Ten years ago, historic, working class Suisun City, Calif., suffered from urban decay, a high crime rate and industrial pollution. According to a study conducted by the San Francisco Examiner, it was the worst place to live in the Bay Area.

Founded in 1850, a year after the Great California Gold Rush, Suisun connected the mining towns of the Sierra Nevadas with San Francisco via the Sacramento River. By the 1980s, the town of 27,000, 45 miles east of San Francisco in fast-suburbanizing Solano County, was in deep trouble. Boarded-up storefronts, vacant lots and auto body shops blighted its historic Main Street. An oil depot sat at the head of heavily polluted and silted Suisun Channel.

In 1991, Suisun City officials embarked on an ambitious plan to revive the city's old-town flavor. The city's redevelopment agency pulled together a team comprising an architecture firm, an engineering firm and developers and charged it with creating a new master plan for the historic downtown.

The team's redevelopment plan capitalized on Suisun City's only two advantages: water and history. The city started the redevelopment project by dredging the Suisun Channel, which runs from the center of town down the south side of the city and through the 84,000-acre Suisun Marsh. (The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers used dredge materials to cap former sewage treatment ponds on an island south of the channel.)

Redevelopment of the waterfront along much of the channel incorporated the natural wetlands of Suisun Marsh as a waterfront park. The marsh now is permanently protected along both sides of the channel.

The cleanup of the channel and construction of a 150-berth marina, the first phase of the project, demonstrated the city's commitment to the revitalization plan. Once under way, the marina served as a magnet to attract private capital into the redevelopment area for the subsequent influx of new residents and businesses. (The marina has already reached its tenant capacity, and plans are under way for construction of an additional 150 slips to be built during the project's final phase.)

Rotting metal prefab warehouses along the channel were torn down, industrial facilities were removed, and soil was decontaminated. The city built a pedestrian waterfront promenade, a town plaza and a civic plaza. The pedestrian promenade, which provides access from downtown to the water, allows people to cross the channel by foot for the first time in 50 years.

A revitalized Main Street now is lined with commercial buildings in a variety of architectural styles. In addition, an old railroad station (circa 1910) was revived for intermodal use — passenger trains, intercity buses and CityLink bus service. The city used $58 million from municipal tax-increment bonds, along with additional state funds to finance the project.

Ñ Richard Dornhelm, Moffatt &Nichol Engineers, Walnut Creek, Calif.