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By Jeb Bing

Downtown Pleasanton needs our help

Uploaded: Jan 14, 2011

We keep hearing that the recession is on the wane. To measure the sales reports of several of the major department store chains, holiday sales were indeed favorable. Business also picked up in downtown Pleasanton, but not by much and only at certain stores. Others didn't make it, including the Stork's Nest and Euphoria. The once popular Thriving Ink and Your Stage Toys closed their retail outlets earlier.

What surprised me, too, is that as I visited the shops and a few restaurants over the holidays, I ran into a number of Pleasanton friends. But this happened when I was at Hacienda Crossings in Dublin, at the Livery in Danville, in downtown Walnut Creek and even at Nordstrom and Macy's in San Francisco. These folks that I talked to said they go to downtown Pleasanton for First Wednesday street parties, Concerts in the Park and a few other times, but they don't think of our downtown as having a sufficient mix of retail business that they find in these other locations.

Some of you may remember Craig Scharton, who was the executive director of the Pleasanton Downtown Association in the mid to late 1990s and was responsible for starting the First Wednesday parties in 1998. Downtown was facing tough times then and Scharton pressed for changes. He suggested that property owners fill their first floor building spaces with retail stores that would appeal to a wide variety of shoppers, even chain stores such as Crate & Barrel, Restoration Hardware, Ann Taylor Jr. or other regional and national chains that would add to the mix of smaller businesses on Main Street. Burlingame has done this in its downtown where the sidewalks are crowded on many Saturdays and Sundays.

Banks, real estate offices, dentists and law offices are often the preferred tenants for property owners because they pay their rent on time and generally stay put. But in terms of appealing to shoppers, they don't. These are businesses, too, that seldom open on Saturdays or nights and never on Sundays.

Ann Taylor or an Abercrombie, on the other hand, have special appeal to the under-30 set, especially teenagers, which Pleasanton's downtown desperately needs. These are corporate-owned stores that also have deep pockets for advertising. Scharton says promotions by just one of these larger retailers can support at least a dozen nearby stores that don't have large or sufficient marketing budgets.

Scharton believes Pleasanton should consider again a first-floor retail-only ordinance that would require property owners through incentives to rent their ground floor spaces to retail businesses. That was tried in early 2000 when community meetings were held on a Downtown Specific Plan, which was adopted by the City Council in 2002 but without the controversial First Floor Retail only provision. Property owners don't like being told how they can use their properties.

This same issue is now being debated by city planners as rezoning plans proceed for an 800-unit, high density affordable housing development near the Bart station in Hacienda Business Park. Some on the City Council and Planning Commission are insisting that ground floor -- particularly corner ground floor spaces -- be reserved for retailers. The developers, who have experience at building this type of housing, argue that there's already too much vacant retail space in the area and these corner units will sit empty, possibly for years, and become neighborhood eyesores.

That's the problem with imposing a similar regulation downtown, where an empty Domus and a vacant lot across Main Street where the old Union Jack tavern used to stand are causing would-be shoppers to pause before parking their cars and heading to the shops. Property owners need tenants and if there aren't any retailers able to afford or wanting the space, another bank, real estate office or title company suits them fine.

Merchants here are seeing a steady decrease in day-trippers to downtown. Residents seem to be the only ones supporting businesses here and even that isn't saying much. Shoppers used to fill Main Street between noon and 3 p.m., during and right after lunch. The peak now is 3 p.m. to 6 p.m. Downtown also is becoming less of a retail environment. Take a close look at the PDA website and you'll see that there are 80 personal care places in the downtown and only 25 retail stores. Businesses that have been here for more than 10 years seem to be weathering this well, but newer businesses aren't, as we saw with Stork's Nest, Thriving Ink and Doodlebug before that.

7zHraity of Pleasanton, its economic development arm and the PDA are working with merchants to boost business. A Danville consulting firm's promotion didn't work; a committee to add more nighttime entertainment in the downtown area to make Pleasanton more of a night-life destination has merit, but lacks the week-day, weekend, daytime attraction merchants need. The 2002 Downtown Specific Plan suggested promotions that still sound good: more mini-plazas attractively designed for small public gatherings, similar but larger than Tully's plaza, more places to grab a sandwich after events at the Firehouse Arts Center and more parking. A better mix and more retailing would help reinvigorate downtown Pleasanton to make it a regional destination for shoppers.