 7,000 or fewer daily. Several businesses, including a gas station, several restaurants, and a sporting goods store, have closed down, leaving empty storefronts and torn-down lots.
"The Cloverdale you remember from before the bypass is gone," says city planning director Joe Heckel bluntly.
But look closer and signs of civic revival can be discerned. Shops along Cloverdale Boulevard (formerly Highway 101) boast spiffy new façades. Downtown sidewalks, once exhaust-choked and deserted by day, are now alive with pedestrians. Attractive new WPA-style murals depicting scenes from the region's history adorn the walls of one building. And at one intersection, construction workers hurry to complete work on a handsome downtown pedestrian plaza. The space, set for completion by June 1, is tailor-made for outdoor concerts, art shows, and leisurely strolls during the warm summer evenings.
Even more remarkable, many of the citizens who once awaited the bypass with dread now relish life in Cloverdale without Highway 101. "I think it's great," comments young Cloverdale resident Jennifer Nickolaus as she stops at a gas station for a much-needed soda. True to form, the temperature in Cloverdale this Friday afternoon hovers in the low 80s, several degrees warmer than the rest of Sonoma County. But while two years earlier the boulevard would already be packed with weekend vacationers headed north, the scene now is calm, almost meditative as the air shimmers with heat haze on the quiet thoroughfare. "I can actually cross the street during the day now," Nickolaus says of her hometown. "And it's nice to see how the town's trying to improve its image."
Surprisingly, Nickolaus' sentiment is echoed by gas station manager Linda Caldwell, who might reasonably be expected to be hurting from the diversion of so much traffic. "We're right at the freeway exit, and Cloverdale's still a natural place for people to stop, so we didn't lose too much business," Caldwell explains. "And we don't have to deal with all the great big trucks pulling in and out anymore. I feel bad for the places that have lost business, but the bypass has really helped the town."
HOPING TO CAPITALIZE on all this civic goodwill, Cloverdale has also embarked on an image-burnishing campaign, and recently unveiled a spiffy new logo of stylized trees and vineyards, accompanied by the slogan "Where the wine country meets the redwoods." But a more apt civic motto might have been Nietzsche's famous observation "That which does not kill us makes us stronger," for citizens seem determined to build a new and improved Cloverdale out of the adversity their town has weathered of late.
"The bypass was the last of a series of hits Cloverdale's taken," says Heckel. "We also lost 500 to 600 manufacturing jobs between 1988 and 1994, between the fire equipment factory closing and the logging industry shrinking."
But even the elimination of 300 jobs in one fell swoop when Louisiana-Pacific abandoned its lumber mill on the south end of town in 1993 can't compare to the impact of the freeway changing, according to Heckel. "The bypass definitely had a bigger impact than LP leaving, because it meant a lifestyle change for everyone here," he says. "And a bypass really throttles the economy of a small town, because investment always goes where the traffic does.
"A lot of people in the community and investors from out of town weren't sure where to put their investments, because no one was sure where the freeway was to be sited," he adds. "Should I build in the downtown or out by the interchange? These questions had no answers until the freeway was actually built, so that got redevelopment off to a slow start."
Also hampering redevelopment efforts was the slow pace of construction on the freeway project, which was first proposed in the late 1940s, with land buying and construction proceeding in dribs and drabs from the 1960s onward. "Portions of this freeway were actually built in 1974 and 1981 in little bits and pieces," says Heckel, "but these sections didn't connect to anything."
And with the Highway 101 rerouting hanging like a thunderhead on the horizon for nearly four decades, many citizens assumed it would never be completed and neglected to make plans for the project's aftermath. "People knew about the bypass," says local restaurateur Mike Nixon. "But they were sort of in awe of it. It was just too big a change for them to contemplate."
"It took the passage of state Proposition 111 in the late 1980s for the bypass to receive full funding, and it was then that the city first started to get serious about preparing for life after it," Heckel recalls. "That's when we started doing a lot of homework."
With the help of a $125,000 grant from the state and a lot of research, town leaders came up with an ambitious plan to revitalize Cloverdale by remaking the downtown into a foot-friendly small-town shopping district that harks back to the Cloverdale of yesteryear. "The community has given a vision of the town they want, and we're working on achieving that," says Heckel. "And that is a pedestrian-oriented downtown, a growing economy, and a better-looking town for both residents and visitors. "
HECKEL'S OFFICE, within earshot of the construction din rising from the downtown plaza work site, houses the literal blueprints for the new Cloverdale taking shape. His office is crammed with lush, oversized architectural renderings of the small-town paradise Cloverdale is aiming to become, which the energetic planner displays with the pride of a fisherman clicking through slides of the prize marlin he caught last summer. One rendering depicts the completed plaza, while another illustrates the next stage of redevelopment by reimagining Cloverdale's main east-west corridor--the down-at-the heels First Street--as a tree-lined, pedestrian-oriented avenue of shops and restaurants. Still another painting shows a refurbished Cloverdale Boulevard, its unsightly CalTrans lights and fixtures replaced by old-fashioned lampposts and signs, giving the main drag a distinctly retro, American Graffiti look.
The "back to the future" motif is intentional, Heckel confirms. "What you have restored is the small town Cloverdale was before traffic on 101 got so heavy," he says. "Once upon a time, Cloverdale was very self-reliant. But as traffic on the highway increased, more local businesses started catering to the traffic going through town, and more local residents started doing their shopping in Santa Rosa and Ukiah. We lost the clothing stores, the furniture stores, those kind of establishments."
"A lot of the basics are missing," agrees Cloverdale business owner David Reynolds. "There's no shoe store in town, no taxicab company, no place to buy blue jeans. We need more service-oriented businesses like those."
As this north county town has turned into a bedroom community for Healdsburg and Santa Rosa, the commuters who jam the on-ramps to 101 south every weekday morning tend to shop in the communities where they work. "Our economic survey indicated that we're losing 80 cents on the dollar from every Cloverdale resident," says Heckel. "That's all money that's being spent out of town, and we'd like to keep more of those dollars here, by encouraging businesses that cater to local residents.
"And also to get some of those tourist dollars."
Five years ago the thought of Cloverdale as a tourist destination would have sounded like a joke in search of a punch line. In living memory, the town had always been sold as a way station on the route toward a much more desirable destination, sort of a smaller version of the much-maligned Fresno with its "Two Hours to Yosemite" motto. But Heckel and his fellow planners aren't laughing.
"There's still a pretty good stream of traffic that goes through town," Heckel says. "And a lot of those folks are interested in wine-country, small-town, Russian River ambiance. People are drawn to small towns, but we have to give them things to do once they get here. A boutique, or coffee shop, or outdoor cafe. Things like those attract both tourists and local folks."
An even bigger lure for out-of towners should be the new county regional park shaping up along the banks of the Russian River, which borders the east side of town. "We've just gotten approval from the Open Space District to create a 50-acre park along the river," Heckel beams, "with boat launching, walking and biking trails. We'll have the largest stretch of Russian River access in Sonoma County."
Reynolds, who owns Cloverdale Cyclery, is practically salivating at the prospect of the new park. "That could really help us by increasing the number of visitors and bike rentals we do during the summer," he says. "And it will be a wonderful thing for the people who live here, too."
Other plans to attract tourists include capitalizing on Cloverdale's location between the up-and-coming wine regions of Anderson Valley and Alexander Valley. "We're working to develop a regional wine visitors' center in Cloverdale," says Linda Brown, executive director of the Cloverdale Chamber of Commerce. "And we're also negotiating with restaurant developers and trying to lure a hotel into town to upgrade our lodging accommodations here."
But towns don't live on bike rentals and boutiques alone, so Cloverdale's economic leaders have drawn up plans to attract new businesses in an attempt to regrow some of the manufacturing jobs lost over the past eight years. Surveys and conversations with townspeople confirm that a lack of local jobs is a prime concern of Cloverdale residents.
"We do need more jobs," admits Reynolds. "But on the bright side, we don't have the problems with gangs, crime, and housing costs that the other Sonoma County towns complain about, and that makes us an attractive place for companies to locate."
Again, planners wish to take advantage of Cloverdale's proximity to wine country when attracting businesses. "We believe a lot of suppliers to the wine industry could profitably locate here, like glass manufacturers, barrel makers, cork makers, and the like," Heckel explains. "A lot of Sonoma County wineries buy their supplies from Napa manufacturers, so we think there's room for Cloverdale to get some of that business."
According to Heckel, 20 new manufacturing jobs have been created in Cloverdale over the last year, out of the 72 the economic development committee hopes to add to the town's industrial base by 1998. "We've also seen some existing businesses expand their operations," says Brown. "It's very encouraging."
To be sure, though, not everyone in town is dancing a jig over the state of the new Cloverdale. "There are still people saying 'the town's gonna die,' " says Goodman, office manager of the venerable Cloverdale Reveille weekly newspaper. "And the north end of town, away from the freeway exits, does seem to be dying."
"Dying" might be too strong a word to describe the north section of Cloverdale Boulevard, but many businesses there have clearly seen better days. At the Hi Fi Drive-In, one of Cloverdale's seemingly infinite number of Foster Freeze-style diners, the large blacktop parking lot sits empty in the early afternoon sun. "We slowed down for a while after the bypass, but it's begun to pick up again," says employee Cindy Lewis.
Fellow worker Alethea Allen pins her hopes for the Hi Fi's resurgence on the three new housing developments being built in and around Cloverdale. "If they fill up all the houses they're building, we won't have any problems," she says.
"McDonald's going in on the south end of town probably hurt us more," adds Lewis. "But we still have the best burgers in town."
"Well, the best under five dollars," Allen corrects.
But even with the hit their employer has taken, Allen and Lewis relish the positive aspects the bypass has brought. "We both have kids, and it's opened up a whole new world for them," Lewis says. "We can finally let them ride their bikes around town."
KIDS RIDING BIKES. The homey image is evoked by so many residents as a symbol of post-bypass Cloverdale, it seems to have become an unofficial civic logo. (In fact, a recent oversized postcard sent out to 7,000 businesses to lure them to Cloverdale featured a large cover picture of--surprise, surprise--a cherubic schoolboy riding a bike past a white picket fence.) But according to Reynolds, the ability to ride a bicycle downtown isn't something residents take for granted. "It used to be too dangerous," bike shop proprietor Reynolds recalls. "But now parents are letting their kids ride bikes to school, and it's been great for my business."
A former Marin County resident who transplanted to Cloverdale in 1984, the effusive, open-faced Reynolds practically gushes when describing his adopted hometown's potential. "This is Sonoma County's forgotten city, and it's just about to 'pop,' " he says. "We've got a good high school, great quality of life, and housing isn't as expensive here as in the rest of the county. In Marin, by the time I was through buying groceries and chasing women, I could barely afford the rent down there.
"This is the place to be," he adds, pointing proudly out his front window at the downtown plaza taking shape across the street.
Over on First Street, just beyond Cloverdale's only stoplight, fellow business owner Nixon shares Reynolds' bullishness on his hometown's future. The 26-year-old owner of Papa's Pizza Café has actually seen his business increase since the bypass. "Since we're off the main boulevard, we never really drew large numbers of tourists passing through," says Nixon, standing in the dining area of his clean, airy restaurant, where kids and businesspeople mingle comfortably with good ol' boys in cowboy hats. "And with more people walking around downtown, our business is up, and we've had to buy new equipment as a result."
Nixon recently added an outdoor dining patio to accommodate his extra patrons and to take advantage of Cloverdale's balmy evenings. "I would never have put the patio in if 101 was still going through town," he says.
Looking ahead, Nixon relishes the prospect of further downtown redevelopment. "They're planning to reopen the [city's only] movie theater down the street this summer, which should help even more," he says. "I can really see this as becoming a real live retail center in the next few years."
Heckel, too, is optimistic about his town's future. "We're seeing unanimous support from the City Council and Chamber of Commerce about the direction the town is going," he says. "Here you've got a lot of support for getting jobs, revitalizing the downtown, and taking advantage of this wave of enthusiasm to get things going. You have to be optimistic because we're seeing results from our efforts."
Of course, it's possible the townspeople overestimate the role their own efforts are playing in Cloverdale's budding revival. New residents, spreading up Highway 101 like a column of ants, are being driven away from Windsor and Healdsburg by the rising home prices as much as they are being drawn to Cloverdale by its pedestrian downtown and small-town ambiance.
But while further development in Cloverdale might be inevitable, the direction that growth takes certainly is not. Locals are aware of their hometown's former reputation as an armpit of Sonoma County (San Francisco Focus magazine once named Cloverdale the ugliest small town in the greater Bay Area), and that knowledge seems to be a large factor in motivating them to remake the place.
"We don't just drive through," explains Nixon. "We're the ones who live here. And we really want to be proud of Cloverdale."
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From the May 2-8, 1996 issue of the Sonoma Independent
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