WALNUT CREEK: A PLACE TO SHOP, TALK AND WALK

Downtown areas in so many American cities can be off-putting. Parking is a headache. There are too many novelty shops, and traffic can be a snarl. The trend of late has been to make downtown areas more pedestrian-friendly, although the strip mall island mentality still predominates especially in so many of the new subdivisions springing up.

Walnut Creek, the commercial pride of the county, continues to follow in the footsteps of the walking trend. The downtown easily lends itself to foot traffic, with its metered and free garage parking, and a free shuttle for shopping bag-laden BART riders. Walkers have a sporting chance with generously timed traffic signals, crosswalks are painted in the middle of long streets without lights.

Californians are sometimes loath to leave the warm womb of their automobiles for long. With walking weather in full bloom, though, the downtown area has one-stop parking for shopping, dining, entertainment, recreation or just ambling about.

Walkabout: Now, you’d think of all the hubs, Walnut Creek would be the last one to need its downtown business association to sponsor a “walkabout.” The association is considering offering its annual four-hour guided stroll, in which downtown businesses lure walkers with complimentary samples, again this fall. For now, walkers are on their own. The free samples might take a little more negotiating. Although the walkabout maps only come out once a year, folks can drop by the association office at 1410 North Main St., 925-933-6778., or any downtown business to pick up a free Walnut Creek magazine, which contains a list of merchants and a map.

Shuffle or shuttle: If you face north from Cypress and Main streets, you’ll see the pleasant canopy of trees hanging over Main Street, onward to Civic Drive. Plans are in the works to widen the sidewalk and eliminate one of the Main’s lanes. The free shuttle buses coast up and down Main Street, and parking garages charge a maximum of $3 all part of the effort to encourage strolling.

It’s a breeze: Off the main drag is the occasional “breezeway,” or an alley with small businesses. Although an actual breeze might be hard to whip up on a really scorching day, what’s refreshing is the allure of discovery. You’ll find a wig shop here and a day spa there and the requisite cafe quaint nooks that get little exposure being on the sidelines but lend themselves to bipedal exploration.

Walk onward to Locust Street and stand at the corner of Mt. Diablo Boulevard. If you face south, you’ll see an empty lot where the landmark Simon’s Hardware once stood. The business owners some years ago declined to renew their lease. However, plans are now on the drawing board for building “Plaza Escuela” with restaurants, an Andronico’s market and other retail attractions.

Promenade and away you go: If you walk eastward on Mt. Diablo, and then south on Main, you’ll almost stumble into Broadway Plaza. Summer music concerts provide the soundtrack to waltzing about this cluster of clothing outlets and quaint eateries. A circle of terra cotta benches surround Promenade Fountain. It’s the perfect place on a sunny afternoon to park a stroller and slurp a fruit shake. Head north on Broadway and you’ll hit Civic Plaza, which is next to an Eddie Bauer outlet and Il Fornaio, an Italian chain restaurant. Here, of all places, hangs an imitation Liberty Bell near another fountain. From this patriotic standpoint you can see the throngs still gather around the P.F. Chang’s restaurant, a popular chain of California Asian cuisine.

After this, you might feel positively adventurous and want to put all this walking practice to work. Nearby, there’s a network of trails, like the Iron Horse or the Briones-to-Canal. Where else can you try out that ultra-cool aluminum scooter you just bought from Sharper Image?

Elizabeth Zach is a former Times reporter. Vera H-C Chan can be reached at 925-977-8428 or vchan@cctimes.com.

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