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