June 28, 2005 > Reflections of Fremont
Reflections of Fremont
an interview with Fred Diaz
Fred Diaz became Fremont's newest city manager on Oct. 11, 2004, succeeding Jan Perkins who retired in July of the same year. As the seventh city manager for Fremont, Diaz has had a long career in city administration in California, most recently serving for 10 years as city manager for Tracy. He also served in the same capacity for the city of Indio and as assistant city manager for the city of Pico Rivera, as well as assistant city administrator and interim administrator for the city of Azusa.
TCV asked Diaz to reflect on his last eight months as Fremont city manager and comment on what he sees in the future for Fremont.
TCV: Has your impression of Fremont changed since you moved here?
Diaz: There are two sets of perspectives; a fresh perspective formed in the first couple of months and those from eight months later. They track pretty well. I was not in a position in the first four or five months to resonate with the community; my head was spinning from all the changes in my life, professionally and personally. This is a big job and I was focused on the issues, the players and getting up to speed as well as understanding the processes and culture of the organization.
TCV: Does the structure of historical communities in Fremont present a different challenge from your previous experiences as a city manager?
Diaz: It is both a challenge and a blessing. The districts - the number depends upon who you ask - each have their own identity although a few may still be searching for their singular characteristics. The historic districts have deep roots, families that live there going back for many generations and architecture that reflects their past. That gives richness to the community as a whole. I live in Niles and enjoy the community and beautiful environment.
Many cities, especially in Southern California, do not have this. Their identity is the freeway and how quickly you can get to wherever you want to go. Many communities are faceless compared to Fremont. Tracy had some identity - a downtown and a farming community with families that lived in the area for generations - but not like here.
The challenge of Fremont is the lack of a central core. Each of the historic districts has its own community retail area and gathering spots but there is no solid downtown. It certainly had time to develop but it hasn't. Fremont lacks the central gathering spot and retail powerhouse that I am used to. We are catching up with Pacific Commons; I am focused on the design and overall attraction of upscale retail. I am also into enhancing the city's current retail corridors, making Fremont, in the next 5 to 10 years, a retail powerhouse.
Although there are some people in the community that are not focused on retail, sales tax drives services. I feel a bit anxious to get retail going here so I will always be looking for those opportunities. I hope that resonates with the community; it certainly resonates with the council.
TCV: How would downtown development compliment the historic districts?
Diaz: The council has done extensive outreach with the Centerville Unified Site. Irvington has a wonderful specific plan, a very exciting document that is well thought out. Irvington has a strong market and a good future. The specific plan will guide its development; it's a wonderful instrument.
Regarding the downtown, if the city is trying to create a catalyst project, determination needs to be made whether that is good public policy - whether that requires partnership with the city, whether it makes good business sense. What is important is that there is an opportunity. We have the courts on one end, the hospital and Washington West and the HUB shopping center, a strong and valuable asset that produces significant sales tax revenue.
You have three or four corners and some vacant land. Whatever you do, it has to make sense for the area. Staff has talked with me a lot about the Central Business District (CBD) effort and I think there is a lot of viability to the effort. The market has changed since that process began but I still think there are the right elements to guide any project we might do. It is a great opportunity to enhance what we have and create something new as well.
TCV: Do you see any similarities between growth in Fremont and other areas that began with significant space and farmlands such as Southern California?
Diaz: That type of sprawling growth was an equation that worked for 40 or 50 years in the wake of World War II. It is a little too fashionable to criticize that growth but at the time, it obviously filled a need. People in this country were weaned on the idea of having their own land and their own house. They are still selling housing in Tracy based on this.
I have a high respect for the work done by councils, city managers and communities building these communities. The term "smart growth" unfortunately implies other growth as "dumb." Given the complexities of land use, searching for the highest and best use of land and providing affordable housing, certain realities demand a paradigm shift. I think Fremont is on board to do that. Housing is much denser now compared with older developments.
TCV: Union City officials speak of vertical development since land is less available and its value has skyrocketed. Will the same thing happen in Fremont?
Diaz: Just because there is no current market to support office and business opportunities going vertical, it will eventually come around. There will be an internal struggle in every city to not give in to current market demands or at least weigh them against good long term public policy. Just because something is not viable right now doesn't mean that in 10 years it won't be.
Residential high-rise is an inevitable reality. I don't know if high-rise will happen in my future, but certainly there will be a lot more high-density housing. Sandwiched between San Francisco and San Jose, this area will become a lot more urban.
TCV: Do recent surveys indicate a preference by Fremont citizens for a particular style of growth or management?
Diaz: Not really. The latest survey demonstrated a significant amount of ambivalence. People certainly understand that there are problems but are not sure which direction to go to solve them. Our conclusion was that staff has not done a good job of listening to the public. We have given presentations but is this really the same as hearing from the community? We need more interactive dialogue.
It is always valuable for the city manager to live in town. Because I have now lived here for eight months, I can understand things much quicker. You can have a staff of wonderful experts, all great in their particular fields, but if they don't live here they may not have a sense of the community. The council, as elected officials, probably has the best insight of all, from five different perspectives. They see things and hear about things differently than a staff member would. The true job of a councilmember is to have their fingers on the pulse on the community. I take my cues from the council. They know the community very well.
TCV: Management styles can vary between behind-the-scenes direction and high visibility and accessibility. Which one matches your style?
Diaz: I am a little of both. You can kid yourself by thinking you are getting out into the community, but if you are running into the same 40 or 50 people all the time, are you really understanding what the community is all about? To me, getting to know the community has much to do with the daily things in life and people you meet - those heavily involved and others less involved. You can go to a coffee shop in the Mission District or shopping at local stores and run into many people - that is as important as other forms of communication.
At my daughter's school and recreation programs, I gather valuable insight. I can look at the community through the eyes of a 7-year-old.
A high profile presence is important too. This community has a lot of events going on that are important to the community. They deserve the attention of the leadership. I cannot possibly get to all of them unless I am Steve Cho and I am convinced that he has a twin.
So much of this job revolves around email. That is a function of the Bay Area more than anywhere else I have been. It may also be that the job has been fashioned in that manner too. Changes have been implemented, designed to get me out of the office more. That has been happening and feels good. I need to create systems where there is redundancy so people will step in to help and I can get out into the community.
TCV: Is there a restructuring of city staff? If so, where is that leading?
Diaz: Yes. A set of circumstances is leading us to a process that will create reorganization. There will some shuffling of some functions of the city although it will still flow in a similar fashion. One observation I had was the Development and Environmental Services (DES) Department is too big. Now that Lyn [Danzker] has retired and Jill Keimach has stepped into that role on an interim basis, we will see where that goes. Christine [Daniel] has been promoted. Dave Millican left and I chose not to fill that position; to use the money appropriated to realign some other things.
I am not quite ready yet to say how Fremont's organizational chart will look, but in the next couple of months, you will probably see an official reorganization. I don't think it will be dramatic; you will still see the same functions but maybe in different areas - possibly a return to where the organization was some time ago.