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September 17, 2008 > Editorial: On a clear day

Editorial: On a clear day

In 1966, Songwriters Alan Jay Lerner and Burton Lane wrote a song that could become the theme for Fremont and its environs. Even goofy and naive Gomer Pyle - as his alter ego Jim Nabors - of The Andy Griffin Show was able to sing this ditty so maybe the political leadership can get it too. The first two lines encourage even the most dimwitted among them to use what brainpower they have.

On a clear day, rise and look around you
And you'll see who you are

A council workshop scheduled to address "Retail Strategy" for the city of Fremont will provide a few clues. Noting an historic orientation toward a "road-oriented community" rather than transit or rail, much of that initial planning is out of step with modern reality. A report prepared for Fremont by StrategicEconomics notes that many citizens opt for a shopping "experience" found in other cities. Parking the car and walking through a concentration of shopping opportunities is preferable to driving to destination "A" then piling back into the car to find destination "B" and so on. Even the much ballyhooed Pacific Commons is not pedestrian-friendly, stranding shoppers in distinct and separate collections of retail shops by distance and traffic patterns.

It appears that Fremont has examined and assessed each development - business or retail - as a singular opportunity that will somehow magically connect to adjacent businesses in a positive manner. An example is the next iteration of the Centerville Unified Site which will soon be paraded before the council as primarily a residential development. The drumbeat of more rooftops creating more potential customers drowns the fact that when residential rooftops crowd out retail, there is less and less shopping available.

This approach is blind to the true potential of this core retail area. It appears developers and councilmembers are not adverse to squeezing this historic district out of existence. If we consider Centerville as a mini-city and honor its economic core, the realistic way to approach revitalization is to see if there is a catalyst within it that will spark vibrancy. On a "clear day" walking along Fremont Boulevard, there is one icon ready and waiting for such attention - the Center Theater.

So far, much talk and even a bit of money has been directed toward the theater. Now is the time for action. Instead of filling the Centerville Unified Site with housing and an obligatory smidgen of retail, why not concentrate on the real catalyst for Centerville? A new plan for the theater will allow it to serve as an incubator for the fine arts and a real, honest-to-goodness step forward for this district. This will serve as a sign for other districts that Fremont is capable of visionary progress without blind obedience to patchwork growth.

Development of a venue for the fine arts is recognition of upscale thought and action. It will promote additional venues that encourage patronage by those who use such facilities. The strategy report says, "The largest void in the existing supply of retail space anywhere within the primary and secondary trade areas are places that target higher income shoppers and follow the recent consumer trend of lifestyle and/or pedestrian-oriented retail centers." This bold approach will take advantage of "a recent backlash from the consumer on retail formats that include mall sameness and discount power centers and outlets." Route 84 will be altered and no longer flow through the heart of Centerville. With this change, opportunities for slowing automobile traffic and encouraging pedestrian movement will blossom. The future is waiting and Centerville will provide the canvas for a new vision of Fremont.

Following this lead, other districts will be able to use their existing retail core to encourage growth without residential expansion slowly strangling economic vitality. Implementation of mixed-use developments can become a tool rather than an end product. Too often cookie-cutter developments are seen as a road to riches for developers and a means to fill bothersome spaces by politicians. There is a place for more residential development, but not at the expense of core retail. Underdeveloped strip centers, if separate and serving little retail purpose should be scrutinized for largely residential mixed-use projects or simply residential opportunities but conversion of core historic district retail to residential is irrevocable and destructive.

A "Fundamental Goal" of Fremont is to create "A unified City with thriving districts and emerging communities, each with its own identity." Opportunities and pitfalls are before the council and their actions will have a tremendous impact on the future. Careful consideration of the Centerville Unified Site may counsel caution and even delay while shifting attention to clearly innovative, revitalizing action at the Center Theater. Development in this section of Fremont will become a catalyst for more of the same throughout the city. Central Park and Lake Elizabeth are the result of bold thought and action when all that existed was barren land. Fremont must regain this style of bold leadership. This city can no longer afford to simply react to circumstance. Through its redevelopment agency and even Central Business District funds, it is time for Fremont to move forward! Buy the Center Theater now and we can join Jim Nabors in song:

"A world you've never heard before"...Golllleee!

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