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Developers, Pittsburg Bring New Life To Old Town

Paul Shigley on
Jul 1, 2006

After suffering two generations worth of economic decline and malaise, the East Bay city of Pittsburg is trying to reinvent its downtown as a residential, office and retail district.

Although the city has been working at redevelopment since the late 1970s with mixed results at best, the downtown project appears to be taking off. Developers A.F. Evans and the Olson Company are building mixed-use projects, while the city’s redevelopment agency is investing more than $50 million in infrastructure improvements and real estate development. The agency also has begun implementing a master plan for the marina, a plan that intends to connect downtown to the Delta waterfront via a wide pedestrian promenade.

Few cities in the Bay Area are in more obvious need of revitalization than Pittsburg, a city of 63,000 people on Highway 4, just over the hills from the wealthier Contra Costa County cities of Walnut Creek, Concord and Pleasant Hill. However, for the better part of a century, Pittsburg was the economic hub. The city grew up around the railroad line that connected the Black Diamond coal mine on Mount Diablo to Pittsburg’s docks, where the coal was loaded onto barges. Later, the fishing industry rose to prominence. From 1942 to 1954, Pittsburg was the home to Camp Stoneman, the principal jumping off point and welcoming home center for U.S. Army soldiers headed to and from World War II’s Pacific Theater and the Korean War.

But by the mid-1950s, the coal, the fishermen and the soldiers were gone from Pittsburg. Ever since, the city’s primary regional role has been to provide affordable housing for the East Bay’s blue collar workers and commuters.

In the last couple of years, though, city officials have adopted new plans for downtown (or “Old Town” as it has become known) and signed agreements with downtown-savvy developers. Construction is under way on numerous projects at once, with more to come.

Although there is no single keystone project, the largest so far is Vidrio, also known as the Black Diamond project — a five-story mixed use development along Railroad Avenue, downtown’s main drag. The project is planned to contain 196 condominiums above nearly 40,000 square feet of ground floor retail space, plus two public plazas, according to a city newsletter. The Pittsburg Redevelopment Agency is providing a $4 million subsidy to ensure that 30 of the units are available to moderate-income buyers. A.F. Evans began work on the project in June. The first block of the three-block project is scheduled for completion during 2007, with full completion likely to take three years.

"It's three contiguous blocks in a downtown that has incredible water access," Muhammad Nadhiri, A.F. Evans project manager, said of the site. "It's a fairly central location for East Contra Costa County. It's just an area that is screaming for people to come to it."

To make room for Vidrio, the city had to take via eminent domain the landmark Scampini building, a boxy white structure that many people in town considered an historic landmark. City officials, however, shed few tears.

“For as long as I’ve been here, I’ve heard we need to revive downtown,” then-Councilman and now-Mayor Michael Kee told the Contra Costa Times. “I would like to see us save the building, but I think it needs to be sacrificed to create the image and memories of what people remember as a vibrant downtown.”

The city owns much of the land on which Vidrio is rising, and officials chose A.F. Evans to develop the site over Hometown Group and Olson. The city picked A.F. Evans partly because the Oakland-based company proposed the most parking spaces. Although some people questioned the wisdom of providing more than 2 parking spaces per residential unit in a supposedly walkable district, parking is major a public concern and city officials ended up requiring more parking yet. Still, the environmentalists at Greenbelt Alliance endorsed the project “because it will revitalize Pittsburg’s downtown and create new homes without building on farmland and hillsides outside the city.”

The project that Olson is working on is called Mariner Walk, a 123-unit, single-family home development that also includes a public park. That project, in which the redevelopment agency is investing $1 million, is expected to be complete in about a year.

At the entrance to downtown on Railroad Avenue is the Gateway project by Domus Development. Gateway is planned to have 28 apartments for low- to moderate-income renters, offices for the city and about 4,000 square feet of space for retail shops or a restaurant. The redevelopment agency is investing $8 million in the Gateway project.

Gateway is under construction right across the street from the location of what would be downtown’s first elementary school since the 1960s. The new Pittsburg Unified School District campus is planned for the site of a closed school and other parcels that the redevelopment agency has helped assemble. The redevelopment agency intends to put several million into the school project so that the general public may have access to the school’s parking.

Construction also is under way on $15 million in improvements to the marina area, including dredging, a 25-foot-wide promenade reaching to downtown, new docks and more parking. Plans also call for the marina to offer a restaurant and an eight-unit bed-and-breakfast inn, with the redevelopment agency again providing funding.

Elsewhere in downtown, the redevelopment agency is investing upwards of $20 million on more mundane items, such as new utility lines, storm drainage and sidewalks.

The city is able to put so much capital into downtown because its redevelopment agency is among the richest in the Bay Area. More than half of the city lies within the city’s Los Medanos project area, which generated $35 million of tax increment for the city during the 2004-05 fiscal year, according to the state controller’s office.

There is more downtown development on the way. Between Vidrio and the marina lies the site of the proposed New Mecca Square, where local developer Albert Seeno III has proposed 40 townhouses above retail spaces. Several blocks east lie 20 acres of former industrial property that has been rezoned for as many as 400 housing units. Cleanup of toxic materials is necessary before development occurs there.

And in a true sign of revitalization, Mechanics Bank is expected to open a downtown branch shortly, providing the district’s first full-service bank since the 1980s.

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