With almost every good intention, there are a bevy of unintended, but associated consequences. Plans for the future are riddled with contradictions and unknown factors that are often clear in hindsight, but unremarkable at the moment. A crisis of the present has a tendency to overwhelm systematic considerations pointing to impending complications. Future plans for our cities are often embroiled in paradoxical conundrums.
The popular “mixed use development” terminology of city planners has been a vague and, at times, misleading nomenclature that can translate to almost any level of retail activity associated with a housing project – including minimal square footage that accommodates moderate or little, if any, viable retail space. Developers, even nonprofit organizations using tax credits and public monies, are in business to at least cover costs including materials, salaries, overhead and contingencies, if not realize a tidy profit. In a market and political atmosphere that strongly supports housing, retail space is not a top priority. State and regional directives have emphasized the importance of additional housing; therefore, a nod to a favorite of planners – mixed use that combines both elements – will heavily favor and tilt toward residential development.
When existing retail infrastructure is faced with the encroachment of housing projects, a central question is whether one element will diminish or erase the other. Will it result in the detriment of lifestyles and economics of the present, sacrificed for an ultimate vision for the future? If a proposed housing development will replace or endanger existing retail establishments, is there a remedy to resulting damage of infrastructure? After all, infrastructure includes not only pipelines, utilities and roadways, but also physical structures (and the businesses within) that propel an economy. What happens if physical infrastructure collapses due to an imbalance propagated by a lopsided political climate? Should current circumstances be ignored in our haste to profit from and promulgate a preferred vision of the future?
An example of this rush toward infrastructure reorganization is the proposed Bayrock Apartments development in Fremont. According to businesses at adjacent Gaslight Square, it will have an adverse effect on their customers who have enjoyed shared parking with Fremont Bank property that will be replaced by a five-story “mixed use” building of 248 market-rate apartments and 4,625 square-feet of commercial space wrapped around a six-story parking garage. Although shared parking is a city tenet of the downtown area and has been in place between these properties for decades, Bayrock wants nothing to do with this previous arrangement. To add to the difficulty to resolve this conflict, California’s Housing Accountability Act restricts the City’s ability to impose conditions that reduce density of the project.
Tenants at Gaslight Square are worried that elimination of overflow parking will discourage patrons of their restaurants who, finding no available parking, will look elsewhere to spend their time and money. These are small businesses – Bill’s Café, Munchner Haus, Falafal, Etc., Cherry Garden – that depend on their unique offerings and current customers in addition to attracting new customers. The question that hangs over this development is not whether it can be successful by providing additional housing, but rather if the price of approval spells doom for small, established retail businesses that my eventually disappear… to reappear as additional housing.
Imagining a world of bicyclists and pedestrians with all services in close proximity to housing and without the need for privately owned automobiles is a utopian vision. We aren’t there yet… and may reach a different reality before coming close. Without a practical look at the goal of mixed-use development, we may be causing irreparable harm to the viability of our small businesses… its a mixed message.