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February 27, 2008 > Luke Connolly leaves Fremont Redevelopment Agency

Luke Connolly leaves Fremont Redevelopment Agency

Joining a growing list "former" project managers of the Fremont Redevelopment Agency, Luke Connolly, has resigned his post effective February 14. His departure is an unwelcome valentine to this agency which has struggled to guide a successful project. The agency, which is now lobbying for an extended spending cap, has lost all three project managers in the recent past. TCV was able to speak to Luke on his last day on the Fremont payroll.

TCV: You are best known for your work with the Niles district. What has been accomplished and what is left to do?

Connolly: Redevelopment in a traditional role is just starting its work here. Niles Plaza is the first non-housing, non-transportation project redevelopment has done. I hope the momentum continues to realize the vision for Niles. Niles will be going through a process similar to what Centerville is experiencing now. Private development is going to be necessary and will join the plaza which, in a sense, is an anchor. It connects with the historic train and the county is in the process of developing its property. The train will be able to run more efficiently and there will be a rail museum.

To look at redevelopment pieces such as the plaza in exclusion and say 'we are done' is a disservice. The plaza is just getting the ball rolling out there. The Niles Redevelopment Area is pretty small geographically but there are classic opportunities such as the Henkel property. I love the Niles community and spent a lot of time with the people there. My time spent there was just to get the ball rolling.

TCV: In your opinion, what should be the role of redevelopment in Fremont?

Connolly: I have had very little involvement with the other redevelopment communities of Irvington and Centerville. Recently I was assigned to the Centerville Unified Site. I hope the future of redevelopment in Fremont is removed from the capital projects business and get into the historic districts. Many cities are similar where the historic core is your identity. It is great to go after new projects, but to neglect historic areas abandons your heritage to simply go after something new. I want to believe that the community is looking for its identity in the historic districts. As I said before, the Niles Plaza is just a start; I wouldn't want to go by there in five years and see just a plaza. The same can be said for Centerville. There are some big questions about what happens with the unified site. It is not a clichˇ to say that that is a catalyst for that area. You can look at a vacant lot and be tired of seeing it, but it is worse to construct something on the lot and be tired of seeing it a week after it is done and realize that it will be there a lot longer than a vacant lot.

TCV: What are the challenges currently facing redevelopment agencies?

Connolly: The days of clean, green vacant land days of redevelopment are pretty much over in the Bay Area and Southern California. Fremont has a little bit left, but working on infill and contaminated sites will be prevalent. In spite of its large population, Fremont is still suburban with a small town feel. The next five to ten years here will be really big years.

TCV: How should redevelopment deal with the issue of using infill sites to transform or retention of the existing character of an area?

Connolly: I hope the latter. Infill and increased density is going to happen; many planners - and that is my background - tend to latch onto the 'flavor of the month.' Density and mixed use has been the preference for the last ten years. This doesn't always work for every site. If high density is incorporated, there are other things that must be addressed along with it including transportation, road wear and other services. In areas where the character of an area is desired, the issue of density is tricky.

TCV: Does redevelopment concentrate on the economic vitality of an area or the overall impact of a project?

Connolly: It is both. Economic vitality is one of the basic principles of redevelopment along with the elimination of blight. With that said, pretty much everything the city does should flow from a General Plan that addresses an overall picture including housing, services, retail, the transportation network and everything else that will affect the area. You need to look at the big picture. Development will ultimately lead you to a determination of a vision since the public process demands it. Fremont still has a significant amount of vacant land. Although BART currently ends here, there is no light rail network such as San Jose which links areas of that city and surrounding communities.

TCV: How does a transportation network affect a city?

Connolly: Vehicular transportation limits density or makes it very painful if it happens. City streets such as Stevenson Blvd., which used to be bounded by single family homes, now have many apartment complexes. This has had a significant impact on the roads. If we look at the west side of the 880 freeway, it was designed as an office park. Adding a housing element changes a lot of things even the effect of pets in the area. These may be considered minor to some, but not to all. It will be interesting to see how the updated General Plan addresses these things.

TCV: The General Plan document is the pivotal piece?

Connolly: San Jose had what is considered a pivotal General Plan in 1975. At that time, San Jose was considered a huge suburb - no one mistook it for a city. That document tried to deal with this by addressing what the city would be in the year 2000. This is probably a similar time in Fremont's evolution.

TCV: What is the major issue facing Fremont's development?

Connolly: Whether the city becomes centralized with a downtown or develops multiple points is a big question. Will the baseball village and/or the central business district develop into a center and still retain the historic centers? I believe the historic centers must survive. Almost every city that has lost its downtown or lost the neighborhoods that gave it character is trying to recapture that. Santa Clara and Sunnyvale are examples of cities where they regret the loss of these areas. Fremont has districts such as Niles almost intact physically. In Charleston, S.C. went through this when no one invested in the historic area and then were happy that it wasn't torn down since it is regarded as a model. Obviously, Fremont will pursue big opportunities, but I hope not to the exclusion of areas that can define the community.

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