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December 27, 2005 > Redevelopment chief, Laura Gonzalez-Escoto retires

Redevelopment chief, Laura Gonzalez-Escoto retires

New Year's Eve marks a change of the calendar and will, this year, also be a moment of significant change in the hierarchy of Fremont's government. Laura Gonzalez-Escoto will retire from her position as Director of Redevelopment effective December 31st. TCV asked Ms. Gonzalez-Escoto to reflect on the role of Fremont's Redevelopment Agency and her experiences as its chief executive.

TCV: Is your pending retirement a bittersweet experience?

Gonzalez-Escoto: The bitter part has not come in at all. My father has passed his eightieth birthday and still going strong, working full time with the State of Indiana as a division head of the Department of Transportation. After reaching the age of 62, he has had four different careers. What that tells me is that while I am leaving one place that I have loved dearly, I am probably saying 'hello' to another place that has yet to appear. I am one of those lucky folks who have their children and grandchildren living nearby and will now have a chance to really enjoy them.

TCV: Do you feel redevelopment is being left in good order?

Gonzalez-Escoto: I have only been here since 1998 but feel we are turning a corner. There have been major initiatives in each of our project areas - Irvington, Centerville and Niles - that have come to pass. Our inability to receive the MTC (Metropolitan Transportation Commission) grant in Irvington will open a new dialogue with the business community in particular, about what will be done with Bay Street, the Monument Center and that area. Although Irvington is lagging behind a bit, we have a new project manager [Carol Anne Painter] who is very skilled and exciting things will be happening there. There is now an opportunity to look at the plans we had for the area and see what we can keep and resurrect.

In Niles, we have finally settled with Union Pacific and the remediation plan is at the state and near approval. The Niles Town Plaza has, I think, achieved consensus. In Centerville, it feels like we are on 'go' with the marketplace development. So, there are big initiatives in each of our project areas and Pacific Commons is doing great business in our industrial area.

We have also been able to bring a variety of housing types for a variety of housing needs including senior housing - not just senior, but for special needs such as hearing impaired and deaf. We are trying to pay attention to Fremont and its special requirements such as the deaf community which makes up a large percentage of our population.

There are 100 units in Irvington moving forward at the old Patio World site. We have worked toward a good use of land - higher density - which I hope proves very successful and gives Fremont experience of what higher density can do as a wise and efficient use of land. The Maple Street apartments [Centerville] are nearing completion as well.

The most important thing for me is assistance for our small business community. It is often said that small business is the backbone of any community. We have been able to invent and create programs that work for them - faŤade improvement grants and commercial rehabilitation.

TCV: Does redevelopment seek a balance in emphasis between housing and other projects?

Gonzalez-Escoto: There has been an important emphasis, in partnership with our Economic Development Department, on strengthening our retail especially at Pacific Commons. Economic Development is paying attention to the right things - a real housing mix and balance of job opportunities including biotech to retail. They are out there in all of our redevelopment areas doing all that they can to fill in the vacancies. It is a fantastic partnership.

TCV: Will redevelopment now focus on infill developments?

Gonzalez-Escoto: Redevelopment was created as a tool for urbanized areas. It is not designed for communities with lots of space to grow. We are always challenged to go where no normal developer would go, clearing the path so development can come into the community. For instance in Centerville, we were able to amass several smaller pieces of land to open the area to development of the Centerville Market Place. That is where we are most effective.

Fremont was a little unusual - and I owe much to my predecessors - when it passed a plan amendment to allow some money generated in the industrial area to be invested in the historic project areas. That was a great move for without it, we would not have made as much progress as we have.

TCV: What is the status of the Centerville Market Place?

Gonzalez-Escoto: It is on target. In the first quarter of next year, it should be close to completing its submittals for permit review and coming forth with a plan for tenants. If you recall, the city council asked for a percentage to be pre-leased or clear sense of what was going into the retail spaces. This will be the next big push in the first quarter of next year. We are very excited about this development since it will be a catalyst for the entire area.

TCV: What about the Centerville Theater?

Gonzalez-Escoto: There is a group interested in preserving the theater and so is the Centerville Business Association. I believe a fundraiser is planned at the theater for Oscar night which will jump-start renewed interest in the theater. It is a great resource for the community and I wouldn't be surprised if next year there was a great deal of energy toward what to do next with the theater.

TCV: Earlier this year there was some discussion of the approaching spending 'cap' for the redevelopment agency. Where do things stand now?

Gonzalez-Escoto: The cap means that somewhere between 2010 and 2012 - it is not an exact science because this is based on property taxes - we will have collected the amount of property taxes that was defined. This particular redevelopment area was unusual in that it was created primarily to help with the I-880 overpasses. We really needed to open up the area - regionally - for industrial development. Without those overpasses, things would not be as booming as they have been, so it did its work there. We didn't get to use anything left over in our project areas until 1998, so all of our efforts are pretty young. The question becomes, 'what next?'

We will be going through our work program in March/April of next year and hope to be able to share our goals with the community and what we have done. I think we have done a good deal of what was intended in 1998.

TCV: What then is the long-range life of redevelopment?

Gonzalez-Escoto: Theoretically, redevelopment is supposed to have a beginning and end. By the end, you should see a significant difference in the community. When you reach the cap, the agency should pay off any outstanding debts and then property taxes revert back to traditional taxing entities. Policymakers (our city council serves as the redevelopment board) will have to decide what to do about the agency. Even when the industrial area - our economic engine -phases out of redevelopment, there will still be a small amount of money generated by Niles, Irvington and Centerville since their 'life' is a bit longer. Each of the redevelopment areas has its own timeline.

TCV: Has redevelopment achieved some of its goals?

Gonzalez-Escoto: I remember when the PACs (Project Area Committee) were active and setting priorities of projects they wanted to see completed - street improvements such as Central Avenue widening, Niles Boulevard, Washington Grade Separation, Fremont Boulevard improvements in Irvington. Many of these either have been completed or are ready to start. Keeping faith with the neighborhoods is a really important part of redevelopment work. Housing for a variety of groups and rehabilitation of existing housing was also a part of redevelopment. If you look at the desires of the original PACs, we have kept the faith. I feel really good about that.

TCV: Does the Fremont Redevelopment Agency work as part of city hierarchy or as a separate entity?

Gonzalez-Escoto: We are part of the Community Development Department. We do have our own budget by statute, but it is folded into Fremont's budget. The Office of Housing and Redevelopment is integrated with the rest of the city.

TCV: What is your vision for Fremont?

Gonzalez-Escoto: I think that Fremont is the envy of much larger cities such as San Jose. We have something these cities want and that is BART. This city will lead the way in planning and working with BART for Irvington and Warm Springs stations, creating higher intensified development around those stations and sparking creativity to truly construct a downtown.

TCV: Any final thoughts?

Gonzalez-Escoto: The best part of government is when it is candid and transparent. I said at a recent council meeting that I hope others join local government because I believe that it is the closest you get to a sense of democracy. When people come to a council meeting and air an issue, that is where government works best. Elected officials and staff are involved with the community every day; this is important dialogue.

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