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March 28, 2006 > Editorial: The Catalyst

Editorial: The Catalyst

Lately, a flurry of work sessions has kept the Fremont city council busy. Now at full strength with the arrival of Mayor Wasserman, several projects that have been simmering just below the surface are returning for comment and council direction. Last week, one of three sessions was devoted to a favorite theme - the Central Business District (CBD) or "downtown." The focal point has now been condensed to a portion that is being referred to as the "catalyst," including an extension of Capitol Avenue. A 2002 study was cited noting Fremont's lack of "high quality" retail and the resulting "leakage" to other locations. A 1994 Memorandum of Understanding created a relationship between the city and "co-developer partners" Blake Hunt Ventures and Sunhill Developers now known as Tribeca Companies.

This catalyst section will, in concept, add 200,000 square feet of ground floor retail space and extend Capitol Avenue to Fremont Boulevard. This is another mixed use development with towers of residential space rising above the retail corridor. Deputy City Manager Christine Daniel characterized this plan as a "jewel" and "the beginning (stressing "beginning" several times) of the creation of a true downtown in Fremont." She framed the workshop in terms of earlier council questions and concerns about the unique character of the area as a "public realm" and "plaza space" and why it would attract people and become "the heart of a downtown." It was noted that in order to answer these questions, staff and the developers have put "a lot of time, energy and money" into helping the council visualize the project. Drawings were accompanied by a three dimensional scale model complete with interchangeable amenities for a large plaza section but without windows because, remember, we are still in the concept stage!

The dog and pony show was impressive; William Faidi of Tribeca, Bill Smith of Smith & Smith Landscape Architects, Hans Baldauf of BCV Architects, Jerry Hunt of Blake Hunt Ventures and Bruce Dorfman of Thompson/Dorfman. Superlatives of "attractive," "stunning" and "impressive" were thrown about and I was tempted to click my heels three times and wish myself into the model for a walk through this Garden of Eden. Described as a "social and civic focal point," this destination sounds so good that the rest of Fremont will be in danger of high vacancy rates and devoid of commerce. Watch out Pacific Commons, your crown may slip. There was no doubt that the show was a good one and the props were excellent. However, concepts and reality are often poor long term partners; the proof will come at a later date when studies and conceptual talk is required to coalesce into real structures with real numbers.

Faidi was so infatuated with the plaza concept that he noted that it "would be so valuable to the community that it is the impromptu gathering place; the place that when the local high school team wins the district championship, the place we would all come to celebrate." My mind is boggled by the possibilities. Even Faidi was forced to chuckle at some of his statements. Back to earth again, he calmed down to say, "The city's goal and co-development team's task is to assemble a series of commercial properties whose relationship to each other is solely defined by their proximity to one another and to seamlessly integrate that into a pedestrian-oriented design that will offer us a civic, social and commercial centerpiece for the city of Fremont. We can do it!" Folks, that is a mouthful.

After more of this hype, everyone got down to a discussion of all the fabulous retail and residential space that will be an icon for thousands of miles around (okay, maybe I am exaggerating a bit, but it is hard to remain rooted in reality when these guys are doing their schtick). While it is nice to talk about this wonderful downtown, it begs the question of whether it is workable or not. Can a city with immediate projects and needs in the districts shepherd a monumental task such as this? Talk to a developer, certainly someone who is on a retainer to work conceptually and it appears not only reasonable, but downright sinful not to do it. What comes next is the hard part - to find out how it will come together as a real development. I am waiting for the next presentation, the one where they put the windows in the model.

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