Building Community One Trail at a Time

Mendenhall on bike
Elk Grove was a suburban boom town when the Streng Brothers built their modern tract at Williamson Ranch. Mark Mendenhall (above), who lives there, pioneered creating bike and pedestrian trails throughout the city. Photo by Dave Weinstein

Mid-century modern living is all about opening your home to the out of doors. When Mark Mendenhall’s heads to the out of doors, his preferred pleasure is behind a pair of handlebars.

“I have what we call the retiree biker group, and we go out two or three times a week,” Mark said, as he reclined on the lawn in front of his home in the Streng neighborhood of Williamson Ranch. Rides are generally in the range of 20 miles.

The tract is in Elk Grove, a pancake-flat suburb just south of Sacramento that was a small town when Mark bought his home there in 1984, but then soon boomed with new tracts and shopping centers.

By 2004, the San Francisco Chronicle reported, Elk Grove had become the fastest-growing city in the nation. By that time Mark had already been leading the charge to create a network of needed bike trails in the city for five years.

Elk Grove is a sprawling landscape, with shopping centers, an Old Town, and a civic center across Highway 99. Bike paths connect all these places, and can take riders to Sacramento. From the Bicycle, Pedestrian and Trails Master Plan.

When the recently incorporated city created its Trails Committee in 2001, Mark was appointed by the City Council and served as first chairman – doing so for the next 11 years. Anyone who has ever served on a city committee knows that is a long time for a single chair. And he is chairman again.

“Nobody else wanted it,” Mark said.

It may also have helped that Mark had a degree in architecture from UC Berkeley and was familiar with city planning.

He’s proud of the network of trails the group has helped create. The city now has about 80 miles of formal bike trails, many of them asphalted but some have gravel or other surfaces.

“People use them constantly, and now especially,” Mark said, as Covid-19 continued to ravage the world.

Mark in door
Mark Mendenhall prepares for a ride. Photo by Dave Weinstein

Mark spends much of his time while riding, which he does about six or seven hours a week, looking for potential new bike routes.

“Our first and foremost goal is to provide a vision for the city council about where we can put trails,” he said. “So we do a lot of field work on our own, just finding routes that trails could take.”

The committee worked hard to develop a trails master plan, which was adopted in 2007. “That was the one where we got to put trails on the map,” Mark said. They looked through all the undeveloped areas of Elk Grove – and there were plenty. “We need a trail here and we need a trail here. And they have pretty much held to that.”

“You put a line on the map [showing a trail], and the city planners and the council said, yeah, ok, and as the developers came in and built, they built the trails for us,” Mark said. “They’ll build a trail, and then they’ll dedicate it to the city.”

Trail sign
Trail signs make it easy for riders and walkers to find their way. From the Bicycle, Pedestrian and Trails Master Plan

Many trails follow such natural corridors as creeks and the open spaces alongside power lines. Still, it takes imagination to come up with some of the trail routes.

“There were some that were relatively unexpected that we found, and said, ‘Hey, you know, we can put a trail right here,'” he said.

One that Mark laid out takes riders pastsome state of California offices, Miwok Park, and the condos where his daughter lives.

“That [trail] was absolutely not going to be there until our committee, [when] myself personally said, 'We need to put a trail right here.' The developers all agreed.”

In the past year or so, Mark said, Elk Grove has added two or three miles to its trail network, which is 35 miles total. The goal? Eighty miles.

Mendenhall's home is part of a largely intact late-modern neighborhood of Streng homes designed by architect Carter Sparks and built in the 1980s. Photo by Dave Weinstein

Mendenhall won a degree of fame when a 1,300-foot-long pedestrian-bike bridge was built spanning Highway 99. “This bridge signifies years of planning and pushing, with most of the pushing being done by Mark Mendenhall, the longest sitting Trails Committee member,” Sharon Anderson, then chair of the committee, told the Elk Grove Citizen in 2013.

Mark and his wife, Phyllis, love their Streng home. Although trained as an architect, Mark worked most of his career as an industrial designer for Campbell Soup, working to make production more efficient and workers more comfortable.

Mark designed one home in his life, a cliff side structure in San Carlos for his dad, using the structural system of post and beam, he said.

“I enjoy living in a Streng as an architect, particularly as an architect who was trained in the mid ‘70s," he said, when post and beam was considered the progressive way to build homes.

Mark said that working on the trails makes him feel like a real part of his growing city. “I’ve watched and helped us grow from 16,000 people to 177,000—and it still feels like home.”

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