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As San Ramon celebrates 150 years, the community looks ahead to the construction of its first downtown.


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A rendering of City Center Bishop Ranch, which is expected to open in October 2018.

How San Ramon Is Making a Metropolis

As San Ramon celebrates 150 years, the community looks ahead to the construction of its first downtown.

Driving from san Ramon’s City Hall, a beautiful new building with a glass rotunda, past an even-newer library on Bollinger Canyon Road, Mayor Bill Clarkson points 
to a construction site of dust and concrete pillars. 

It’ll be finished in about two weeks,” he jokes. 

The first phase of City Center Bishop Ranch, with its 75 retailers and Italian-style piazza bigger than a football field, won’t be ready until October 2018. The second phase, showcasing a 169-room luxury hotel and 478 residential apartments, is tentatively scheduled to open in late 2020.

But for now, the mayor and I are on a journey to San Ramon’s past. We pull off Old Crow Canyon Road and make our way down to a babbling creek. In the sun-speckled shade, where the traffic rumble has turned to birdsong, the water trickles through the idyllic setting.

Back when stagecoaches made their way to Sacramento, the creek was a dividing point between Limerick (on the Dublin side), which was filled with hotels and saloons, and the village proper, where San Ramon’s first schoolhouse opened in 1867. 

This travelers’ oasis and the supporting community thrived until the intercontinental railway bypassed the village a decade later, turning hotels back into private residences and ranches. Roxanne Lindsay—whose great grandfather Christian Wiedemann purchased 160 acres in the valley 150 years ago, just when that schoolhouse opened—still recalls cattle drives and trips to the general store when she was a child in the early 1950s.

“The downtown I knew can never be re-created,” she says, when asked about the upcoming City Center. “It’s gone.” But she’s glad San Ramon is birthing a brand-new downtown. Her own grandchildren will be more attracted to the area, she says, and she is enthusiastic about City Center’s combination of residential and retail space—especially with the beautiful piazza.   

A real European touch for sure,” she says. “It looks like it’s going to be a fun place, really special.

A look into San Ramon’s past and future

Designed by Renzo Piano Building Workshop—a renowned firm that’s headquartered in Paris, with offices in Genoa and New York—the first phase of City Center will feature a complex that houses scores of distinctive retailers, 18 restaurants and cafés, and The Lot, a luxurious cinema featuring leather recliners armed with call buttons, in case you’d like a second glass of Chardonnay to go with your pan-seared halibut.

In a phone call from Paris, Antonio Belvedere, Renzo Piano Building Workshop’s partner in charge of City Center, says the contours of the project’s central piazza informed the buildings’ materials and character. The piazza will feature a lush lawn and a wood deck with shade trees and generous seating. There will also be a tranquil fountain—really, a shallow plane of water—that will periodically come to life with a foggy mist and can transform into a stage for special events. And clock-tower touches with public displays and announcements are intended to foster community and evoke the feeling of a modern town square. 

You don’t plan a downtown, however, says Belvedere. “At the end of the day, the city is shaped by life, not just the plan. You have to create the right conditions.

 Much more modest plans for a new downtown in the old village space were drawn up decades ago, but with a dozen existing stakeholders, they became too byzantine. Happily, it was serendipitous to start from scratch. No one could have predicted an architect of the stature of Renzo Piano, whose iconic projects include the Whitney Museum of American Art and the New York Times Building, would agree to make San Ramon his second Bay Area project. (Coincidentally, City Center will open almost a decade to the day after the unveiling of Piano’s eco-friendly California Academy of Sciences, with its living rooftop, in San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park.)

To petition Piano, Sunset Development Company Chairman and CEO Alex Mehran Sr. and Alex Mehran Jr. (now president and COO) flew to New York for a face-to-face meeting. With his own grandfather a builder, Piano was taken by the three generations of Mehrans. (Alex Sr.’s father, Masud Mehran, founded Sunset Development Company in the ’50s and built many of the early homes in the Tri-Valley area before developing Bishop Ranch Business Park.) Not long after that meeting, Italian President Giorgio Napolitano appointed Piano senator for life. In this new role, Piano became interested in modernizing suburbs, and the City Center project caught his attention. He hoped to create a dynamic, soulful downtown destination.

Mehran Jr. is excited to spearhead a project that faces almost no opposition. “There is a lot of alignment between what we and the community want,” he says. “We’re creating a downtown where one doesn’t exist.

Located by The Shops at Bishop Ranch, where Whole Foods and Target are anchor tenants, City Center is already an established retail destination. Bollinger Canyon Road will gain an additional lane in each direction, and a pedestrian overpass has been approved for the nearby Iron Horse Regional Trail. There will be 1,200 parking spaces integrated into one of City Center’s buildings and another 1,200 spaces will become available in a nearby office garage at night and on weekends, just as the restaurants get hopping.

Perambulating the piazza and its perimeter will add up to a full mile. The vision is to incorporate San Ramon’s distinctive features, including a little-known public lake and bocce ball courts near City Center, into a pedestrian-friendly downtown.

It all fits together,” says Clarkson. “You can go to the movies, sail a boat, play in the park, go to the library, ride on the Iron Horse trail. Everything will be within walking distance.” 
And if you need a fashionable pair of shoes to wear while dining at what surely promises to be a clutch of the East Bay’s most exciting new restaurants, there will be plenty of shopping at hand.

Top 10 Things to Do in San Ramon

1. San Ramon’s 150th Birthday Party
Celebrate the city at its official birthday party on September 9 at San Ramon City Hall. The free event takes place from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. and features historical photo displays, kids’ games, and live music. sanramon150.com.

2. Forest Home Farms
From the Tractor Museum to the annual Sheep Shearing Day, this family farm turned historical park offers a fun time for all ages. srhf.org.

3. The Golden Skate
Step back in time for dozens of turns around the roller rink. Check online for adult-
only evening skates and weekend open skates with a live DJ. thegoldenskate.com.

4. Las Trampas Regional Wilderness
Explore the 5,342 acres of parkland located just west of the city and accessed by a staging area at the end of Bollinger Canyon Road. ebparks.org/parks/las_trampas.

5. Dougherty Valley Performing Arts Center
Dougherty Valley High’s theater hosts community and touring acts year-round. Recent performers include The Pointer Sisters and Lady K and the Kings of Swing. www.sanramon.ca.gov.

6. Farmers Market
Head to the San Ramon Farmers Market every Thursday and Saturday at Bishop Ranch. Managed by San Ramon nonprofit Local Roots, the market offers fresh produce, local honey, and handmade tamales. sanramonfarmersmarket.org.

7. Central Park
San Ramon’s 43-acre Central Park features sports courts, a skateboard park, a water splash pad, and access to the 32-mile Iron Horse Regional Trail, which runs from Pleasanton to Concord. www.sanramon.ca.gov.

8. The Bridges Golf Club
Set among the rolling hills of Bollinger Canyon, Bridges lures golfers to its 18 holes (no membership required) and diners to The View Restaurant, which serves California cuisine overlooking the fairway. thebridgesgolf.com.

9. San Ramon Olympic Pool and Aquatic Center
Get an All Swim Pass to swim daily at the city’s Olympic-sized pool, which also features a kids’ play area and diving boards. www.sanramon.ca.gov.

10. Lindsay Dirkx Brown Art Gallery
Inside the San Ramon Community Center and free to the public, this atrium art space hosts monthly exhibits from local artists. www.sanramon.ca.gov. 
—LeeAnne Jones

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