Thursday, January 11, 2007

Touro Plan Clears First Hurdle

Touro Plan Clears First Hurdle
By J.M. Brown, Times-Herald staff writer

Touro University won the first major victory Tuesday for its ambitious plan to design and build a retail corridor and education village on a rough stretch of northern Mare Island that lacks even basic infrastructure.

The Vallejo City Council unanimously approved a six-month agreement to negotiate exclusively with Touro to redevelop the 190-acre area the city has been unable to secure a revitalization deal for since the Navy closed Mare Island Naval Shipyard nearly 11 years ago.

Where three other developers expressed doubt about investing in the property, Touro officials pledged Tuesday that they have secured up to $500 million in private funding to create their "university village" concept, which includes a research center, retail zone and river walk.

If the plan succeeds, the corridor would provide residents of the new Mare Island housing developments with more places to shop, eat and study. It would also put a new face on a critical intersection, at G Street and Azuar Drive.

Any developer would have to pay the more than $25 million cost of installing water, sewer and other infrastructure costs, which city officials said other companies had been reluctant to cover. Touro has agreed to shoulder those costs, as well as the city's negotiating expenses.

Council members asked that the island's master developer, Lennar Mare Island, be kept in the loop about Touro's plans. They also asked how the project would affect the university's goal to expand the current 44-acre campus on the island's south end.

"We find the two projects synergistic," Touro's pointman for the project, vice president Richard Hassel, told council members.

City community development director, Craig Whittom, assured council members that Lennar would be kept abreast of the talks with Touro.

The two developers were unable to agree on what to do with the land before Lennar's exclusive period to work on the project expired last year.

Councilmember Tom Bartee thanked the Touro officials for their interest in Mare Island, but said he wants to see "a game plan" for how the university will further develop its existing campus. He also asked city development officials to create a project timetable and ensure the city gets "fair market value" for the north parcel.

Councilmember Stephanie Gomes, who before winning election was a vocal opponent of the city's waterfront redevelopment scheme, said the public is leery of any changes to development plans and delays.

Still, she said she supports exploring Touro's plans, adding, "You can't do great things unless you take that great leap."

Also Tuesday, Gomes joined fellow member Gary Cloutier in pressuring downtown redevelopment officials to be precise about when the plans to revitalize the Virginia Street corridor will get underway. Gomes said area business owners and residents are "hanging on a shoestring," waiting for ground to break.

After Triad Downtown Vallejo LLC's builder quit the project last summer, the developer decided to construct the mixed-use zone itself. The council unanimously OK'd those changes Tuesday, but came armed with questions about the project's timeline and funding.

"Is Triad ready and able to do it?" Gomes asked.

Triad's development director, Chris Austin, told the council he "can't give a percentage" of commitment but said he expects construction will begin in April - two months ahead of schedule.

Austin said lending companies have pledged to fund the condominium portion, but said construction proposals from union builders are being renegotiated for lower costs.

The cost for condo buyers likely will rise because Triad's finished product will be of higher quality than the initial builder planned, Austin said. But the cost of the mandated affordable housing units will not increase.

Also Tuesday, former City Councilmember Joanne Schivley spoke on behalf of some downtown property owners who have complained about a restriction that they only lease space to retail merchants, in keeping with Triad's redevelopment concept.

Schivley said some owners have invested in downtown longer than Triad has been a revitalization player, and deserve the chance to earn rental income from non-retail tenants until Triad gets closer to completing its project in June 2009.

"That's 2-1Ž2 years away - that's quite a while before there is critical mass in downtown Vallejo to support only retail," she said.

Annette Taylor, the city's liaison with Triad, said Vallejo will continue discussing the issue with property owners and will report back to the council next month.

Also Tuesday, the council approved agreements with two small labor groups to forgo salary increases and make other concessions to cut $192,000 from the city's projected $1.5 million deficit.

After passing on a contract extension with the firefighter union and failing to reach a deal with the police union, the council voted in December to cut $7 million this fiscal year and next from the public safety budget.

E-mail J.M. Brown at or call 553-6834.

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