October 5, 2005
Downtown Mall Gets Fresh Look
By RACHEL RASKIN-ZRIHEN, Times-Herald staff writer
Vallejo's Georgia Street Plaza has undergone a concept change and a radical facelift since developer Jim Barcewski bought it three years ago.
Barcewski's dream is to create a commercial-retail-professional "community" where business owners work cooperatively and customers can eat, get their hair and nails done and shop for goods and services.
"I build shopping centers for a living, and I have for many years," said Barcewski, who owns a commercial real estate firm. "I always wanted a plaza with a food establishment and different kinds of businesses. So when I saw this place, with the deli in it, I knew I had to buy it."
The improvements being made are both aesthetic and practical. For example, the building's ancient elevators were gutted and replaced with state-of-the-art models. The restrooms, too.
And a horrifying incident at the plaza inspired another new feature there. "When I first came here, I saw a one-legged woman come in the back door, throw her crutches down the stairs, and drag her body headfirst down the stairs," Barcewski said. "I had my architect in three days later to put a lift in."
A Marin County resident, Barcewski grew up in a Navy family, the son of a submariner, and spent several years living on Mare Island. It's one reason he chose to add a Vallejo mall to the "numerous" others he owns from Marin County to Sonoma, Davis and Vacaville.
"There was a nostalgia thing to buying this place. It was like buying a part of my childhood," Barcewski said.
Another reason Barcewski bought the plaza is his conviction that downtown Vallejo is poised to flower into something pretty spectacular. "Mare Island is a phenomenon I've never seen anywhere," Barcewski said. "There's traffic going in and out, houses are going up, businesses are moving in ... and they have no downtown. We're the downtown."
Barcewski's vision is for the businesses leasing one of the 80,000-square-foot mall's 63 suites, to become a "sort-of professional-retail co-op situation, where the tenants all contribute to advertising and can share the conference room and other amenities," he said.
All the Georgia Street Plaza's 26 first-floor suites are leased to a wide variety of businesses. These include a shoe store, a jewelry store, art shops, furniture, fashion accessories, beauty supply, clothing and insurance establishments. There's a hair stylist, a home health care registry, a staple food store, an interior designer and a gift store, among others.
"I'm building a city - a sort-of self-contained emporium," Barcewski said. "I'm looking for a book store and a florist. I'm building a sidewalk cafe. We're really providing a universe within the city of Vallejo."
Barcewski, whose wife is a doctor, also bought and gutted the former Banana Q nightclub, which is technically part of the mall, and is shopping for a high-quality, family restaurant to fill the renovated space.
The mall maker said his plan includes monthly events, some of them holiday-themed, in which customers and tenants can participate. And the tenants are beginning to adapt to the concept, he added.
"The retailers are beginning to understand the need to be open uniform hours, for example," said Karin Moss, the Vallejo Chamber of Commerce's economic development specialist who recently opened an office in the plaza.
"It's an affordable way for businesses to work together," Barcewski said. "We even have a Web site, http://www.georgiastreetplaza.com. None of them are alone anymore."
Tenants say they appreciate the opportunity and the changes he is making.
"The difference between before and now is tremendous," said Brenda Gums of Vallejo, co-owner of BJ&S Beauty Supply, one of the mall's oldest tenants. "He's totally remodeled. When we first came to the plaza, the place was crappy. Jim came in and just redid everything, and we were, just, 'Wow.'"
New tenants Rashay Garrett and her husband, Loren Garrett, of Fairfield, operate the Prosperity hair salon in the plaza. The store provides gospel-related music, videos and T-shirts along with barber, hair styling and manicure services.
"We heard about what (Barcewski) was trying to do, and we liked the idea and took a chance," said Rashay Garrett, who left a job in San Francisco to start her own business in Vallejo.
La Delle's European Decor & Oriental Arts owner Ladelle Mu oz and Susan Dandridge of Home Care Nurses Registry, said they share Barcewski's vision.
"I moved into the building because I wanted to be part of Vallejo's new growth," Mu oz said.
"This will be the optimal business building in the area," Dandridge added. "The place is going to work like one big family when it gels."
Barcewski owns the plaza's deli, which Jennifer Land runs. "I love it here. I love my boss. He put in a $10,000 lattŽ machine, granite counter tops. It's open, clean, with custom-made tables, home-cooked meals, low prices," Land said.
Barcewski said he empathizes with people struggling to make ends meet. It's one of the reasons he rents space, despite a spotty credit record, to people like Janice Lewis, who runs the nonprofit A Place to Live, which finds housing for homeless families.
"I grew up without money, and now I try to give. I'm lucky to have made as much money as I have. I came from nothing. There were five kids in one room, and I feel I've been blessed since, and I'm sharing now," he said.
Barcewski said he shares by keeping deli prices and tenants' rent low and by offering business advice to new entrepreneurs who are following their dream at the plaza.
"I don't just want the rent," Barcewski said. "I do monthly meals for the tenants and free flyers. I want them all to do well."
The renovations the mall is undergoing under Barcewski's watchful eye include new paint, carpets, tile, roof and elevators.
"When I first got here, the place was tired and lacking in cosmetic improvements," Barcewski said. "The carpets were so worn, you could see the underlayment."
Barcewski said he pictures himself in a few years, with the plaza and the rest of Vallejo successfully booming, traveling frequently between his dream home in Hawaii and a second home here.
"I have this fantasy, when I'm older, of sitting on the waterfront with a lattŽ and saying to myself, 'I did it,'" he said.
The basics ...
What: The Georgia Street Plaza
Where: 301 Georgia St., downtown Vallejo
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