Monday, November 29, 2004

Downtown looking up

Vacaville's revamped city center emerging as planned

By Barbara Smith/Business Writer

After years of planning, the heart of Vacaville's historic downtown is emerging as envisioned: an inviting haven reminiscent of yesteryear, blended with the style of a modern day world.
From Saltato's Italian restaurant to the Town Square Candy Co., a mix of speciality shops, offices and restaurants around the much celebrated Town Square Plaza on Main Street promise visitors a potpourri of shopping and dining choices in which the city and entrepreneurs invested millions.

Consider, for example, Robert Cicornio and Karen Ruffini, who are planning to open Saltato's Italian restaurant before mid-January. While the opening of Saltato's is behind schedule, the intricacies of the design and detail to create the feel of an Italian village can't be rushed, said Cicornio.

"It's not just putting up four walls and a picture. We're trying to create a little Italy," Cicornio said. "An atmosphere of good, old rustic Italian cuisine like you would have in one of my grandmother's homes."

Saltato's will be a 2,000 square-foot full dinner house with a Tuscan Roman theme seating up to 55 and eventually an additional 25 outdoors, he said.

The partners brought in 100-year-old bricks from a historic San Francisco building to give the eatery an old world look. Diners will see arches and pillars to give part of the restaurant the look of a Roman ruin. They have installed imported Italian marble counters at an exhibition kitchen.

"All of the people in the dining room will be able to see our fires flare up and all of the smells of garlic, onions sauteing with veal, Italian mushrooms, wine - all that good stuff."

Down a brick corridor from Saltato's is Hot Porridge, a specialty toy store owned by Scott and Gina Witmer. An oversized bright yellow hobby horse draws the eye toward the shop.

Scott Witmer said he and his wife are anxious for the opening of the new Vacaville Public Library Town Square and the completion of the Town Square Plaza. They hope the new tenants in the buildings under construction will bring in more business, he said.

"The lack of foot traffic has really impacted us, so we are definitely looking forward to the opening," he said. "But it looks like its moving along. I'm hoping."

The Town Square Plaza itself is roughly 15,000-square-feet, and will include a 39-foot clock tower, trees, water features and a stage. Two multi-level Italian Villa-style buildings flank the plaza, created by the Guido Addiego family.

Michael Miethe, co-owner of Pure Grain Bakery, has already leased space in one of the buildings. He said he is also anxious to be open soon.

Miethe said he's disappointed by the delays, but they were unavoidable.

"It's unpredictable in construction if everything is custom made," he said.

Meanwhile, the administrative offices of Vacaville Sanitary Service have moved into second floor offices of the library building. The Town Square Candy Co. is open for business as well. Lessees in the Addiego buildings include a title company, mortgage company and a Thai restaurant.

The posh Fire Falls restaurant and lounge, which has been considered a cornerstone of the downtown renaissance, is within sight of the new, two-level building under construction on East Main Street by the John Vasquez family. Vasquez Deli will move from its McClellan Street locale into the building, which will have apartments on the top floor.

Also, Joe Murdaca, owner of Pietro's No. 1, is working with the city on his Don Carmello's Bistro on the corner of Dobbins and Monte Vista Avenue.

While rainy weather and other construction-related problems have delayed the opening of many new businesses and the construction of the Town Square Plaza, work is picking up, said Kevin Smith, project coordinator for the Vacaville Redevelopment Agency.

Smith pointed out that 2-foot wide concrete borders running on either side of the Addiego buildings have been laid, and a beehive of activity will happen soon. The Town Square and plaza are the culmination of about a $5 million project, he said, noting that construction of the library cost about $3.5 million. The redevelopment agency paid roughly $1.5 million for the parking lot and the Town Square Plaza.

"The plaza is going to be a great gathering place for the public, but also an access to complement the restaurant, bakeries and Addiego buildings, and also folks using the library," Smith said. "This is a comfortable, central gathering place, kind of the heart of the community."

What sets Vacaville apart from other downtown revitalization ventures in California is the area has a lot of historic buildings the city committed to preserve, as well as provide incentives to spark private investment, he said.

Since 1982, the redevelopment agency has invested millions in downtown parking, land acquisitions and improvement projects, major street and infrastructure improvements. The redevelopment district is roughly 12 city blocks.

Even if it's a new building, it has to be constructed using certain materials and have design components to complement the history of downtown.

"It couldn't be a steel and glass three-story building," Smith said. "It needs to have natural toned finishes and so on to meet the guidelines for buildings in the downtown."

As far as the economic impact on businesses in the historic district, investors and merchants will likely realize a "tremendous bang for the buck."

"With Vacaville, we have a concentrated area here where we can truly make a difference, and I think we have," he said.

Thus far, the city has completed the revitalization of the old Basic plant, built the popular CreekWalk, brought a library back downtown and completed the entryway project on Davis street in the summer.

"There are a lot of things going on to make it a really interesting place to be," Smith said. "It ripples out - the support of the community at large, the support of the downtown businesses and the vision, direction and support from the council to show us the way and give us the tools to make all of this happen."

Real estate agent Mary Ann Rollison handled the leasing of the building that houses Saltato's, the toy store and candy company. She is currently offering an additional 2,000 square feet for $1.50 per square foot.

Rollison said lease rates continue to climb steadily due to the rising construction costs, and the market demand for retail space.

"They're hand in hand," she said. "They're going to need to achieve a certain lease rate in order to compensate for the construction costs."

However, the owners of the older buildings will benefit from the rise in lease costs because of the new construction.

Mayor Len Augustine said he finds great pride in Vacaville's downtown.

"I've always been bullish about Vacaville, but now the downtown is particularly coming to life, we really can't say enough about all the people who invested downtown," he said.

He said he considers the architecture of the Addiego buildings magnificent, and he's sure the new library will be a boon the new businesses.

Augustine said sometimes when he's walking through the area he imagines the people who worked and shopped there in the 1800s.

"The downtown has always been special, it goes back to 1850, and even before. It was the first commercial area that we had, and it has kind of a sense of place, it just feels good to be there," he said. "I don't think we could have pictured or imagined how nice things have turned out."

Barbara Smith can be reached at

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