Ambitious plans to re-imagine Alvarado Street meet up with hometown democracy.
Thursday, April 8, 2010
Architect Henry Ruhnke has a big dream for downtown Monterey. If it comes true, Alvarado Street will rival San Luis Obispo’s main drag or Santa Barbara’s State Street as a local hotspot where crowds converge for shopping, concerts, partying – or just to see and be seen.
“It’s always frustrated me that we couldn’t have that kind of activated downtown,” Ruhnke says.
Ruhnke, a partner at the Garden Road architectural firm Wald Ruhnke and Dost, the county’s largest, lays it all out in a glass enclosed conference room with comfy ergonomically correct chairs and a big plasma TV screen. As the lights go down, a series of slides reveal nothing less than an all-out transformation of the city’s core.
In Ruhnke’s vision, Alvarado is the spine of a renewed downtown Monterey, a vibrant nerve center linking Custom House Plaza and Fisherman’s Wharf at one end with the city’s historic adobes at the other. Trees, flowers, benches and splashes of color invite people to stroll and linger to take in shops, restaurants, and entertainment including both big name national chains and home grown mom-and-pops.
That works in San Luis Obispo, for instance, where Victoria’s Secret co-exists with the one-off Fanny Wrappers. Peet’s whips up cappuccinos, but so do independents, the Koffee Klatsch and Linnea’s.
Add some of the features called for in the city’s own 2005 plan, apartments and condos above the shops filled with people who’d live, work and play downtown. A fresh market, like the one at San Francisco’s Ferry Building, where gourmet food purveyors would offer local products at the water’s edge, is also part of the picture. Think high-end chocolate, fresh roasted coffee, fish from the bay, locally grown flowers and produce, and wine from Monterey County vineyards. A new and expanded conference center designed to bring bigger conventions to town is on the drawing board, as is new life for Custom House Plaza, now largely empty save for the temporarily shuttered Maritime Museum.
Ruhnke would have the plaza come alive with buskers and vendor carts to encourage visitors to explore, and snap photos. The whole enterprise would be branded with a new name, a la San Francisco’s Union Square or San Diego’s Gas Lamp District.
Ruhnke hopes that his prescription for downtown metamorphosis will cure what has ailed Alvarado Street for decades – ever since Del Monte Center eclipsed the city’s fading core in the late 1960s. Downtown was due for a facelift three years ago, but two major fires and the recession conspired to thwart plans for renewal. But now, the stars may be aligned for downtown’s resurgence. Malls are out. So-called outdoor life style centers are in. So, why not right here in downtown Monterey? Now, Ruhnke argues, is Alvarado’s time to thrive.
Wearing a baseball jacket made for fashion, not sport, Ruhnke is a compact 46-year-old Bay Area native who has served on the city’s architectural review board and planning commission, and even made an unsuccessful run for City Council in 2004. But now he says he’s focused on the citizen side of the dais, trying to perk up a tired downtown, and drum up business in the process.
DOWNTOWN MONTEREY IS LIKE THE TALENTED UNDERACHIEVER WHO HAS PARENTS AND TEACHERS WRINGING THEIR HANDS OVER UNTAPPED POTENTIAL.
He’s partnered with development experts Jes Slavik and David Boquillon to not only change the face of downtown Monterey, but to kick his firm’s game up a notch – into the lucrative field of real estate development. The group will make money on the Monterey project, perhaps by acting as developer on some parcels offering its own architectural services on others.
Together, Slavik and Boquillon have been involved in some of the state’s most significant retail projects: Bay Street in Emeryville, the 40-acre planned community Santana Row in San Jose and the Third Street Promenade in Santa Monica.
But they may never have faced the kind of culture clash Ruhnke’s multi-million dollar proposal sets up. The disconnect between Team Ruhnke’s trio of go-go entrepreneurs and a go-slow city government committed to deliberative public process is as big as the project’s price tag.
Ruhnke and his two partners reckon they’ve collectively invested time worth some $200-$300,000 in a year of conceiving, planning and lobbying for the project. Following the direction of city officials, they’ve shopped their program to the presidents of Monterey’s neighborhood associations, the downtown business association, its property owner’s group, the hospitality association, city staffers, and the City Council. Ruhnke notes ruefully that his presentation has been through so many revisions that it’s on version 7.7.
Now, Ruhnke and his team want the go-ahead to move forward as the city’s partner in Monterey’s massive overhaul. The group would be tapped exclusively to make development plans, like a redesign of the city’s Custom House Plaza or the creation of a bigger and better conference center, while the city would make commitments for significant infrastructure changes.
In short, the Ruhnke group proposes a major public private partnership with its team in the lead – a serious relationship. But Monterey city officials, while enamored of Ruhnke’s ideas, seem a little commitment shy.
“I think it has possibilities, visionary possibilities,” City Councilwoman Libby Downey says. But she also says, “I don’t think you can spend money right now.”
Yes, downtown has problems, says Monterey City Manager, Fred Meurer as he nurses an iced tea in the Monterey City Hall courtyard. Just look at the abundance of foot massage establishments, Meurer says. And coupled with that, he might have added, the dearth of foot traffic. “We must have the happiest feet in Monterey County,” he says, pointing out that it appears potential tenants need only a pulse and initial rent money to qualify for a lease downtown. Ruhnke would hire a consultant to draw up a leasing strategy that downtown property owners would agree on.
Is the Ruhnke plan the answer to the problems of the downtown?
“It’s an answer,” Meurer notes.
“It’s the first time in a long time that someone has stepped back and said if I were king, what would Monterey look like?’” he says. But he says big questions remain – questions that kings don’t worry about, but which dog democracies.
“Does the community have the will to work together? Will they allocate the necessary resources?”
Additionally, says Meurer, water or the lack of it often dictates what gets built. The city’s Infiniti dealer, he says, got the nod to sell cars in Monterey because of its low H2O consumption.
While the private sector would shoulder much of the expense for the downtown re-do, Ruhknke’s group wants the city to pony up to change downtown’s one-way streets to two-ways, and revamp its signage and streetscape at a time when resources are stretched thin. The conference center expansion would be a public-private partnership, Ruhnke says, and would likely require a significant outlay of public money.
“IT’S THE FIRST TIME IN A LONG TIME THAT SOMEONE HAS STEPPED BACK AND SAID, “IF I WERE KING, WHAT WOULD MONTEREY LOOK LIKE?”
This year the city faces a nearly $3 million budget shortfall that it will cover, according to Meurer, either by wresting concessions from its workers or laying some of them off.
Still, despite the tough times or perhaps because of the financial squeeze, several Monterey institutions are doing some organizational soul searching and perhaps getting in the mood for change.
Last fall, with tourism down, the Monterey Bay Aquarium released a study that got the attention of civic and hospitality leaders: It showed that visitors show up in town mostly to visit the aquarium, and see little reason to return or extend their stays.
The Monterey County Convention and Visitor’s Bureau is under new management as of this month with John Reyes, Jacksonville, Florida’s top tourism promoter, coming to pick up the slack from an interim director put in place after the previous head suddenly stepped down last fall.
Similarly, the city’s Maritime Museum faced financial collapse and was forced to close temporarily in January while it remakes itself into a more up-to-date teller of the city’s tales. It is set to re-open in 2011.
For the museum, it was change or die; the same holds true for the downtown, say boosters of the Ruhnke plan.
~ ~ ~
Indeed, on a glorious sunny Saturday in March, Fisherman’s Wharf is humming, but you could roll a bowling ball down the sidewalk on Alvarado and have a 50-50 chance of hitting nobody.
Inside Karma, a hip women’s dress shop, the picture is brighter, with a handful of customers browsing and trying on. A girl shopping for a prom dress models a short strapless one in a bold floral print for her mom. Perfect, they agree, and it’s sold. But if owner Brenda Everly waited for shoppers like these to walk in off the street, she wouldn’t stay open long. Instead she shows her clothes at high school fashion shows, and depends on word of mouth for business. One hour parking is an issue, she says. So are narrow sidewalks and drab facades begging for new coats of paint.
The confusing web of one-way streets at the city’s center leave tourists wondering where downtown Monterey is anyway, Ruhnke says. Some visitors exit Highway 1, zip down Del Monte to Cannery Row and think they’ve seen downtown,
“Pretty soon you have your T-shirt and your shot glass and you’re going home. There’s not enough to do here,” he says.
What’s more, the sights the city does have, like its historic adobes, the house where poet Robert Louis Stevenson lived for a time, and Colton Hall, where the California constitution was signed, are hard to track down because of signs that are confusing or nonexistent. A path marked by small yellow disks embedded in the pavement on Alvarado Street leads to some of the city’s historic spots, but downtown observers point out that they’re so subtle that only the most determined devotees of early Californiana are likely to find and follow the historical trail.
Even the Tuesday Farmers Market that lures hundreds of shoppers downtown every week is poorly thought out – at least from the shop owners’ point of view, Everly says. Big produce trucks block storefronts so that passersby miss the chance to browse or even window-shop at Karma.
Everly is excited about the Ruhnke plan, although it seems that with rising rents – a desired outcome of the plan – some small businesses inevitably will be displaced.
It won’t happen right away, says Old Monterey Business Association Director Rick Johnson, dodging a question about winners and losers in a potential downtown revamp. But, right now, his members are upbeat about it, and hungry for any solution that promises relief in a commercial drought.
Alvarado’s hard luck story is written on signs like the one that still hangs at the now-shuttered music venue, Monterey Live “… this property is subject to a bankruptcy proceeding.” It’s apparent in the Sunday church services that stand in for performances by major acts at the Golden State Theatre, and in the giant gap left on the street by the 2007 fire that wiped out 21 local businesses when it swept through one of downtown’s landmarks, the Work building in 2007, and has yet to be filled.
A glimmer of hope shines through in placards that promise Myo Yogurt and an Indian eatery coming soon.
Still, real estate broker Peter Baird of Mahoney and Associates describes a depressed market where downtown property values are dropping because tenants can barely make their rents, and have in some cases convinced landlords to lower them. Vacancy rates on Alvarado look OK on paper, Baird says, perhaps because of the big number of for-sale sites. But, overall, he estimates vacancy rates downtown at 10 to 15 percent.
To hear Ruhnke and his partners talk, downtown Monterey is like the talented underachiever who has parents and teachers wringing their hands over his untapped potential. The city center is blessed with a setting of unparalleled natural beauty just steps from Fisherman’s Wharf, within walking distance of Cannery Row, the Aquarium, and the city’s recreational trail, and surrounded by some of the most significant sites in California history. So why does Monterey’s downtown remain a commercial slacker?
Complacency, Ruhnke says, noting that some owners who have held downtown properties for generations have already made their fortunes and have little motivation to make changes.
Maybe it’s like the living rooms of people who still have big wooden spoons on the wall. “They haven’t noticed that they’ve gone out of style,” Ruhnke says.
~ ~ ~
If building owner and musician Mike Marotta was ever complacent, the feeling passed about a year ago. He and his wife were on the last day of a vacation in London when a fire filled the air with so much smoke and ash that they couldn’t breathe. The two took refuge in their hotel room only to learn that one of Marotta’s own buildings back home had burned; it was the place where Jugem Restaurant dished out sushi and tempura on Alvarado Street for years, and where Marotta and his sister managed properties for nearly three decades. “That building was our life,” he says, ticking off a list of irreplaceable mementos: 12 accordions, a sheet music collection from his grandfather’s era, his dad’s citizen of the year award, and photos of generations of Marottas. But, he says, “We’re fighting back.” Ruhnke is designing both the apartments on the second floor and a proposed restaurant below in Marotta’s building. Marotta has a prospective restaurateur in mind, and says he hopes to agree on a lease this fall.
“I consider us project number one of the Ruhnke plan,” says Marotta, who is one of downtown’s major property owners but doesn’t like to be known as such. “I’m the opposite of Donald Trump,” he says.
Marotta’s family isn’t one of the oldest in town, but the Marottas have invested in real estate since Mike’s Sicilian grandfather first arrived from San Jose via Canada and scrimped and saved to buy his first properties. The family patriarch was a mason who helped build Hearst Castle by day, and like his son and grandson, played music gigs by night. As a child, Marotta remembers visiting him at his home where the Marriott now stands. Marotta still spends a lot of time downtown, starting his day at Plume’s for coffee with a group of guys – some of whom he’s known since childhood, and working at his Franklin Street office. Hometown favorites Rosine’s and Cibo still draw Marotta and his family for meals, but he says there are big issues at the city’s core. “We’ve got to fill the holes downtown.”
A number of other downtown land holders, the descendents of the fishermen and builders who shaped the city, are also enthusiastic about the plan.
But for all of Marotta’s can-do spirit, the project is still just a gleam in Team Ruhnke’s eyes – unless and until the city reaches consensus on it. “The city says this is great, but it just ends there,” Boquillon says. “I’m beside myself.”
For months, Boquillon courted the sort of anchor tenants he envisioned for a revamped Alvarado Street.
“I have retailers in my pocket now,” he says, but they’re waiting for the city to decide if they’ll okay the plan. On a recent weekday, Boquillon met with big chain stores on the fringes of a major shopping center confab – the International Conference of Shopping Centers – that serendipitously has chosen Monterey’s Portola Plaza conference center for its mid-March regional conference.
It’s a complicated dance, with retailers reluctant to be the first to sign up for any new venue. Big names like Abercrombie and Fitch and Barnes and Noble regularly insist on co-tenancy agreements in which they essentially say, I’ll jump in if Old Navy or Forever 21 does.
On this day, Boquillon says he’s held most of his meetings off site, taking care not to alert rival cities or developers to the group’s plans. But he pops in to survey the scene at ICSC, where a conference center meeting room is divided into small exhibition spaces, each hosted by a different developer or commercial real estate broker. The city of Hercules and companies like CBRE have set up tables where men and women are making deals or just schmoozing.
“Next year, I hope to be here,” he says.
Boquillon says a slow economy provides a rare window of opportunity for a small market like Monterey to snag major retailer because, now, with development slowed to a crawl, they have no place to expand, and might consider sparsely populated Monterey. By contrast, Boquillon notes, the city wouldn’t stand a chance when the economy booms again, and new shopping areas pop up like weeds in proven mega-markets like San Francisco or Chicago.
But, two weeks after the shopping center conference, Boquillon says,“I’ve actually kind of stopped moving forward. I’ve done everything I’m going to do until we get a commitment.”
Monterey City Council is set to reconsider its beleaguered downtown in May, after the planning commission makes recommendations on April 27.
Meanwhile, City Manager Meurer isn’t saying whether the Ruhnke plan is the one. But, the city is at a crossroads, he acknowledges. It has realized the dreams of a quarter century ago, the Sports Center, Windows on the Bay Park, San Carlos Beach, and the Recreational Trail, among them. But a vision for the next chapter has yet to materialize.
“What’s the dream of the city for 2010 or 2020?,” Meurer asks. That’s what’s being discussed. It’s an important planning goal. It’s not good enough to stay the same.”
Boquillon and company remain eager. “In my heart of hearts, I hope we’ll get a call,” he says. “We’re very sentimental about Monterey. But if the city doesn’t want our help, we’ll move on.”