Editorial: Fruitvale is a Lesson for Ashby, By: Becky O'Malley

Friday January 06, 2006

Once in a while the New Times chain allows a good article which doesn’t follow the company line of cowboy libertarianism to slip past the editors of one of its magazines. The latest East Bay Express has a piece that’s well worth a read, even though it could have benefited from the services of a fact-checker in spots. Writer Eliza Strickland has capably documented the sad fate of the much-publicized Fruitvale Transit Village, where not much in the way of retail commerce has managed to take root, despite attractive design and millions of dollars in government subsidy. It should be a lesson to everyone who has hallelujah’d for the gospel of smart growth, one of whose tenets is that we can bring back the apartments-cum-retail design that worked pretty well in the streetcar suburbs at the turn of the 20th century. 

Strickland paints a dismal picture of the fate of the pioneering Fruitvale retail merchants who were lured to the BART station site by the promise of thousands of commuters patronizing their establishments. Her feel-good finale is that perhaps when there are many more new apartments built and perhaps a few of the footpaths are changed the retail scene at the Fruitvale Transit Village will improve. But anyone who looks around Berkeley can’t help but notice that the era of ground floor retail under apartments might have come and gone. A high percentage of the obligatory new retail spaces in Berkeley’s big box soon-to-be-condo buildings have ‘for rent’ signs these days. Retail is a tough way to make a living, and it’s deeply unrealistic to expect small businesses to take unnecessary risks in new buildings tenanted mainly by groups of pizza-eating students, unless of course what you’re selling is pizza.  

The comfortable older retail zones of Elmwood, Rockridge, Solano and Piedmont Avenue in Oakland seem pretty prosperous, on the other hand, with most storefronts filled, which might have something to do with their 1920s one-, two- or three-story romantic architecture. Older architecture offers high ceilings and charming shop-windows which frame the merchandise attractively; lower buildings mean more sunlight on the sidewalk. (Let’s not even talk about the planners’ obscene practice of permitting the upper stories of tall new buildings to hang out over the sidewalk, depriving first floor shops and pedestrian shoppers of light and air.)  

Another problem with new retail spaces is that they’re customarily leased “raw,” and the first tenant has to come up with the cost of finishing them, which can be prohibitive. Anna DeLeon’s struggles to fit out her “Jazz Island” club at a reasonable cost in a reasonable time are typical.  

A veteran Berkeley commercial real estate agent, who owns a number of vintage buildings, also points out that retail tenants must be carefully selected to complement housing tenants. A dry-cleaner downstairs is not the best neighbor, while a café might be.  

The apartments have to be nice, too. Early in the 20th century, upstairs tenants were likely to be proprietors of the shops below, and the apartments were designed to be attractive homes for them. The turn-of-the-century building at the corner of Ashby and College which is being handsomely rehabbed has fine apartments upstairs which have always been full, with a succession of neighborhood-serving retail shops below.  

One claim in the Express article that’s wrong, or at least we hope it is, is the assertion that a similar transit village plan has already been approved for the Ashby BART station. As Daily Planet readers know, that plan is supposedly still in germination. Unless, of course, it has already been approved somewhere behind the scenes and the public process now being contemplated by the Berkeley City Council is a complete and total sham, but we’re not quite that cynical—yet. It’s probably a mistake by the writer or editor. 

It would be a tragic error to allow the Berkeley Flea Market, home to generations of successful minority entrepreneurs, to be displaced and perhaps destroyed, along with the night-time parking which is now allowing the Ashby Stage and other arts institutions to flourish, in order to create another unsuccessful transit village with empty storefronts in expensive buildings. As citizens, we could close our eyes and pray that some sort of Intelligent Design really exists in the planning universe and that the self-appointed developers of the Ashby BART parking lot have access to it, or we could insist that the city of Berkeley enter into an open discussion of any plans with full public disclosure and participation. The principal argument for an open public planning process (one more time) is that it’s the best way to avoid making awful mistakes.