Metro Desk

Changes at El Cerrito Plaza mirror changes in the city's Main Street image.

Sweet Home El Cerrito

El Cerrito’s San Pablo Avenue is charming, at least by my standards, possibly because it reminds me so much of my childhood spent along the corridors of Los Angeles. The wide, sleepy streets lined with improbable mom-and-pop shops and the occasional strip mall instantly transport me back to the streets of Redondo Beach or Hawthorne, if I ignore the fir trees. But apparently this lazy, down-home feel just doesn’t cut it anymore. El Cerrito leaders have decided that the city is overdue for an image boost, and they’ve hired a marketing firm to help them do it.

The city-commissioned marketing study found that El Cerrito needs to tap into the office-space market and could use a boost in the retail sector as well. But that’s tough for a city that’s always a pass-through, never a destination. El Cerrito is a “bedroom community,” and when would-be businesses or offices look to the Bay Area, they look to Emeryville with its permissive zoning, or Richmond with its wide, cheap expanses of land. El Cerrito doesn’t even figure into the equation.

One way to get El Cerrito back on the map, the marketers figured, is to pick up where the city’s redevelopment agency left off. That’s because the agency is on forced permanent vacation, even though it was once successful in attracting big projects to El Cerrito. The agency is responsible for such cash cows as Target and Del Norte Place, a mixed-use housing and retail development that boasts an upscale Italian restaurant and the offices of Contra Costa Supervisor John Gioia. But the agency was also responsible for around one million dollars of debt to the city–not a small chunk of change for a municipality with a budget of only $17 million annually. The debt, coupled with some disagreement over the value of the projects that the redevelopment agency chose to support, led to the abrupt end of the department two years ago–its funds were cut off, its director dismissed. Redevelopment has not kept its pace since then.

The debt has slowly been paid down and the city plans to hire an economic development director to take the helm next month. But a redevelopment agency often focuses on larger projects, which could mean that smaller businesses, the kind that now define El Cerrito, might fall by the wayside. That worries Marge Collins, Chamber of Commerce president, one-time mayor, and forty-year resident of El Cerrito. Those little businesses–the yogurt stores and the hobby shops that I find so appealing–are “just hanging on,” Collins says. Her goal is to keep existing businesses comfortable in El Cerrito, especially the ones along San Pablo Avenue, while finding ways to otherwise update the town’s image. “We call that Main Street,” she says of San Pablo, and I thought she was just illustrating her down-home point until I accidentally called it “San Pablo Avenue” again. “Main Street,” she firmly corrected me, and went on.

Collins is placing her hopes for revitalization on the city’s plans for a Web site, a video promoting El Cerrito as a business destination, and the gradual change in the city’s demographic (right now the majority of the town is made up of older homeowners who have aged right along with San Pablo Avenue, and population growth lags behind other East Bay cities).

Out with the Old,in with the New
But the pattern at El Cerrito Plaza is less than reassuring for El Cerrito’s Main Street image. The plaza, which has undergone its own tribulations over the years, is getting a facelift and giving out evictions. Once, the plaza was so run-down that the city was considering taking it over through eminent domain, which amounts to a forced buy-out. But the plaza was instead sold to Regency Centers, which is now bulldozing its way toward making El Cerrito Plaza a retail hotbed.

Trouble is, they didn’t make any provision for some of the small shops that have made the plaza their home for years. Rents at the plaza are going to go up, and residents fear they’ll be replaced by larger stores like Ross or Bed, Bath and Beyond. Lillian Leung has owned Beadazzled for fourteen years, but the store has been at the plaza for thirty. Her lease is not being renewed and she must vacate the premises by May 15. “I was disappointed at first,” Leung says of receiving the notice. “We went through all the slow times, and when the plaza was almost finished building, we were all thinking, ‘What a good location, a better opportunity to improve.'” But when she tried to contact Regency to discuss the future, she says her phone calls and letters weren’t returned. “I was thinking, well, in that case, maybe it’s time for us to leave,” Leung says. Luckily, she’s found another storefront–twenty miles away, in Lafayette.

“It’s hard on the individual stores,” says Tom Engberg, vice president in charge of investment with Regency. “We’re talking about people’s livelihoods, their lives. Frankly, for me personally it’s a very hard part to deal with.” But since Regency’s business plan supersedes whatever feelings their vice presidents may have in their hearts, the rents have shot up and the small businesses that until now have filled the plaza are looking elsewhere. According to Engberg, no business owner was ever served with an eviction notice–in so many words. “We didn’t kick them out,” Engberg says, “unless someone thinks that offering a rent that you can’t afford is tantamount to kicking someone out.”

Anytown, USA
El Cerrito City Councilmember Mark Friedman, who is also chair of the redevelopment agency (a symbolic role since by law, a city cannot fully disband its redevelopment agency), says that moves like the plaza’s against its tenants worry him. “I want to bring in the owners of the plaza to explain what their plan is, and why these longtime businesses don’t fit into the plan,” he says. “Since it’s not a redevelopment project, we don’t have any authority over them, but I want to put them on the spot.” Although large retail stores do bring in much needed revenue to the town, they come, Friedman says, at the expense of El Cerrito’s character.

“If you drive down San Pablo you don’t know if you’re in Albany or El Cerrito–it’s like you have a Walgreens on every other block,” he says. “If it were up to me, we would use redevelopment to nurture local, homegrown businesses that could give El Cerrito more of an identity. It’s a tremendous loss to think that we can only shop at Target and Walgreens and Blockbuster.”

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