Stalling in Seaside
Seaside Slump: not even Obama can fix downtown
Thursday, July 7, 2011
Four years ago, Seaside was buzzing with ambitious plans to reinvent its sluggish downtown corridor. At the heart of the project: lower Broadway Avenue, a wide and rather lonely stretch occupied by niche shops, industrial parts suppliers and a couple of gritty bars.
Today, Broadway bears the dual moniker of Obama Way, and a few more tenants have moved into the City Center complex on the corner of Fremont Boulevard (though the planned Fresh & Easy grocery store never materialized). Other than that, not much has changed.
“We’ve never had a real downtown,” City Manager Ray Corpuz concedes.
The city’s West Broadway Urban Village plan re-envisions Broadway as a pedestrian-friendly street with sidewalk cafes and bustling retail. Also in the works is a regional light rail track, which would include a Seaside station on Del Monte Boulevard near Contra Costa Street.
Boosted by a $945,000 grant from the U.S. Economic Development Administration, consultants are now working on infrastructure design plans that would narrow Broadway’s four lanes to two, widen the sidewalks and generally make the street prettier. The designs are scheduled to be finished by summer 2012. A new library with a parking garage and affordable senior housing would anchor the Urban Village on a block that now comprises a corporation yard and several small businesses between Broadway and Olympia Avenue.
But prioritizing is key at a time when the City Council has reduced the budget to core services. In the past three years the city has lost more than 40 positions, many of them in engineering, building and public works. Deputy City Manager Diana Ingersoll says her department is down to only one planner, who’s on vacation.
“We’re in bare bones,” she says. “It slows us down, but we’re moving forward.”
On the up side, tanking property values have lowered commercial rents, and city officials hope to form a downtown business association.
Though Ingersoll doesn’t have the staff resources to provide an up-to-date commercial vacancy rate, she counts six new downtown occupancy permits in the last six months, most of them held by small local businesses.
The Urban Village Specific Plan already has a certified environmental impact report, which lays the groundwork for developers to proceed when they’re ready. “We’ve set the table for them,” Corpuz says.
Mayor Felix Bachofner hopes the Urban Village plan will inspire private property owners to make improvements. But he worries the recent state move to eliminate local redevelopment agencies could dampen progress. “That’s going to be tested in the courts, and there’s no telling what the ultimate result will be,” he says.
Meanwhile, Seaside businesses remain only loosely organized. The Seaside-Sand City Chamber of Commerce hasn’t quite recovered from its brush with bankruptcy in early 2008. A re-try in 2009 breathed new life into the organization, but infighting over the branding vision, a distant relationship with City Hall and financial troubles have prevented it from attaining a strong power position. Since last year’s departure of the executive director, the chamber has had no paid staff.
“Money problems – we got ourselves into a little trouble with that,” Board President Jim Vossen says. “We’ve been regrouping for the past year.”
From the vantage point of the chamber’s office at 505 Broadway, Vossen sees encouraging activity at Goodwill Industries and the newly relocated Video to Go, but he wishes the city would do more to help retailers clean up their facades. And while he’s optimistic about the Urban Village, he sees the loss of the Chevrolet dealership and tapped-out city coffers as high hurdles to clear.
“The way the economy is, it’s a little hard,” he says. “People drive down Broadway right now, and they see the bumps in the road. The city has 10 places they need to put one dollar. It’s tough out there.”