Downtown Ghost Town
Seaside’s much-needed redevelopment project has planners dreaming big.
Thursday, October 11, 2007
REGGIE JACKSON doesn’t have time to chat – he’s off to chase the Yankees through the postseason. Besides, he says, he doesn’t want to be the public face of his planned hotel in downtown Seaside. He’s got a team stacked with experts for that. “I might be the point person, but I can’t play backstop and third and everything else,” he says by phone. “I don’t have enough to say to make any sense to you.”
Maybe so. But c’mon: The Major League Baseball Hall of Famer hit almost 570 home runs and helped win five World Series titles in his 21-year career. He was clutch enough when it mattered most for the Oakland Athletics and the New York Yankees that he earned the ultimate honor, the nickname “Mr. October” – and inspired many to forget the fact that he set the record for career strikeouts with nearly 2,600, many as breathtaking as his homeruns.
Even two decades after the end of his baseball career, Jackson’s character is the focus of a new ESPN miniseries about the Yankees’ heyday, >>The Bronx Is Burning. Baseball fanatics salivate at the mention of his name.
Jackson made a cameo in the news in 2000, when he got three years’ probation for manhandling his former business partner. Though city leaders insist he’s just another property owner, his fame catapults his newest project into the headlines.
A Carmel resident for 30 years, 61-year-old Jackson has dabbled in local entrepreneurship. He used to own Gold’s Gym in Seaside, before it became Diesel Fitness. He currently owns the building leased by Blackthorne Pools & Spa, and the warehouse full of cars behind it, at the intersection of Canyon Del Rey and Del Monte boulevards. Jackson’s proposed 250-room hotel and conference center would use this space and then some, filling almost 6 acres of prime downtown real estate.
The project is the first within Seaside’s downtown redevelopment area to get the City Council’s green light. Regardless of Jackson’s star status, city planners view his hotel as the catalyst for a downtown rebirth that they hope will turn Seaside into a destination for the rich and famous – as well as common businesspeople, golfers and vacationing families.
Judging by the looks of Seaside today, that’s a task more daunting than batting with the bases loaded and two outs in the bottom of the ninth. It’ll take an all-star team. And it doesn’t hurt to have Mr. October.
DOWN WEST BROADWAY AVENUE toward Del Monte Boulevard, a string of one-story buildings, some of them vacant, others kind of obscure, line the street. They offer furniture, appliances, window glass, frames and upholstery. Visitors to the district can wash their cars, dry clothes, work out and learn karate. La Villa, the taqueria whose fresh yellow paint and muraled facade make it stand out like a daffodil among weeds, trafficks in chile rellenos and tacos. A spice rack can be had at Goodwill across the street; a bottle of beer can be slugged at Cuz’s Sportsman’s Club while watching the now Yankee-less American League Playoffs.
But the reality is, few frequent this part of town. And it’s hard to imagine that families or college students – much less tourists – would either. On a recent afternoon, more than 40 cars spanning four lanes zoom past over the course of a few minutes before any pedestrians appear: a young couple leaving the frame store, a dark-haired man stepping out of the auto paint shop to smoke, a teenager walking his bike along the sidewalk.
At the intersection with Del Monte, the density of cars quadruples. Ichi Riki, a sushi joint, lies straight ahead. To the left, along the contours of the Urban Village project, lurk businesses that go easily overlooked. Set back from the road in drab facades, they meekly offer insurance, flowers, Chinese food and manicures. Yatzeche Restaurant and Del Rey Café flank a block-long building, vacant for more than a decade but still signed as Seaside Market.
The intersection with Canyon Del Rey Boulevard, near the Highway 1 exit, is many visitors’ first impression of Seaside: in the north corner, Starbucks and McDonald’s. To the west, the bike path. To the south, the big pink shoebox that is Embassy Suites. And to the east, set behind the city’s landscaped right-of-way, is Skip’s Auto and Blackthorne Pools & Spas. This is where Jackson’s hotel would go.
Up Canyon Del Rey and on the right, Laguna Grande Park provides a welcome stretch of water and open space. Families hold birthday parties here, complete with clowns, bounce-houses and mariachi music. To the left stretches a chain of houses – some of them charming, some in disrepair – and then City Hall.
This is the spine of what city planners call “the Urban Village” redevelopment project, a sweeping plan to revitalize Seaside’s downtown core. In planners’ jargon, it’s the transformation of a strip commercial zone into community and regional commercial zones. In plainspeak, the goal is for the revamped downtown to convey those subliminal canine commands that good tourist attractions have mastered: “Come. Sit. Stay.”
Seaside has assets to flaunt. It’s got the dunes and the sea – though the highway presents a formidable obstacle to getting there. It’s the sunniest city on the Peninsula, and 60 percent of its land enjoys good views.
Seaside has more ethnic diversity than Monterey, Pacific Grove or Carmel. With CSUMB and Monterey College of Law, it fills an educational niche on the Peninsula. It also has a rich military history that, though it left behind a Superfund site roughly the size of San Francisco, could be used as a selling point if it’s marketed well.
FORT ORD DEFINED SEASIDE for most of its early existence, explains Jill Anderson, sitting at an office table piled with maps and files. As assistant city manager, Anderson is the city’s most enthusiastic cheerleader – but she doesn’t pull any punches as she outlines the task of revitalization. The military base’s closure in the early 1990s pulled the economic rug out from under the city, she says. Left without a defined identity, Seaside became something of an orphan.
Luckily for the city, Fort Ord left a will after its death. The Army bequeathed developable chunks of the base to the county and four neighboring cities, including land on CSUMB. About 1,500 Fort Ord acres have already been shifted into Seaside, and more transfers are in the works. Eventually, the city will gain almost 3,100 acres.
Now, city leaders view development as Seaside’s paved path to recovery. That means some homebuilding – but water is a limiting factor, and every new project adds to the burden on city services. Anderson is quick to note that property taxes alone won’t cover that cost. The city needs a fresh face, she says, a tourist base and thriving businesses to stand on its own.
Though Anderson would never describe it in these terms, there’s a sense that, on a bay of world-renowned beauty, Seaside is kind of like the dorky youngest daughter with hot older sisters – always passed up for attention. Monterey, after all, was the first capital of California. It has the double advantage of name recognition and that tourist magnet, the Monterey Bay Aquarium. Carmel pulls in visitors with its famed poodle salons and sunsets, places for romance and pampering. Pebble Beach has cornered the market in $450 green fees and $9 scenic drives. Those places have the tourist dollars, the hotel taxes. But they don’t have what Seaside does: Thousands of acres of land to build on.
“Monterey has history,” Anderson says tactfully, hands folded on her crossed knee. “We’re really about the future.”
Seaside’s redevelopment provides the city with opportunities that must be turning its more popular neighbors a little green. Aside from Monterey’s 110 acres of Fort Ord acquisitions, the touristy cities are virtually “built out”; that is, there’s not significant space or water for new developments.
Seaside, on the other hand, has two major chunks of land slated for building: the huge parcels transferred from Fort Ord, and the Merged Project Redevelopment Area of 527 acres – created by the city’s 1996 consolidation of seven fixer-upper zones within Seaside proper.
Anderson explains that, while the terms “development” and “redevelopment” are often used interchangeably, “redevelopment” legally applies to areas that meet the standards of “blight” under state law. In other words, it’s the process of making undervalued areas pretty and popular.
An example of what the City has in mind is the new City Center shopping complex at the corner of Fremont and Broadway. Although not technically a part of the Urban Village project, it caps the eastern edge of the downtown revitalization effort. Freshly constructed and gleaming, the center is edging toward its thrice-delayed grand opening, now scheduled for early 2008. The first three businesses to open their doors: Starbucks, FedEx Kinko’s and Washington Mutual. Unique? Not so much. But city leaders say the businesses will serve local needs and draw more people toward the new downtown.
While the Urban Village is meant to be low-key, Fort Ord is leaning toward plush. For the Main Gate Retail Center on Lightfighter Drive, planners envision a high-end shopping destination not unlike Carmel Plaza or San Jose’s Santana Row, with designer boutiques and high-end department stores such as Bloomingdale’s and Nordstrom’s. Other Fort Ord projects include a four-star resort on the new Bayonet and Black Horse golf courses, a headquarters for the Monterey Bay Blues Festival and a town home development across from the Seaside Highlands neighborhood (see sidebar, pg. 29).
But once all this land is redeveloped, Seaside will be in the same boat as its neighbors: built out, and generally stuck with whatever’s gone up. So city leaders know they better do this right.
THE KEY WORD in Seaside’s redevelopment push is “vision.” That could mean dreaming, scheming, promising, delivering, disappointing – but at this point, the city’s about a year away from adopting a final plan for downtown. In the meantime, planners are working to reconcile city leaders’ vision with citizens’. It’s a mixed bag.
At a Sept. 24 community workshop on the Urban Village, staffers with the city’s lead consulting firm, Berkeley-based Design, Community & Environment (DCE), lay out their task. About 70 people – city and county staff, residents and business owners perched on folding chairs in an Embassy Suites conference room – listen attentively.
DCE Principal David Early introduces the Urban Village Project, which encompasses an area that, on a map, looks strangely like an Uzi. The barrel includes Broadway and Palm avenues west of Fremont Boulevard to Del Monte Boulevard. The trigger is the westernmost blocks of Elm and Amador avenues, and the dangling clip is a strip of parcels along Canyon Del Rey Boulevard.
In the poetry of civic planning, the Urban Village represents what’s called a Specific Plan – a more detailed arm of the city’s 2004 General Plan, which lays out the city’s long-term development goals.
Those include: achieving a 3:2 jobs-to-housing ratio so that more people who work here live here, and vice versa; developing diverse business districts to attract more visitors and serve locals; revitalizing vacant and underutilized parcels; and most importantly, establishing a clear community identity within the region’s natural setting so that people will want to come here.
The General Plan also instructs staff to implement a Broadway Avenue Improvement Project, to be largely funded by state and federal grants, which will transform the city’s main drag into a thriving place that draws both residents and visitors – preferably out of their cars. The 2002 Broadway Avenue Improvement Plan describes the vision as a “rebirth of West Broadway as downtown Seaside,” a “pedestrian-oriented environment… that compels you to walk to the next window and look in.”
That means upgrades to the streets, meridians and sidewalks. It also means multi-family housing in mixed-use buildings, with apartments and condominiums above street-level retail and commercial offices. Developers who build to those specifications will be offered a bouquet of incentives, including reduced parking requirements, water allocations for affordable units, density bonuses and tax credits.
The Urban Village segment covering parts of Amador and Canyon Del Rey are slated for regional commercial development aimed at turning Seaside into a hospitality center like Monterey. A cluster of hotels within walking distance of Broadway, including Jackson’s proposed hotel, would ideally draw more visitors to the downtown core.
More hotels would also boost city coffers via the transient occupancy tax (TOT) that all hotel guests pay for the privilege of visiting. TOT is the lifeblood of Carmel-by-the-Sea and also generates a significant chunk of Monterey’s general fund income. Now, Seaside wants a piece.
Finally, the General Plan instructs the City to create an 18-member advisory committee and host public workshops to guide and inspire the Urban Village planning process. The DCE presentation at Embassy Suites is the first of at least three that will occur over the next nine to 12 months; the City Council will vote on a final Urban Village Specific Plan in fall 2008.
DURING THEIR PRESENTATION at Embassy Suites, the consultants toss out some ideas: narrowing Broadway’s four lanes to two to slow traffic. Widening sidewalks so that restaurants can offer outdoor dining. Adding plants, trees, vegetated meridians and maybe a plaza. Putting in small, niche retail shops in multi-story buildings with housing on top – hopefully some of it affordable, offering views of Monterey Bay. Building museums, movie theaters, a performing arts center. Installing lighting, green spaces, public art and banners to remind visitors that they are in the unique city of Seaside.
The planners emphasize that, for a downtown to really thrive, there has to be a critical mass of people milling around on foot. The planned bus rapid transit hub near Broadway and Del Monte, coupled with careful city planning, can help. So can the bundle of hotels a few blocks away. The idea is to promote walking and biking instead of driving. But that will only happen if people perceive downtown to be clean and safe, planners say, so ample streetlights and cops are critical.
All the talk of dramatic change makes some members of the audience uncomfortable. Lawrence Samuels worries that the Redevelopment Agency (which is the City Council in another hat) will use its power of eminent domain. “This is what happens when you have a program like this,” he says. “They come in there with fancy ideas and candy-coated propositions, then lo and behold, they start taking your home away, or your business away.”
Planners can’t promise that won’t happen. Reggie Jackson’s 5.7-acre hotel project alone will oust 17 homes, four businesses and a church. Even if they’re not forced out by condemnation, small businesses might be pushed out by increased rent, notes Carlos Ramos of the Seaside Merchants Association and the Monterey chapter of League of United Latin American Citizens. Many of the businesses in the redevelopment area are owned by Latinos and other minority groups who may not be able to afford a big rent hike, he says. “What will be the projected displacement factor of those small businesses once the project gets underway?”
Another audience member, Michael Swanson, digs in his heels for the status quo. “I >>like our small town,” he says emphatically. “I don’t want to see three-story buildings on Broadway.”
Michael Cabaluna, on the other hand, welcomes the vision for downtown revitalization. “There’s really no reason for me to go down to Broadway unless I need a frame or heating element or something,” he says. “And when you go down there on a Sunday… it’s a ghost town. There’s nothing going on.”
Most of the other people who comment agree, emphasizing the things they’d like to see: a plaza and more trees; venues for poetry, dance and the arts; a community center; angled parking; affordable and workforce housing; benches, landscaped sidewalks, parks.
Chris Fitz, executive director of development watchdog LandWatch, also attends the workshop. The group enthusiastically supports Seaside’s plan for downtown redevelopment, he explains later, because infill is the way to go environmentally and socially. “What Seaside is trying to do is definitely smart growth,” he says. “We’re hopeful that this is the beginning of a new public process.”
Seaside’s revitalization sounds like a new urbanist’s dream: reasonably priced, energy-efficient homes built close to new jobs; shopping and entertainment; more pedestrians and bicyclists; less cars; and a downtown environment that builds community.
But long-term Seaside residents have reason to be skeptical. They were disappointed by broken promises of affordable housing with the city’s most recently completed residential development, Seaside Highlands. And despite entreaties to support local businesses, planners have ushered in the cookie-cutter chain stores and fast food restaurants that line Fremont and Canyon Del Rey.
But city leaders insist that this time, things will be different.
SEASIDE’S URBAN VILLAGE is the brainchild of City Manager Ray Corpuz, who in 2003 came to Seaside after 13 years as the city manager of Tacoma, Wash.
When he began as Tacoma’s city manager, Corpuz had to deal with a downtown that needed as much help as Seaside’s. A mall killed Tacoma’s downtown retail – making the property values drop, driving out tenants and shoppers, and attracting crime in their place. In the 1990s, Corpuz focused on what he calls the “three-legged stool” for downtown revitalization: quality of life, public safety and economic development.
Under Corpuz’s guidance the city redeveloped the waterfront, attracted three museums designed by star architects, built housing and initiated a community-based crime prevention program. The University of Washington even opened a downtown Tacoma branch, which Corpuz’s daughter attended. Now, he says proudly, “it looks like a real downtown.”
Four years ago, the Tacoma City Council terminated Corpuz for not exercising due diligence in hiring a police chief who, after raising a number of red flags, killed his wife and then himself. The victim’s family sued, the City settled, and the council gave its city manager the boot.
Despite his bumpy departure, Corpuz leaves a thriving downtown as his legacy in Tacoma, according to current Mayor Bill Baarsma. “There was a time 15 years ago when someone could fire a cannon down the street and the only thing you’d hit was pigeons,” Baarsma says. Now, “the city’s really on a roll. [Corpuz] was a key player. He understood how the process worked, and he was what I call a superb facilitator with established levels of trust with the business community and the state and federal government.”
When talking about Seaside, Corpuz describes planning in terms of nodes, or street blocks set aside for business themes – for example, high-end office space next to an office supply retail store. Local and regional businesses are preferred, he says, but “you can’t always fill local needs with local vendors.”
With Starbucks just outside both ends of the Urban Village, it seems likely that corporate franchises will be part of downtown revitalization. Still, Corpuz says, planners won’t be inviting Target or Wal-Mart into downtown Seaside. “We’re not interested in any big box,” he says. “Everybody has those around us. Why would we want to put another one in?”
Under Corpuz’s guidance, the Redevelopment Agency has allocated millions of dollars in contracts to development consultants. That might seem exorbitant for a city that’s asking its residents to approve a sales tax to plug holes in its general fund. But Corpuz explains that redevelopment funds are separate from the general fund, which pays for city services. The former come exclusively from developers in the form of fees, taxes, and agreed-upon payments.
Corpuz can’t say exactly what Seaside will look like in 10 years, but he’s confident that it will be a “new-edge city,” a major tourist destination alongside Monterey and Carmel. Oh, and there will be plenty of golf – an upgrade to the Bayonet and Black Horse courses is already in the works on Fort Ord.
Corpuz sees Seaside not just as a city with golfing greens, but also as a green city. Monterey and Pacific Grove are bounds ahead in terms of adopting ordinances to mandate green practices, but Corpuz contends that Seaside is at least as environmentally progressive. Mixed-use development is inherently energy efficient, he notes, and with a bus rapid transit hub planned nearby, the hope is that soon more people will be walking than driving. He also envisions LEED-certified city buildings, hybrid cars in the city’s fleet, and landscaped sidewalk stormwater catchments. “We’re gonna try to do as much green work as possible,” he says.
Considering the loftier concept of “downtown,” the city manager gets transcendent. “There is a soul and a heart of the city someplace,” he says. “You find it, and you build upon that tradition and emotion.”
RALPH RUBIO sits on a stool at Acme Coffee Co. in a white button-up and shades, while the tattooed employees bustle irreverently behind the counter. “Resist Corporate Coffee,” scream the black block letters painted on the white warehouse wall. And yet here’s the Seaside mayor, at ease in creased trousers at the anarchist caffeine dealer, while the city installs its second Starbucks up the street.
Of course Rubio’s comfy; he grew up here. We grab our joe-to-go and take a stroll around the neighborhood sandwiched between west Broadway and Canyon Del Rey. He walks past churches, humble houses, kids playing on a fenced-in brown yard. Most of this area is within the Urban Village footprint and slated for redevelopment – in other words, vulnerable to condemnation – but Rubio emphasizes that many of these buildings might stay where they are. “It may seem like Seaside’s really busting at the seams, but it’s all well-considered and out in the public,” he says. “There’s a chance for people to talk about it.”
The mayor’s enthusiasm for a Seaside renaissance seems genuine. Jobs are paramount for the union man; so is diversity. Like a growing percentage of the city’s population, he is Hispanic, but his family was also here when Seaside had a vibrant African-American population, and he stresses multiculturalism as a centerpiece of the city’s identity.
He periodically checks his cell phone for a call from his son, whose wife is due to give birth. That, he says, is why he does what he does: to make Seaside a place where his grandchildren will want to stay.
“I’m talking about the quality of life, which relates to job opportunities,” he says. “I’m talking about a place that has walkable community parks and all the amenities that we expect in a modern city.”
Rubio has other interests as well. His biggest mayoral campaign contributions have been from contractors’ unions and developers – including two Arizona-based investors behind the Seaside Resort project on Fort Ord. “There are some dollars I got from developers, but also from individuals,” Rubio says. “When I’m out raising funds, I look for people who support the ideas that I have for the city.”
Standing at the junction of Amador Avenue and Imperial Street, Rubio points to the area where Jackson’s hotel will go. “Mr. Jackson has celebrity status in the baseball world, but he’s a businessman, and we deal with him as a businessman,” he says. “It’s a strictly business deal.”
EVEN IF CITY STAFF treat Jackson’s plan just like any other, Seaside could use a little celebrity draw. Internal e-mails hint that planners know this. In message to real estate attorney Jeff Stoke, Redevelopment Services Manager Sara Isgur theorized, “A Hard Rock Hotel could complement Jackson’s vision.”
Seated in her cramped office, Isgur is quick to point out that Jackson himself is only the property owner, not the developer of his hotel proposal. “The property owners are not the ones who get the limelight,” she says. “It’s the developers.”
But most developers don’t have name recognition like Reggie Jackson. Isgur admits that Mr. October’s star status could make acquisitions of properties within the project’s footprint harder. “If there’s a celebrity, sometimes the prices go up,” she says.
Jackson or no Jackson, the planned hotel is symbolic. It’s the first approved project within the Urban Village, intended to kick-start the redevelopment of the whole area. “If it wasn’t Mr. Jackson, we’d be encouraging somebody else,” Isgur says. “We want our catalyst project.”
As if to underscore her point, Boston Red Sox hitter Manny Ramirez gets ready to smash a homer into Isgur’s office from his framed perch on the wall. Isgur admits that she’s a huge Sox fan. The Sox, of course, are the Yankees’ bitter rivals, and Isgur’s allegiance could chafe at Jackson.
“Don’t tell him!” she pleads with a laugh.
The City Center and Jackson’s hotel bookend the Urban Village project; now, city planners aim to fill in the middle. The hope, Isgur says, is to keep residents from scuttling off to the big box stores in Sand City and Marina, or the mall in Monterey. “Right now Seaside bleeds,” she says. “We have a huge leakage of retail sales. People who live here don’t shop here.”
Ditto for young people looking for a good time. “There’s no place to go in Seaside on a Friday night,” Isgur admits. “We don’t want the students at CSUMB to drive through Seaside to get to Monterey to find a nightlife.”
She smiles as if it kills her. “Our goal is to create a real downtown for Seaside,” she says. “Seaside needs to have a reason to be.”
THE NEXT DOWNTOWN COMMUNITY WORKSHOP IS OCT. 12, 4-9PM, AT THE SEASIDE SPARKLES CITY BIRTHDAY BASH, CITY HALL, 440 HARCOURT AVE. RESIDENTS ARE INVITED TO DRAW THEIR IDEAS FOR THE URBAN VILLAGE ON A MAP.