By Michael D. Setty

Between 1854 and 1996, Vallejo was the prototypical “Navy town” as the home of Mare Island Naval Shipyard. For 140 years, Vallejo was a financial ward of the federal government, prospering on annual federal appropriations for Mare Island. Life was good while federal largesse lasted, but Vallejo quickly learned the downsides of this dependence when Mare Island was deactivated on April Fool’s Day, 1996.

When Mare Island closed, Vallejo’s primary bad habit of “placing all its eggs in the Federal budget basket” no longer applied. Unfortunately, Vallejo­–in particular, the City’s political and bureaucratic establishment–began a quest for “magic bullets” to replace the long prosperity generated by the shipyard.

A supporting “bad habit” is expecting that large-scale, top-down schemes will succeed, while the same efforts might be more productively spent on many small-scale projects that aren’t flashy enough to attract interest from politicians or political operatives. Thirty years before the closure of Mare Island, Vallejo placed its faith in the large-scale destruction of more than half of its previously thriving downtown. In this respect, the failure of redevelopment in downtown Vallejo was no different than hundreds of other U.S. communities who destroyed successful downtowns–and like those communities, Vallejo apparently didn’t learn a thing.

Since Mare Island’s closure, Vallejo’s establishment has come up with numerous top-down magic bullets in its effort to regain lost prosperity. These included an LNG terminal on the southern tip of Mare Island, despite that area’s great scenic and environmental value. The City has tied up valuable waterfront land with an inland suburban developer who, to date, has not had any results except the recently-created piles of dirt off Harbor Way. Vallejo also had yet another downtown plan tying up most City properties with only one developer, until that scheme died in the Great Recession.

Then there was the cement plant proposed for the Sperry Mills property, after a mixed use project tanked due to the Great Recession. The City fathers (and mothers) hung on this one like a pit bull, despite the fact it would have chased away much more economically desirable and environmentally-sound development. Fortunately the cement plant failed to work out, Vallejo’s future prosperity “dodging a bullet” since the project would have destroyed the attractiveness and economic viability of the overall waterfront.

Of course, some Vallejo projects have succeeded. These include relocation of Marine World/Africa USA (now Six Flags Discovery Kingdom) to Vallejo from Redwood City in the 1980’s. Redevelopment of Mare Island has been moderately successful, though job growth has been far more sluggish than expected. Similarly, Vallejo Baylink high speed ferry service that kicked off in 1997 was highly successful, though it has recently been taken over by the regional ferry authority.

The private sector projects succeeded because business has a compelling motive: profit. Baylink succeeded because large sources of non-City state and Federal money was available for public transit such as ferries, as well as large capital grants. Also let’s not forget that grassroots pressure was a major reason for the City entering the ferry business in the first place (certainly not bureaucratic initiative!) Who would not remember that night in 1988 when 800+ would-be ferry riders stormed City Hall upon the threat of cancelling San Francisco-Vallejo ferry service?

Non-profit agencies outside the purview of City bureaucrats have also had some success. For example, The Mare Island Heritage Trust–with the responsibility to manage the Mare Island Shoreline Heritage Preserve property conveyed to the City from the Navy (the Mare Island Naval Museum is run by an unrelated non-profit)–has succeeded in carrying out many of the proposals included in the 2009 Vision Plan for the Preserve such as a very interesting Visitor Center in one of the old bunkers, small-scale camping and modest fund-raising events such as “NightMare Island “and the Mare Faire & Fennel Festival.

The Trust has succeeded despite depending on a shoestring budget of less than $50,000 per year until very recently. The Trust has accomplished much despite no help from the City, other than a vague verbal agreement with a past Mayor and City Council. Had there been a formal agreement which allows the Trust to obtain available grants from governmental, foundation and other large scale charitable sources for capital and other projects, I wonder what the Trust could have accomplished in the last decade.

The highly successful, non-profit operated Skyline Park in Napa serves more than 40,000 visitors per year. Skyline Park is an excellent role model and shows what can be accomplished with strong local political and governmental policy support (no local funds, though!)­–and the all-important ability to obtain grants.

However for reasons I cannot fathom, the City of Vallejo now wants to pull the rug out from under the Mare Island Heritage Trust, inviting in out-of-town entities through a pending “request for qualifications” process despite the Trust’s track record of success on a shoestring.

In my view, Vallejo’s political and bureaucratic establishment continues to flounder with its “all eggs in one basket” top-down mega-plans and schemes, and its apparent ongoing disdain for small scale successes such as the Mare Island Heritage Trust. A first step in letting-go of Vallejo’s bad habits built up over 140 years as a ward of the federal government might be for Vallejo’s elected officials, bureaucrats and other local “powers that be” to start taking a look at the “tactical urbanism projects” advocated by Strong Towns. For example, as this article ( points out:

At Strong Towns, we often write about how tactical urbanism—low-cost, low-risk intervention to create more productive places—is an essential element to a strong town.

And it makes sense: as cities address important yet complex goals, such as growing the local economy or creating more bike infrastructure, it’d be unwise to put all hopes (and monies) into a silver-bullet, top-down project.

Because if that go-big-or-go-home project fails—like this one and this one—or, despite receiving copious resources, doesn’t even break ground, the city digs itself into a deeper financial hole.

That’s why, through tactical urbanism, cities should introduce ideas to address issues in the community, growing and iterating on the idea based on how the community responds. It could take the form of a temporary bus lane, a community park in a parking space (I’m not joking), a local music scene

Michael D. Setty was the City of Vallejo’s transit planner between 1985 and 2005. He was also on the team that successfully delivered the Baylink ferry system. He now works with the Train Riders Association of California (TRAC), a small citizens group that advocates for improved rail passenger service in California. Mike lives in Napa.