Nov 282007

OAKLAND – Launched in 2004 after decades of planning and designed to encourage a multicultural neighborhood to flourish, the Fruitvale Transit Village is now a bustling residential and commercial enclave surrounding the Fruitvale BART station.While the retail business had trouble gaining a foothold initially, that seems to be changing.More than 90 percent of the retail space in the plaza off East 12th Street has been filled and all of the space available for community groups and nonprofits is leased, officials said. Twenty of the 23 available retail spaces have been leased and officials are negotiating a lease on one more. 

Of the center’s 40,000square feet of available space, between 5,000 and 7,000 square feet have been vacant in the last two years, said Jeff Pace, chief operating officer for the Unity Council, a community group that advocated for the plaza.

“What’s important is tenant fit and tenant mix, not filling space,” Pace said. “We have a much stronger group of businesses now and much more traffic than in 2004.”Fruitvale Transit Village, which runs along East 12th Street between 33rd and 35th avenues, was designed to resemble a Mexican Plaza with four-story stucco buildings painted bright ocher and burnt sienna. Its tiled walkway is punctuated with palm trees and a fountain.The plaza boasts a variety of storefronts, such as the Powderface coffee shop, whose specialty is a sugary beignet, and Anh’s Jewelry, which serves people planning weddings and other special events.Officials are proud of the progress they’ve made turning a lot once planned for a massive parking garage into a shopping and residential hub targeting the untapped spending potential of Fruitvale.Social Compact, an advocacy group for investment in lower-income communities, estimated the collective income of Fruitvale as $708 million. While residents spend $290 million on retail purchases, they spend only about $160 million in the neighborhood itself, the report said.Unity Council thinks it can change that, not only by stimulating trade on the pedestrian mall but by stimulating commerce on International Boulevard as well.The council will soon open a new shopping outlet across the street from the transit village and has turned the first spade of dirt on the second phase of a large residential addition to the project.

Gilda Gonzales, CEO of The Unity Council poses for a photo in the plaza of Fruitvale Village in Oakland, Calif. on Wednesday, November 14, 2007. The Unity Council is the organization which lobbied for the Fruitvale Village s revitalization and redesign. (Karna Kurata/The Oakland Tribune)

The first phase of residential construction, 47 apartments that opened in 2004, filled right away, said Unity Council Chief Executive Officer Gilda Gonzalez. Retail space struggled, however.”We built out the space for the commercial boom that was going on during the dot-com era,” Gonzalez said. “In hindsight, we should have built more residential.”Since Gonzalez joined Unity Council, five retailers have been relieved of their leases because they weren’t turning a profit.Unity Council is moving forward with additional residential development. Phase II is divided into three parts calling for 450 additional units. The next phase calls for 92 units to be completed in 2010. The whole project is designed for working-class incomes and Unity Council can fund $125,000 in down payment assistance. Officials are not yet taking applications.The imbalance between residential and commercial was also a result of the center’s location. The two parking facilities that serve BART are situated so that people can easily enter and leave BART without setting foot in the shopping plaza.”We decided to get in commuters’ ways. So we started a farmers’ market. We have celebrations, music and other things that bring folks into the pedestrian mall,” Gonzalez said.

The farmers’ market, open every Thursday from 2 to 7 p.m., has been an important draw for the surrounding shopkeepers.In December, the grand opening is planned for an additional marketplace, The Public Market, located in the 100-year old Masonic Temple on East 12th Street. Just across the road from the village, the market will offer artisan goods such as handmade ice cream, textiles, jewelry and a florist. A Latino cultural arts center is planned for the second floor.

The market, part of Unity Council’s neighborhood development program, was funded by grants from the Ford Foundation.During a recent interview at the Fruitvale Village, Gonzalez stood at the westernmost end of the pedestrian mall closest to the BART station and looked toward the hills.

The steeple of St. Elizabeth’s Church rises three blocks away. Officials had always planned to build the village at the foot of the church, she said.”BART wanted to build a five-story parking garage right here. But we launched a fight for the neighborhood,” she said. Now, she said, BART and Unity Council are “solid allies.”"They had a vision and they are in the process of achieving it. In an economy like this, I think that’s fabulous,” said Carole Ward Allen, who represents Alameda and parts of Oakland on the BART board of directors

 Posted by at 5:56 pm
Nov 242007


Formerly incarcerated often find re-entering the workforce difficult

By Francine Brevetti, STAFF WRITER

OAKLAND — The Port of Oakland is sponsoring an informational job fair next week for a group of citizens who are often overlooked on the employment market — former convicts.The Apprenticeship Expo, to be held 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. Wed-nesday at 530 Water St. in Jack London Square, aims to introduce former convicts to trade unions and job opportunities.

The previously incarcerated — frequently stymied in the job market by demands for background checks — can make it in the construction trades with the proper guidance and support, said one former felon.

The 28-year old woman, imprisoned for embezzlement, is today working on a construction site as an apprentice electrician thanks to one of the 18 training programs expected to attend the expo. The former banker, who asked that her name not be used, credited the Cyprus Mandela Training Program with preparing her for her current career and lifestyle.

“My lawyer suggested the construction industry because it’s often overlooked, but it has many opportunities and good wages,” she said. She went through the 16-week Cyprus Mandela apprentice program and applied for every opportunity the trade unions presented.

She said she’s found tolerance at her current job for former felons, provided they make some changes in their lives.

“As long as they are willing to put behind them a sense of entitlement for quick money, rolling out of bed at 12 noon, the marijuana, the drugs and sometimes certain relationships, they can do it,” she said, speaking as one who’s had to look at her own life in a new light.Victor Uno, business manager for the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers and a former training manager of the union’s apprenticeship program, is expected to speak at the expo.

“We had many people formerly incarcerated in our apprenticeship program, and we found opportunities for everybody,” Uno said. “If somebody made a mistake and did their time, we don’t hold that against them. Most employers in the construction trades don’t require background checks and we don’t do background checks for the apprenticeship program.”

Other trade union representatives will also attend the expo, which is offered in cooperation with the Community Reentry Service Providers Network

 Posted by at 6:01 pm
Nov 222007

by Francine Brevetti, STAFF WRITER 

UPPER BROADWAY is the first neighborhood to be targeted for a retail resurgence in a study awaiting approval by the city’s Community and Economic Development Agency.

The study proposes ways for Oakland to provide much-needed stimulus to the retail sector in 18 different neighborhoods. The upper Broadway area from 27th Street to 51st Street is the first neighborhood the study suggests should be targeted for an infusion of new business and a mix of retail and residential development.

The study, released in September and prepared by real estate and economic development consultant Denise Conley, suggests ways to fuel retail traffic without substantial investment from the city.

As some auto dealers on Broadway’s Auto Row relocate to the Army Base or other locations, the vacancies leave “a prime location for a lifestyle retail district,” the study said.

The study suggests three alternatives for retooling upper Broadway:

-The first suggests a mixture of retail and residential or office space. Retailers offering a mix of wares, including clothing, home furnishings and appliances, wouldoccupy the ground floors of buildings, with upper floors reserved for residential or office space. More than 1 million square feet of retail space would be created under this scenario.

-The second scenario foresees big box retailers as anchor tenants in the stretch between Broadway and 27th Street and residential development along Valdez Street. More than 1.1 million square feet of retail space would emerge from this plan.

-The third alternative emphasizes residential development. Retailers at ground level would offer mostly convenience products, such as food, beverages, medications and others. Only 312,000 square feet of retail space would emerge from this option, however.

The City Council will deliberate on these alternatives Dec. 18. The time and place of the meeting have not yet been announced.

Oakland residents have long suffered from the scarcity of places to shop, whether they’re looking for groceries, clothing, home furnishings or appliances. Conley’s report said Oakland residents spend $1 billion a year shopping outside of Oakland — typically in Emeryville, San Francisco, Walnut Creek and elsewhere in the Bay Area.

That $1 billion translates to $10 million a year in lost sales tax revenue and as many as 10,400 fewer jobs. Retail jobs are typically entry positions, important training posts for the young and those returning to the work force, Conley wrote.

For the last 40 years, Oakland has launched numerous studies of its inefficient retail sector. Many big-name retailers are discouraged from entering the city because of concerns about the crime rate, real estate brokers have said in previous interviews.

Officials, though, said they hope the time is right to rejuvenate Oakland’s sagging retail sector.

“We have had retail strategies, but they have not been as comprehensive and as action-oriented as this is,” said Keira Williams, an economic analyst with the Commission on Economic Development. “So finally we’ve said, ‘Enough already, we want to get on with it now.’”

Earlier this year, retail consultant Marcus and Millichap ranked Oakland as the fourth most desirable city for investors to place retail properties, based on factors including employment growth and the local housing market. Marcus and Millichap said Oakland has the lowest housing vacancy rate in the nation.

And retailers appear to be interested.

Larry Westland of TRI Commercial Real Estate Services said he has clients who would be interested in opening up major retail outlets on the Broadway corridor. The outlets could be configured on five or six floors connected by escalators, the way Kohl’s or Target are in many developments.

New plans for the remaining 17 neighborhoods the city has specified are expected to be addressed by Conley Consulting Group by March.

Other neighborhoods targeted for renewal include the Telegraph corridor; 7th Street/West Oakland; the Oakland Army Base; and West Grand Avenue and Mandela Parkway.

“We still have convenience gaps that need to be filled, food, pharmacies, etc., in many neighborhoods,” Conley said. “We’ll do what we can to make them function better. We’re going to see a very big reversal of shopping patterns in Oakland. No longer will we be meeting our neighbors in someone else’s city.”

 Posted by at 2:25 pm
Nov 112007

Core of Oakland town center will become government service center

By Francine Brevetti, STAFF WRITER

The new owner of the Eastmont Town Center is preparing to redesign and, he hopes, revitalize the long-troubled shopping mall.

ScanlanKempBard of Portland acquired the property in March for $78 million. This month it will submit design plans to the city of Oakland for approval.

The retail installation has known rocky times over the past decades. Many would say it has been a disappointment to its neighborhood’s consumers.

The Eastmont mall consists of an outer retail installation surrounding an inner core of offices and storefronts.

“Our intent is to take the inner component and develop it for a number of government services, make it into a government service center, rather than the failing retail mall it is now,” President Tom Gooding said.

The mixed-use property at 7000 Bancroft Ave. consists of a two-story mall, and a single-story in-line retail building.

Gooding claimed to have “strong relationships” with the government tenants currently situated atEastmont Town Center. The company is continuing to talk to city, county and federal agencies to stimulate more such tenants.

As for the retail part, “we’re going to give a facelift to the strip center (storefront retail portion) and landscape. The facade enhancement will stimulate retail,” Gooding said.

Eastmont Oakland LLC and Eastmont Town Center Co. LLC of Oakland sold the 605,959-square-foot project to the current owners. The past two decades’ owners failed to make the mall a thriving retail hub. When the anchor retailers, JCPenney and Mervyns, moved out of Eastmont Town Center in the early 1990s, they took the heart out of the retail trade there.

Despite this history, Gooding thinks ScanlanKemperBard can make the revamped project a success.

“The neighborhood at the time had a lot of issues, and fewer people wanted to go to that area. But now gentrification is now going on in the area. Real estate values are going up, and people are starting to care about that area more,” he remarked.

Currently, the plaza has very little by way of retail except for Gazzalli’s Market. Among its tenants are the Oakland Police Department, a public library, various city services and nonprofits and a Social Security office.

Julie Taylor, a broker at Cornish & Carey, which is handling the project, observed, “It’s a great opportunity for Oakland now. You see a resurgence of box tenants — large, value-oriented retailers like Ross — moving into downtown San Francisco even without oceans of parking. So if they’re pursuing San Francisco, eventually movement will come to Oakland.”

Taylor reported that two letters of intent from retailers were about to be negotiated, a task that may take several weeks.

“But before this time next year we will have a new and renovated, vital project,” she said.

ScanlanKemperBard boasts a $2.25 billion portfolio of properties. In Oakland, it owns the Broadway Webster Medical Building on Pill Hill and office space at Jackson and 11th; the Westgate Building in San Leandro; office space in downtown Berkeley; and the San Francisco Gift Center and Jewelry Mart.

 Posted by at 2:17 pm
Nov 082007

Cooler aims to help consumers fight global warming

By Francine Brevetti, STAFF WRITER

Imagine you’re about to shop online. Before you make your purchase, you check out how much carbon emission that Jimi Hendrix T- shirt produced compared with its competitor. It’s conceivable that some day this factor may sway you in selecting a product as much as price, size or style.

Making this comparison is what Oakland-based Cooler will soon be able to do for you. Right now Cooler’s Web site, http://, tells you the carbon footprint you create for your online purchases within a day of the transaction.

“Cooler allows the consumer to connect every purchase to a solution for global warming,” said Michel Gelobter, founder and chief executive officer.

The for-profit company was spun off by the nonprofit Oakland- based environmental think tank Redefining Progress.

Cooler lists about 350 retailers, names as common as Safeway, Macy’s, eBay, Staples and Mrs. Field’s. Buying any of the 8 million products available through the Cooler channel costs the consumer nothing. Instead, the Web-based company charges the retailer 2 percent to 12 percent of the purchase price to calculate their products’ impacts on climate change and the Earth’s health.

Cooler officials say that being environmentally friendly in the marketplace makes such good sense for retailers that they’re willing to pay for the service. Gelobter argues that consumers will increasingly demand to see their suppliers — manufacturers and retailers — on the side of the angels rather than the polluters.

A recent GlobeScan survey found that 79 percent of the 22,000 people surveyed across several countries agree that “human activity, including industry and transportation, is a significant cause of climate change.”

The company’s Web site allows users to track the amount of greenhouse gases that they have saved from the atmosphere. Gelobter claims that, thanks to the expertise of the University of California, Berkeley, and Carnegie Mellon University, Cooler has “the country’s only product carbon calculator.”

“We can calculate almost instantly the global warming impact of a product.”

This technology calculates the carbon impact of the product based on its description, country of origin, price, weight and brand.

It is expected that over time consumers will start seeing patterns of the carbon imprint they create from what they buy. Then it becomes feasible for them to create a carbon emissions budget, consider their choices and reduce consumption in a rational way.

Tom Kelly’s family, of Berkeley, has made two purchases through Tracking the impact of their purchases “has been one of the intriguing aspects of the site. Most of us don’t think about our purchases’ climate impact,” Kelly observed.

But the main focus of Cooler’s business will be to sell its service to retailers and manufacturers, universities and large companies so they can monitor their own processes. Some deals are in the works but the founder and CEO wasn’t ready to talk about them by press time.

 Posted by at 2:11 pm