Transit: Transit village on move
by Canan Tasci for Contra Costa Times
MONTCLAIR – The city’s ambitious plans to create a transit village between Montclair Plaza and the Montclair TransCenter are finally getting started.
Two developers are signaling their intent to build multiple residential units within the area, indicating not only that the economy is picking up, but that the city’s revitalization project is moving forward.
When it’s built, city officials said, north Montclair will become a place where residents can wake up, walk outside, grab a cup of coffee and catch the train to get to their jobs.
The 150-acre North Montclair Downtown Specific Plan foresees a mixed-use, transit-oriented, downtown district.
“(It) is an attractive plan to the developers because of the quality of projects we’re looking at to be built there, and there is money to be made,” City Manager Edward Starr said.
“(It) is a vital area, not only because it is located next to the (train and bus) transcenter but also because it is near the mall.”
The original plan was adopted by City Council members in 2006 with the objective of introducing urban-style residential projects to begin the process of creating a “downtown” environment with walkable neighborhoods, local retail and service business and convenient access to rail transit, according to a staff report.
The plan was designed by Pasadena-based planning consultants and architects Moule and Polyzoides Architects and Urbanists.
“I think the whole north Montclair project itself is going to change Montclair,” Councilwoman Carolyn Raft said. “It’s not only going to benefit Montclair, it’s going to benefit those who take the Metrolink and walk to the bus station.”
The plan covers an area reaching from Central Avenue on the east, Moreno Street on the south, Mills Avenue on the west and the Pacific Electric Inland Empire Trail on the north.
Development in the plan includes townhouses, condos and apartments, as well as mixed-use buildings, which will have residential homes built in the area or above retail shops. All of it will be within walking distance of the city’s transit station and its connections to Metrolink and Gold Line trains and local buses.
The Downtown Specific Plan is anticipated to be completed with four projects built in 10 to 12 years.
“While we’ve been frustrated with the economy and false starts by a couple of projects, we are at the mercy of the economy and what developers want to develop, but once projects are in the ground, it will generate some excitement,” said Steve Lustro, the city’s community development director.
Councilman John Dutrey said the plan focuses on two concepts – transit and economic vibrancy.
“It’s important to take advantage of the Metrolink and the Gold Line coming in and building a village where we can use the transportation in the area,” he said.
“And it’s important to make that part of Montclair, which is involved with the Montclair Plaza, very strong in terms of economic resources to our city.”
The groundbreaking of the two approved developments in the city’s downtown plan may happen this year or by early 2012.
“The two housing developments are what I’m looking forward to,” Mayor Paul Eaton said.
The first project – approved in May – is a 385-unit residential complex within about 13 acres called The Paseos. The development is slated to be cut at the northeast corner of Monte Vista and Moreno at the former Sam’s Club site.
The Paseos’ design theme will be based on the Santa Barbara architectural style that blends Spanish, Mediterranean and Moorish influences – white stucco surfaces, red tile rooftops and arches and courtyards. And, according to submitted plans, the town houses will have two and three stories.
Merlone Geier Partners are the developers.
The second project, Arrow Station, was approved in December and will be a 129-unit apartment development on a 6.94-acre site at the northeast corner of Arrow Highway and Monte Vista.
Because of its proximity to the transit center, the development’s proposed style is intended to draw upon historical references related to designs typically associated with trains and train stations, according to a staff report.
Hutton Development Co., which is also responsible for building College Park in Upland, just to the northwest of the Montclair community, is the developer for Arrow Station.
“We’re in the market, and we like the market, and we have good data,” said Scott Felix, vice president of Hutton.
He said the potential of the blighted site is what attracted the company to want to develop.
Lustro said some people prefer these developments because of the advantages they offer over traditional homes.
“There are people out there that simply don’t want the responsibility of a mortgage and they want to be able to live in a nice place and not worry about property tax,” he said.
But prior to these two developers showing interest, another developer saw potential at the former Sam’s Club site. Starr said council members approved a project in 2005 for single-family housing there.
“But then the recession hit and the mortgage crisis hit, and the home developers pulled out of the construction market throughout the state,” he said.
Starr said he recognizes it’s a challenge to attract any dollars into the state, let alone the city, because of the recession.
“Even though we have a great plan with the North Montclair Downtown Specific Plan, we have to compete. And unless we have something original or unique, we won’t attract any developers,” he said.
But Councilman Leonard Paulitz said he’s concerned people will not be renting or living in the developments as planned.
“We don’t have the population of San Francisco or Portland, Ore.,” he said. “And everything is dependent on the Gold Line coming through and they’re talking about 2017.”
But Starr said if the these two projects are built, the city will start to see some tax revenue.
Although Montclair Plaza is just outside of the Downtown Specific Plan, the filing of Chapter 11 bankruptcy by co-owner General Growth Properties more than two years ago has put a dent in the growth of the development project.
While the 40-year-old mall completed an interior remodel, Lustro said there is no secret the exterior of the property needs a new look.
Pre-bankruptcy, one of GGP’s former vice presidents talked about opportunities for mixed use on the mall’s north side adjacent to Moreno Street, where the old Broadway building now sits empty, Lustro said.
Paulitz said the city has told GGP it wants improvements made to the exterior of the plaza because it would draw more people into units and the area.
Most recently, with GGP pulling out of bankruptcy, Starr said staff is working to get the renovation back on track.
“And if Montclair Plaza gets changed, that will attract other retail outlets and bring consumers into that plaza,” he said. “That will help Montclair and we could pull out of this recession earlier than later.”
Another challenge, Councilman Bill Ruh wonders about, is what will happen once these developments are actually up and running.
He said unless retailers see the potential for an influx of residents, they won’t bother to put their businesses in the area.
“The challenge for us is to take this momentum and bring in the commercial and the retail into the area,” Ruh said.
Ruh said the completion of the Downtown Specific Plan is one of the last opportunities Montclair has to make a new environment in the city.
“This is a new concept, and it’s going to be very volatile, innovative and the future,” he said. “It’s ahead-of-the-curve thinking because we’re developing it before the Gold Line is there.”
Ruh said a cafe like Corner Bakery, or markets such as Bristol Farms, Sprouts or Trader Joes would be very workable in the area.
“But we need some rooftops in place before they’re going to approach us to move there,” he said. “They want to know they’re going to have a customer base.”
In the meantime, Lustro said the city staff is working to develop a street improvement plan for Arrow Highway and Fremont Avenue.
“We’re looking to change the profile of the streets,” Lustro said.
Plans include narrowing the two streets to slow traffic through the residential area and to add landscaping and lighting.
To a large degree, Starr said, the city plan means a brighter future for the city.
“It demonstrates that Montclair is competitive despite its size …,” Starr said.
“And Montclair Plaza, even through it’s viewed as a plaza that is declining, is on the verge of turning around, and it will bring new revenue to the city, which will help pull us out of this recession.”