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Open Access Publications from the University of California

The San Pablo Dam Road Commercial District in El Sobrante, California: Baseline Study


Over the past forty years, El Sobrante, California, has changed from a small rural center in the midst of grazing land to a mostly-developed residential suburb. Both San Pablo Dam Road (the main roadway through El Sobrante) and the commercial district stretching along that roadway also have changed. San Pablo Dam Road now serves as a regional arterial as well as El Sobrante’s "Main Street." The commercial district has attracted new customers from the growing population, but faces new competition from shopping centers and super-stores located off nearby freeway interchanges.

Current planning efforts for El Sobrante aim to balance local and regional traffic needs with the needs of the commercial district for economic revitalization. This study was designed to support those planning efforts. Information was assembled on the district’s development history and an inventory of its current land uses and building stock was carried out. The design and operation of San Pablo Avenue was reviewed, and an inventory of parking was carried out. Overall urban design quality was assessed, considering architectural qualities of the buildings, diversity of uses, building/street relationships, and landscape quality. Assessments of activity in the district and its popular image were carried out by means of a merchant survey, a shopper survey, and a resident survey. Finally, preliminary suggestions on alternative ways to improve the district were developed.

The study found that the El Sobrante commercial district has a number of assets. Businesses provide a variety of goods and services to local residents. Customers do business in the district not only because it is convenient, but also because they enjoy good quality at good prices and appreciate the friendly, small-town atmosphere. San Pablo Dam Road is part of the commute route for many residents, making it convenient to stop in the district on the way to or from work. The steady traffic provides businesses with access to a large number of customers.

Still, there are problems. A number of the district’s businesses wish they were doing better. Competition from larger, newer shopping centers wins the majority of shopping trips from the area. Some feel that the buildings and streetscape are less attractive than they should be. Traffic levels have reached the point where turning movements, biking, and walking can be uncomfortable for some.

Complicating matters are the mixed reactions of business owners and customers to current and emerging conditions. Some call for significant changes to land use, urban design, street layout, and traffic management, while others are satisfied with the present situation. The lack of a united vision for San Pablo Dam Road and the commercial district presents a difficult challenge, since future design and redevelopment efforts hinge on the consistency and clarity of such a vision.

The study identified a large number of possible actions, some from business leaders, some from shoppers and clients of the area, and some from the study authors.

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