Nearly 25 years ago, rumors of gold-plated grocery carts began spreading through the Tri-Valley as Blackhawk Plaza welcomed its first customers to its tiled mall with soaring ceilings and domes leading to open-air walkways overlooking koi ponds, waterfalls and fountains at the upscale shopping center six miles east of Interstate 680.
Built to serve the affluent housing developments in the largely unincorporated hills near the plaza, the Danville shopping center was kept purposely small by commercial mall standards, and proudly fostered an air of exclusivity that fit in well with the massive homes and gated communities being built nearby.
Posh patrons of Blackhawk Plaza's original anchor store, FJ's Blackhawk Market, did, indeed, push shiny brass carts equipped with individual cell phones. Families of ducks swam amid the two acres of man-made flowing water features, hoping for handouts from the ladies who lunched at the white-clothed tables of the Blackhawk Grille.
However, the expensive communities of the surrounding area did not provide enough customers to attract businesses to fill the plaza. Nor was the inarguable beauty and resort atmosphere of Blackhawk Plaza enough to entice customers away from the well established and easily accessible shopping available at Pleasanton's Stoneridge Mall and Broadway Plaza in downtown Walnut Creek.
After FJ's Blackhawk Market closed following a drawn-out argument over the sale and transfer of ownership of the property, a string of successors moved into the gourmet grocery's space, including Saks Fifth Avenue which lasted only 11 months, closing in January 1999. A less flashy but still well received Gottschalks department store took over the premises in October of the same year and seemed to be setting down roots until it was replaced by Draeger's Market, an upscale grocery based on the Peninsula, in 2007.
Changing storefronts and economic fluctuations that have affected businesses throughout California certainly account for some of Blackhawk Plaza's struggle to gain traction and loyal customers. But in two-and-a-half decades, the property has not been able to establish an identity beyond the elite image promoted in its earliest days.
Veronica Curley, general manager for CenterCal Properties, sees that changing for a variety of reasons, most notably, the company's commitment to community.
CenterCal bought the 250,000-square-foot boutique mall in 2005 and spent more than $50 million improving all aspects of the plaza including adding new facades, lighting, fireplaces, outdoor seating areas, sculptures and a play structure for children.
"Blackhawk Plaza is not exclusive at all," explained Curley who, although new to CenterCal's team, is a Danville native with a child going through the local school system. "We are part of the community -- an amazing community. In just a five-mile radius we have Danville, San Ramon, Alamo and parts of Dublin. We love Blackhawk, but we have opened our arms and embraced our neighbors."
This, Curley said, includes a renewed focus on bringing locally owned businesses to the plaza.
"It has been very important for us to find the right balance and mix of retailers. Our national stores, like Anthropologie, are great; people want them here. Our local vendors are committed to the community, and we work together to create a really unique and valuable gathering place."
It was the commitment to working together that brought Keila Santos to Blackhawk Plaza when she opened Little Fairy Princess -- Girl Spa and Party Palace. After working for five years as a party planner in Florida, Santos moved to Danville and began a search to find the perfect venue for her vision of a permanent party place to pamper young girls.
"I looked at downtown Danville, but there were too many regulations and not enough parking," Santos said. "The owners at Blackhawk Plaza loved my concept of a fairytale palace for little girls."
Little Fairy Princess celebrated its one-month anniversary on July 11, and Santos couldn't be more hopeful for the future of her business.
"We have been busy," Santos said. "The owners of the plaza are working hard to promote our business through social media and involve us in the events that take place at the plaza."
This included 12 of Santos' pretty princesses taking the stage at "Rockin' the Plaza," a weekly, themed concert series taking place every Friday night, July 5-Aug. 23.
"We called it Posh Princesses Rockin' the Concert," Santos recalled. "The girls performed a fashion show with nearly 6,000 people in the crowd, and they were amazing."
Local celebrity chef Rodney Worth clearly believes in the future of Blackhawk Plaza. Three of his six highly successful (and very delicious) restaurants are located within a few steps of each other -- all at the plaza.
"Actually I believe in myself," said Worth with a laugh. "But Blackhawk Plaza is a great place for my business."
Living in Danville with his family, Worth said he and his wife Natalie brought their three kids to the Century Theatres at Blackhawk Plaza and then had nowhere to go for dinner.
"We would come out from a movie with hungry children and be forced to choose between McDonald's and the Blackhawk Grille," he said. "McDonald's was too often the choice."
Worth opened the Little Pear in 2010, the Prickly Pear Cantina just a few months later, and Ferrari's Cucina Italiana started serving customers in August 2012. Each restaurant has a distinctly different menu and feel, but share a common goal.
"All of my restaurants offer good food at a reasonable price," said Worth. "We keep our ingredients simple and authentic and our portion size reasonable. Shoppers don't need to leave lunch carrying half their meal in a bag while they shop."
Like Santos, Worth believes management is working to increase the appeal of Blackhawk Plaza to a wider range of the community, but says for the plaza to thrive, he sees a need for shops with basic appeal.
"The concert series is a big boost for business, particularly restaurants, and the playground is packed all day with moms and kids. These are great, but they don't necessarily get people shopping here," he said.
Worth pointed to stores like Claire's, Francesca's and Apricot Lane as examples of the center heading in the right direction, but said there is opportunity to make Blackhawk Plaza a shopping destination.
"Landlocked like we are between Stoneridge Mall and Walnut Creek, we need a place for people to buy socks and underwear, stationery -- maybe a surf shop and an ice cream parlor, casual places for teens. If we want people to buy local, we have to give them more options," he said.
Larry Cobabe remembers when Danville residents didn't have a good library, much less an upscale plaza to call their own. Now the proud owner of the popular, family owned G.R. Doodlebug store at Blackhawk Plaza, Cobabe calls the plaza a valuable asset to the community, but says it's still underutilized.
"(Blackhawk Plaza) is a local gem that people don't realize is here," he said. "We are only a few miles off the freeway, but people just don't think about shopping up here."
Brushing aside any notions that the shopping center is for the elite, or too expensive, Cobabe focuses on how the plaza and the vendors serve the people in the surrounding cities, fostering a sense of community.
"The original owners went for the upper elite, but most people around here now are two working parents, with kids. We have wealthy people and ordinary people," he said. "We're not Walmart, we are local, independent business people with a personal stake in the community. Even Draeger's is a small chain in the grocery world. We care about what happens here; it's in everyone's best interest that we take care of each other."
Cobabe pointed to the growing populations of San Ramon and Dublin and cited a need for convenient shopping options on the east side of the valley. Indeed, CenterCal's demographic charts show Danville's five-mile radius population was 70,686 in 1990, just after the plaza opened. The population projection for the same area in 2015 is 108,394 and growing.
Tony Draeger, vice president of Draeger's Markets, says his company saw the Blackhawk Plaza location as nothing but positive while selecting its fourth Northern California location six years ago.
"It's a great combination of rural and suburban," he explained. "We knew we would be appealing to an audience from greater distances than our other stores; that encouraged us to locate there."
While vendors and management are quick to downplay any sense of exclusivity at Blackhawk Plaza, there really is no denying its exceptional beauty and the unique setting. Lots of things at Blackhawk seem at least a little bit special, plus not many shopping centers include a cosmetic surgery center or a sizable fitness center.
Outdoor seating is common enough, but Blackhawk's patios are set next to waterfalls where swans glide by all year long. At the top of the plaza, behind a series of beautifully bubbling water fountains where other, more practically minded malls might place a department store, Blackhawk is graced with the nationally recognized Blackhawk Auto Museum.
The three-story Smithsonian affiliate features nearly 90 rare and vintage cars as well as hosting several exhibitions throughout the year, all highlighting various aspects of the automobile culture.
Don't be too quick to label this as another elitist attraction; the first Sunday of every month the museum and the plaza's own Starbucks host Cars and Coffee, inviting all car enthusiasts to "share their vehicles and admire the other classics, exotics, rods and anything else with wheels and a motor."
Even after the large scale wing was added next to the museum to accommodate Anthropologie and other enterprises, Draeger's Market and Home Store remains the anchor. This 43,000-square-foot gourmet supermarket features a cooking school, plus it sells little packages of duck food to make sure visitors feeding the Blackhawk water fowl give them nutritious treats.
After 25 years it is difficult to predict the future of Blackhawk Plaza, though it seems to recognize its challenges and make necessary adjustments. The thing that must be considered is this: What it is missing, can probably be added -- but what it already has, cannot be found anywhere else.