Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Benicia moving ahead with commercial development

Benicia moving ahead with commercial development
By Tony Burchyns
MediaNews staff
Posted: 01/14/2009 07:39:50 PM PST
Updated: 01/14/2009 11:40:47 PM PST

BENICIA — With much of its historic downtown area struggling, Benicia city officials are keeping an optimistic eye on future development.

Next week, city officials and representatives from the Olson Company, which developed the Harbor Walk residential mixed-use project at the foot of First Street, will host a public forum about possibly doing a similar downtown project.

Planning is moving forward despite a seemingly bottomless recession, which has made it difficult to fill Harbor Walk's 8,000 square feet of commercial space.

"This economy won't last forever," Olson Senior Vice President Bill Holferd said Wednesday. "We will turn the corner eventually."

The forum is scheduled for 5:30 p.m. Wednesday at the Benicia Public Library, 150 East L St. It will be preceded by a tour of the possible building site at 4:30 p.m.

Olson entered into an exclusive negotiating agreement with the city in August regarding about two acres of city-owned land near East Second and East E streets. The land is currently a gravel lot sometimes used as parking.

"We will have to see what people want to see down there," said Darrell Dearborne, the city's interim economic development director.

The only thing harder than filling downtown's empty lots, however, might be filling its empty buildings.

Local real estate broker Richard Bortolazzo said he has not gotten a call in two months about his four empty units in the 800 block of First Street.

"It is going to take two or three years before the market comes back," Bortolazzo said reluctantly. "Basically, the foot of First Street is vacant."

Benicia Main Street project director Nancy Martinez said she is excited about the idea of doing more building. But she also said downtown's shopping district is clearly hurting.

Some locally owned businesses, such as Nancy's Bake Shop and Cafe Voltaire, have closed their doors because of rising costs and falling revenues.

"We have our challenges," Martinez said. "A lot of businesses are struggling right now."

Despite hard times, city officials are optimistic, Community Development Director Charlie Knox said.

"They (The Olson team) wouldn't be going ahead if they weren't interested," Knox said. "One thing that makes it attractive is that a variety of uses are possible."
Benicia's downtown plan would allow for an art space, a restaurant, more commercial space or apartments and townhouses, Knox said.

And time may be on Olson's side. An exhaustive planning process — like the one it went through with Harbor Walk — could take years to finish. By that time, city officials, and many others, hope the economy will be in recovery.

If you go
What: Community workshop about possible downtown Benicia development project
When: 5:30 p.m. Wednesday
Where: Benicia Public Library, 150 East L St.
Purpose: To help shape the vision of a possible development near East Second and East E streets