Fruitvale Transit Village Is on Track 

Developers hope to revitalize a beleaguered commercial zone without changing its character

Emma Hansson stood on the curb outside the Fruitvale BART station, her arms crossed and her eyes focused straight ahead as she waited under darkening skies for a ride to her home in Alameda. A short walk would lead her to the stores of International Boulevard, but the 23-year-old San Francisco State University student has never been there and doesn't plan on going. "It's real dark there," she said, glancing at the large parking lot and poorly lit street leading to International Boulevard. "It doesn't feel very safe."

Hansson is one of hundreds of commuters who regularly use Oakland's Fruitvale BART station but who have never shopped in the surrounding neighborhood, which is predominantly low-income and Latino. The commuters can see the dilapidated buildings on 12th Street and the signs advertising a pawnshop and check-cashing service, but most of them have probably missed the frayed wooden sign near the station entrance that promotes the Fruitvale Transit Village, a long-planned development that, when completed, will include stores, apartments, offices, a public library, a senior center, a child care center, and a health clinic.

After a decade of planning, fund-raising, and dreaming, the last piece of financing needed to complete the first phase of the $100 million project soon will be in place, according to officials at the Unity Council, the Fruitvale nonprofit that is developing the project, and Citigroup, the parent company of Salomon Smith Barney Inc., source of the last chunk of money. While the Unity Council had hoped that construction of the project's initial phase would be completed by now, the fact that the project is actually about to break ground is "nothing short of a miracle," says Hardy Gumnor, a treasury analyst with the city of Oakland. Gumnor helped the developers put together a complex financing package from no fewer than 25 federal, state, city, and private-foundation funding sources, each with its own distinct guidelines and rules.

The Unity Council soon will begin planning the second phase of the project, which will feature up to 200 units of housing and perhaps some stores. The entire project will be constructed on what is now the main BART parking lot. New surface spaces to replace the lost parking spaces already have been created, and a multistory parking garage will add more parking, says Patty Hirota-Cohen, senior real estate officer for BART, which is an active partner in the project. According to Unity Council CEO Arabella Martiacutenez, construction is scheduled to begin within the next few weeks, and the stores and other parts of the transit village will open as early as the summer of 2003.

Jennifer Giambroni, who works for a public relations firm in San Francisco and lives in the Oakland hills, is one commuter who says that though she has never shopped in Fruitvale she would shop at the transit village if it were well lit and she felt safe there. She would particularly like to see such quick-stop outlets as a take-out restaurant, a small food store, a video-rental place, and a coffee shop. "It would be very convenient to be able to pick up dry cleaning at a place next to the BART station." Those are exactly the types of stores that the Unity Council will be trying to recruit, says Martiacutenez. In addition, the plan calls for a sit-down restaurant, a food market specializing in ethnic foods, and perhaps a shop selling arts and crafts from Latin America. "We're trying to make this area a destination for people who want Latin American food and other products," says Tom Limón, assistant project manager for the transit village.

Beyond the village itself, the project includes an elegant Spanish-colonial-style brick promenade which is intended to lure commuters to International Boulevard to eat in a taqueria, buy fresh chorizo at one of several butchers, browse the shoe stores, or buy camping supplies. "The whole point of the transit village is to get people to come shop not only in the transit village itself, but in existing stores, to catalyze economic development throughout the neighborhood, increase sales, and create jobs," says Jenny Kassan, former project manager of the transit village and now the head of the Unity Council's Main Street Program. An outgrowth of the transit village project, the Main Street Program promotes a variety of neighborhood improvement projects including facade improvement for local stores -- more than 100 facades have been renovated thus far with the city of Oakland paying up to half the cost -- marketing and financial advice, expanded trash pickup and street-sweeping, and civilian patrols. In addition, program officials have tried to convince property owners to rent to retail businesses that will promote foot traffic rather than, say, auto-repair shops. Partly as a result of the program, International Boulevard, which only ten years ago was dotted with vacant storefronts, is now a vibrant shopping strip.

To further attract shoppers to International Boulevard, the federal government and the city will soon invest $2 million in a project to plant trees, install traffic islands and decorative street lights, and otherwise beautify the stretch of International Boulevard between 33rd and 35th avenues, where the transit village promenade will end.

From the beginning, the transit village project has been resolutely community-based: The Unity Council, which was founded in Fruitvale in 1964, held dozens of meetings to get local residents' input. Major community institutions such as the public library's Cesar Chavez branch and La Cliacutenica de La Raza will move into the development, housing will be a mix of market-rate and affordable, and retail space will be sold only to stores that are not seen as potential direct competition to nearby International Boulevard merchants. The trick will be to revitalize Fruitvale without gentrifying it, to "improve" the neighborhood without displacing longtime shopkeepers, to open stores targeted at affluent commuters without alienating neighborhood shoppers.

Local merchants generally are enthusiastic about the transit village. "People who just park there and drive away don't know what's here," says Conny Contreras, a clerk at Mora's, a western wear store on International Boulevard. "They can't see all these stores. Once they walk past here, I think it will increase our business."

"I only see it as a positive thing for the community," agrees Germaine Rener, owner of Panaderiacutea Lux, a bakery on Fruitvale Avenue near International Boulevard.

Next door to Rener, Yolanda Tell also hopes the project will bring more customers to her beauty salon, and she is convinced it will change the negative image of the neighborhood. But she's afraid that the transit village will be so successful that it will push local retail rents even higher. She points out that rents in Fruitvale have already increased dramatically over the past few years. Her own has more than doubled since 1995, to $1,500 a month.

Oakland City Council President Ignacio De La Fuente said he understands shopkeepers' fears. "Merchants expressed the same fears when Fruitvale Station opened" in 1997, he said, referring to a shopping center less than a quarter-mile from International Boulevard that features a huge Albertson's supermarket, Starbucks, and MacFrugal's. "They thought they would be put out of business. Obviously, it's had the opposite effect."

Most local merchants say they would be much more nervous about the impact of the transit village project if it were being built by for-profit developers. "The Unity Council has been providing services for many, many years, and the community views it as a trustworthy organization that has completed viable projects in the past," says Rosario Flores, who grew up in Fruitvale and who is program manager for the Spanish-Speaking Citizens Foundation. "They know the Unity Council, and they know the Unity Council is not going to be in and out like a private developer.

"Most people who have businesses here live here, and they're not leaving."


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