Development Comes to El Cerrito 

But are developers building what the city needs?

If you just look at the statistics, it would seem that El Cerrito is a city that has everything going for it. It is smack in the middle of the Bay Area with easy access to the Eastshore Freeway. It is traversed by a major thoroughfare, San Pablo Avenue, and boasts two BART stations. It's got a highly educated population living in a sea of attractive single-family homes. What's not to love? But visitors to El Cerrito's downtrodden commercial arteries may perceive that they've missed this little town's heyday by about fifty years. San Pablo Avenue is dotted with old, crumbling businesses, hanging by the fingertips from a precipice of debt. City Hall is contained entirely within a series of moldering trailers. Don't even get started on the dwindling sales tax take. But, city boosters firmly believe, the makings of greatness are still there -- it's just a matter of convincing big-city developers to come in and build a lot of expensive offices and a bunch of upscale shops.

As every financially struggling little town knows, once you've got a deep-pocketed developer by the buttonhole, you've got to hang on for dear life. So when JMS Development proposed to build a housing project on the site of an abandoned lumberyard, the city, perhaps looking southward toward what was then a nearly deserted El Cerrito Plaza, jumped at the chance for new development. But that move has left some in the city wondering whether El Cerrito is eagerly grasping at deals that turn out better for the developers than for the city. It's a good thing, everyone agrees, that El Cerrito is surveying its problems and struggling to redefine itself. But who is doing the defining -- the city, or the developers?

It's easy to see why some residents must have thought anything is better than what sits at the old lumberyard site now. Although the facade of the deserted lumberyard building is quite pretty -- painted in neutral tones with neat brickwork and even a bronze plaque dedicating the structure -- the rest of the large parcel, which stretches from San Pablo Avenue up to El Cerrito's civic pride, the Ohlone Greenway, is a weedy lot filled with tangled metal and shards of wood. The surrounding neighborhood isn't faring much better. Directly across the street is a boarded-up store. Traffic whizzes by on San Pablo Avenue at alarming speeds that somehow don't seem to attract the eyes of ticket-wielding cops. Late on a recent summer afternoon, the only pedestrians on the wide street were a trio of workers casually spraying herbicides on the weeds fronting the payroll cash advance shop on the corner.

The lumberyard was owned by the Freethy family, who operated it until fatigue or sickness (or just plain boredom) led owner Jack Freethy to proclaim, "Just get rid of it." The lumberyard sold its last two-by-four on the last day of June. The fear among El Cerritans was that there the property would sit, quietly but surely deteriorating. Luckily, however, San Mateo developer John Baer had come to town.

Baer brought with him a grand proposal for the parcel: four separate buildings composed mainly of housing. One would front onto San Pablo Avenue, while the rest would be tucked behind, opening up onto the Ohlone Greenway. The San Pablo building would sport a marginal amount of retail space -- around 5,000 square feet -- and the rest would be housing. There was only one problem: As far as the city was concerned, the last thing that El Cerrito needed was more housing. A market study that the city commissioned last February had confirmed what city officials already knew -- as a bedroom community, El Cerrito was doing great. It was the business community that was in trouble. What the city urgently needs, the report concluded, is office and retail space -- and the sales tax these developments would bring to city coffers. And so officials in El Cerrito began putting the pressure on Baer to revise his plans.

The city urged the developer to vastly increase the office portion of the San Pablo building and add additional office space to the building behind the avenue. It also requested that apartment space be reduced and that some of the apartments be designated as affordable (that's around $1,000 a month for a one-bedroom apartment). Baer responded by reducing the number of apartments and increasing the commercial space of the San Pablo building. The project continued to be revised through a series of thirteen public meetings where the size of the project was debated and the impact on local traffic analyzed. Finally, fifteen months after the date Baer first indicated his interest in the site, the final project came before the City Council early this month. By now the idea had changed into a different animal -- it included 40,000 feet of potential office and retail space along San Pablo Avenue, with residential buildings hidden behind. Reflecting the fact that the market for office space has substantially softened, Baer included a number of live-work lofts in the 40,000-square-feet office-space figure; in the likely event that they cannot be successfully marketed as office space within one year's time, Baer and his investors can recoup their losses by converting the lofts to housing. That means that, despite the city's best efforts, El Cerrito could have a new project almost entirely made up of pricey apartments.

Nevertheless, more than two dozen residents lined up to plead with the council to accept the project. "Don't leave us with four acres of empty lots covered with weeds," pleaded resident Tony Ling. Chamber of Commerce President Marge Collins spoke frankly to the standing-room-only crowd. "We are the laughingstock of the I-80 corridor," she said. "No business wants to come in. We haven't had any businesses asking how they can relocate to our business district for a while now."

Perhaps not wanting to see four acres of caterpillar reserve either, the City Council voted 4-1 to green-light the project. It might not exactly fit the vision that El Cerrito has for itself, but, residents figure, it could be worse. Lori Dair is chair of Sustainable El Cerrito, a grassroots group in favor of dense growth around transportation hubs. She believes it's unrealistic to hope that an outside developer would be happy to come in and build to suit, especially when city wishes run so contrary to what is currently profitable in the marketplace. "I think there really isn't enough of a market in El Cerrito," she notes. "We have tons and tons of vacant commercial space. I think it's unrealistic to expect that there can be a sudden market developed there in the midtown, not near either BART station or either of the [other big] commercial developments. This is a market-driven project."

Those are sentiments that Baer will quickly echo. After listening to a few residents argue that he should put more office space and retail in the project -- the soft market be damned -- Baer remained unconvinced. "It's easy to make demands," Baer lectured the crowd, "because the risk is ours, not yours."

Does this project have the potential to revitalize its sodden stretch of San Pablo? Baer says he believes it will do that and more. "Parcel One is 40,000 of commercial space. That's a big building. If we can be successful with that, I can guarantee you that other developers will be trying to find other buildings in El Cerrito."

Perhaps, but if other developers do come, will the city be able to influence the direction of future projects any more than they did this one? "The only ultimate leverage we have is if it is a redevelopment project and we take the property by eminent domain," says Mark Friedman, councilmember and head of the city's redevelopment agency, which is on hiatus -- largely because of a lack of city funds. "In this one, we did have some leverage because they needed some zoning adjustments, but it's a process where you squeeze them as much as you can. If you squeeze them too much, they're going to go and walk away from the project, and if you do that it will make other developers wary."

Nonsense, says Kathleen Perka, who was the sole councilmember to vote against giving the go-ahead for Baer's project. "Our job is not to look out for the developer's well-being," she argues. "It's to look out for the well-being of the community. And as much as I wanted a project there, I had to be mindful of what I thought was in the best interest for El Cerrito and the precedent it was setting." Clearly, El Cerrito needs a marketplace jolt, Perka says, and if developers can't understand that or are unwilling to take that risk, then they should be shown the door. But won't that attitude drive away developers who, at least for now, are the only players with the cash to potentially revitalize El Cerrito? "I don't like to think so," Perka says.

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