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February 1, 2005 > Niles Downtown Plaza Finds New Life

Niles Downtown Plaza Finds New Life

In September 2001, the Fremont City Council approved the Niles Concept Plan. A major provision of the plan was the development of a Town Plaza, located on a portion of the Union Pacific (UP) property on the north side of Niles Boulevard between "H" and "I" streets. This element was to be a focal point of the community for celebrations, events and informal gatherings. In a report issued by the city of Fremont, it was noted that, "The construction of this public space would have the added benefit of retaining the 'one-sided railroad town' character of Niles."

The concept plan listed the following elements as part of plaza: 1) an open landscaped plaza; 2) flagpole restoration (replaced in 2004); 3) relocation or rebuild the historic Niles Depot; 4) a covered market structure for promotional and community events; 5) retain and incorporate the old railroad passenger car housing the Niles Merchants' Association; 6) retain and incorporate the freight house building; 7) incorporate an information kiosk; 8) retain existing restroom facility and 9) create a children's activity area.

RRM Design Group was retained in April 2002 to begin conceptual work for the 9.3-acre study area and environmental tests were conducted on 5.25 acres as part of an eminent domain process. Community workshops were held in June and October of that year and it appeared the town plaza would become a reality. Negotiations between UP and the redevelopment agency ground to a halt when soil contamination was discovered on the UP property and city-owned parking lots formerly owned by railroad operators. Work on the study area/plaza was put on hold in early 2003.

The budget for Fiscal Year 2004-05 reactivated the project and allocated funds of $3.235 million to construct a 1.7 acre plaza and new parking area. Principal components of the plan include the Town Plaza and reconfigured parking areas. Community workshops were held on August 12 and November 17, 2004; feedback and a conceptual design was presented by redevelopment Project Manager Luke Connolly to the city redevelopment agency board on Jan. 11, for comment and direction. Connolly explained that the town plaza is designed for "economic revitalization of the Niles District." He said that it would "act as a catalyst for future development."

Three alternatives focusing on the plaza element were presented to the community. Connolly explained that the plaza portion of this project "had the most community consensus and support."

Option "A" is a traditional and symmetrical plan anchored by a central fountain. A covered stage is shown at the former location of the Niles Depot. "This plan was the second most preferred of the three options when presented to the community on August 12th."

Option "B" was the most preferred at the community meeting and is "the most evocative of the Niles railroad heritage." Connolly reported that of the 50 people who attended the August community meeting, 40 filled out responses and half preferred this option. The depot is shown relocated and the existing freight building and a railroad car form additional elements of the square.

Option "C" was the least preferred option. The element most evocative of Niles' railroad heritage is the pathways which were retained in the refined concept.

A refined concept plan was presented to the Niles community in November 2004. Elements of the initial designs were incorporated into this version shown with and without relocation (or replication) of the Niles Depot. The turf area has been reduced and the size of the amphitheater was increased. All railroad building elements were retained. An informational kiosk was added to the plan. An outline for a public restroom is shown that would be used if the existing facilities are removed for parking or other uses.

The centerpiece of the plaza is the relocation of the Niles Depot building that was moved from the site to Mission Boulevard in 1984. This would form a backdrop for an amphitheater/stage area and signify the railroad's importance to Niles. An existing 1870s Freight Building would be incorporated into the design as well as a railroad car either from the Mission Boulevard site or one that currently houses the Niles Merchants' Association. City staff is currently investigating funding sources for continuing maintenance costs. These might be a landscape and lighting district including both residential and commercial property owners, a property-based improvement district (PBID) or a parking assessment district established by commercial property owners.

Environmental considerations still dominate fiscal and timing issues. At this time, $400,000 has been appropriated for the UP Master Plan and Plaza Concept (approximately $200,000 has been used), $835,000 for design of the plaza and parking and $2 million for construction. Approximately $3 million of the total appropriation remains.

Councilmember comments were limited dealing with project priorities, some parking issues and the orientation of the depot, if moved to the site. Comments from Niles citizens and business people were uniformly positive about the project and as Niles resident Kely McKeown said, [We are] "extremely excited about this." Suggestions of additions including water elements, art objects, clusters of benches and tables were given while there was some debate about the orientation of the depot citing aesthetics, historical accuracy and future rail traffic, but all appeared to favor its return. As local businessman Alan Heyman said, "The time has come to move forward."

Stanley Keiser, representing the Tri-City Society of Model Engineers and the Niles Depot Historical Foundation, expressed disappointment that staff had not consulted these organizations nor informed them of community meetings. He asked, "What is going to happen to us?" Both groups have been saviors of the depot for many years, restoring and maintaining the structure. They open a rail museum and model railroads to the public on the first and third Sunday of every month as well as sponsoring an annual swap meet and train show on site. Keiser asked if they will have a home if and when a move occurs. Laura Gonzalez-Escoto, Redevelopment Agency Director, promised consultations with these organizations in the near future.

The plans will be shown to the Historic Architectural Review Board (HARB) on Feb. 3, and the Planning Commission on Feb. 24. The public is invited to attend and comment at these meetings. If there are significant changes resulting from these meetings, another community meeting will be held. The redevelopment agency board (city council) is scheduled to review the finalized plan for approval on Mar. 22.

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