Tuesday, December 13, 2005

Seeking to Mix it Up

Seeking to Mix it Up
Cities tout developments that combine residential and retail
By Amanda Janis/Business Writer

Vasquez Deli in downtown Vacaville is an example of mixed use development. It features a business on the bottom floor and apartments on the top. Area city planners hope to see more of this type of development in Solano County in the future. (Tod Rasmussen/The Reporter)

Vacaville city officials hope the downtown will follow a trend already popular in neighboring cities and counties - increased mixed land use, or the development of buildings that combine both retail and residential functions.

Typically, that equates to a store or restaurant occupying a structure's ground floor, with apartments or condos on the floors above.

Vacaville City Council member Chuck Dimmick believes such structures can help to create a more dynamic downtown.

"It brings in additional people," he explained. "People who are living there will shop down there, visit coffee shops and restaurants." He added that a bustling downtown is also much more likely to attract additional, high-quality shops and restaurants.

Gary Tatum, president of Vacaville's chamber of commerce, concurs.

"I can visualize this happening in Vacaville without any problem at all," he said, "and I think it would be a real boon for us."

Leaders in the city's Community Development department couldn't agree more.

"It's exactly what we want to see," said the department's assistant director, Chris Gustin. He explained that mixed use is "a good way to have life in the downtown area around the clock."

Gustin continued, "You'll have people living there who'll become regulars at cafes and things like that."

He added, however, that while his department is pleased with the remodeling and refurbishing of older homes now being utilized for offices and retail on streets like Elizabeth, Boyd and Mason, there simply aren't as many multi-storied, mixed-use projects as his department desires.

"Downtown, it'd be nice to see new stuff come in mixed-use, or conversion of the old for mixed use," he explained.

"We approved the deli downtown," Gustin continued, "and we're very supportive of those projects, but you just don't see as many as you'd like."

He was referring to the Vasquez Deli, which occupies the ground floor of the Dionicia building on East Main Street. The building's upper floors are comprised of one office along with three affordable apartments, which were rented in less than a month.

"Vasquez had people waiting in line to rent those apartments," Dimmick noted.

John Vasquez, who is on the Board of Supervisors, discussed some of the reasoning that led to the structure's creation.

"Vacaville's a really good candidate for those types of mixed uses," he said. "It's still a very walkable community. Given some of the things the city has done already - the CreekWalk, Town Square, the senior center, the library, the theater complex - there's a lot to encourage that type of development."

The Dionicia building is downtown Vacaville's first real mixed land use success, according to the city's Housing and Redevelopment manager, Terry Rogers.

"That was our first (mixed land use) adventure, and we're very pleased with the results," she said. "It's a high-quality building, and it's an asset to downtown." Rogers explained that the Dionicia building not only serves to extend the downtown area toward East Main, but also provides affordable, attractive housing close to shopping and restaurants.

"I'd like to live there," she said genuinely.

Like Gustin, Rogers hopes that similar projects will permeate the area.

"We're interested in gaining more density in the area surrounding the downtown, in keeping with the city's economic development strategy," she said, explaining that the area falls into Vacaville's high urban density overlay district, which is specifically zoned to allow multi-use development.

She said the city would most likely be interested in increasing density on East Main and Wilson streets, toward Mason Street.

"Because it's so close to the downtown," Rogers explained, "there's been interest in (creating) offices, a boutique hotel, a parking garage, and more development like the Vasquez Deli."

Bob Vollmer, president of the Downtown Vacaville Business Improvement District, said his association, too, would welcome mixed-use projects.

"That's what the city's direction is, and if we get more retail, that's great," he said, then quickly added, "as long as there's plenty of parking!"

Mixed land use is already "existing and thriving all over Suisun," according to Jason Garben, Suisun City project manager, who cites Bab's and the Athenian Grill as examples.

Fairfield, Vallejo and Dixon are also in the process - or soon hope to be - of increasing the density of their downtown areas via mixed land use, according to Curt Johansen, executive vice president and manager of California operations for developer Triad Communities. These cities, along with many others, have consulted with or hired Triad to develop multi-use projects.

"We're running out of land very quickly in the Bay Area," he explained. "We're going into more vertical construction where we can."

Johansen says that both from his own perspective, and from Triad's standpoint, downtown Vacaville is ready to embrace mixed-use development.

"Vacaville has the critical mass to make this work. It's an attractive city because quality of life is so high - people love living there. And it's very well-run," he said.

"There's the ability to assemble a really, really nice project flanking the creek," Johansen continued. "What Vasquez has done is a great start, but we could expand that quite a bit. That's high on the list for early '06."

Johansen stressed that Triad hopes to pursue public-private partnerships with the city on such developments to ensure that they're done well. He explained that with a mixed land use project, "there's so many parts to it - the two sectors need to work closely together."

The downtown's next multi-story, mixed-use building will likely be on the corner of Mason and Davis streets.

Still in the planning stages, the proposed Dassah building would come to fruition after remodeling the existing two-story structure on the site. According to a November status report for community development projects, the Dassah building would have 1,510 square-feet of office space on the ground floor, with a 794 square-foot, two-bedroom, two-bathroom apartment on the second floor.

Aside from the Dassah proposal, however, Gustin says, at present, there isn't anything concrete in the pipeline for mixed-use development. "I haven't heard of anything in the preliminary stages coming through," he remarked.

Nevertheless, mixed-use development is being considered seriously for future projects by city planners and developers - and its success in neighboring communities is an indication that it will likely be the next downtown trend.

As Dimmick summarized, "It's a nice way to get the downtown a little more vibrant."

Amanda Janis can be reached at business@thereporter.com.

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