The downtown in the East Bay city of Hayward has many features that any redevelopment agency would envy — an Amtrak station, a Bay Area Rapid Transit station, historic buildings, and a modern grocery store with additional shops. Soon to come are a 12-screen movie theatre and more retail shops.

But what may be helping the downtown even more is years of work to create additional housing in and around downtown, within walking distance of BART and its connections to jobs in Alameda, Contra Costa and San Francisco counties. During the past decade, the downtown's collection of vacant and underutilized lots has morphed into infill, transit-oriented developments of town homes and condominiums. More than 800 units have been built, and they may soon be followed by another 800 similar residences in the Burbank Cannery area, only one-half mile away.

The city has provided financing for little of the new construction. Instead, it has focused on buying parcels that developers can build on, and then selling that land at below market rates, according to Maret Bartlett, the city's redevelopment director.

City Councilman Bill Ward estimates that 4,500 new residents have moved downtown in recent years. Ward says the city can accommodate even more residential growth in its redevelopment area. He pointed to several old industrial areas that can be zoned for housing, all within walking distance of the Hayward BART station.

But Ward, who also is a planning consultant and real estate agent, said the city will have to see how a housing slowdown throughout Northern California affects future demand for housing. The city does benefit, however, from a location equidistant to both the San Francisco and San Jose job markets, and from low land costs relative to other cities in the Bay Area.

Hayward, which has a population of about 150,000, grew rapidly after World War II as a largely blue-collar suburb of apartments and single-family homes. Today, many of its older homes are rundown. But the new downtown development has provided a number of midsized dwellings for young families, empty nesters and those who want the convenience of commuting on public transportation.

At one point, the downtown was home to many retail stores, and redevelopment focused on retail, said Ward, who has been on the council for 24 years. But 12 years ago the council shifted focus to housing.

"Most of our retail uses moved out, "said Ward. "We had to respond to the market for Hayward."

Stuart Cohen, executive director of the nonprofit Transportation and Land Use Coalition, said Hayward is "building in the right direction" with its downtown housing projects. But many of the projects are only two stories tall, and Cohen wondered why the city has not aimed higher. With such close proximity to mass transit, the location is good for higher-density development, he said.

"They're doing it in the 1990s style of TOD [transit-oriented development]," Cohen said. "We would want more. The more people you can get by transit, the more vibrant the neighborhoods can become."
Councilwoman Barbara Halliday, who was on the Planning Commission when many downtown housing units won approval, defended the two-story designs as "in scale with the surrounding buildings." With the exception of one 11-story building, downtown Hayward is composed of low buildings, she noted.

Both Cohen and Halliday noted that Hayward is planning mid-rise housing near a BART station in the south end of town. However, the proposed taller buildings have stirred controversy among residents.

The Burbank Cannery area provides an opportunity to expand downtown's reach and population. Developer Citation Homes Central first began looking at the Burbank Cannery several years ago, recalled Charles McTeag, vice president of land acquisition and development for the Santa Clara-based company. At the time, McTeag said, company officials realized "this is a really well-located city in terms of its access to transportation and jobs." And Hayward officials, he said, were motivated to revitalize the area.

Bartlett said the city knew that developers would covet the approximately 70 acres in the Burbank Cannery area once the old Hunts Wesson cannery went out of business. The site lies west of downtown, with the BART station in between the old cannery and downtown. The cannery area was not been part of Hayward's original redevelopment district in 1975, but was added in 1998. Bartlett said city leaders recognized the cannery area's potential for high-density residences near public transit, and decided to plan for that instead of for single-family homes, which are more common in the suburban Alameda County terrain.

In addition to housing at the old cannery site, an overcrowded elementary school in the area is being replaced with a new two-story structure for 900 students, along with renovations and improvements to the adjacent 14-acre Cannery Park. In addition, walking trails and parkland are being added to the area, in part to encourage pedestrian use. To provide affordable housing, a 60-unit senior citizens apartment complex is under construction nearby as well.

The commercial core of Hayward's downtown, which has also undergone redevelopment, is now waiting for a few more sparks to create a vibrant district where shoppers and evening revelers feel welcome. Like many struggling redevelopment districts, Hayward needs more pieces to fit together before that happens.

And it isn't as if Hayward hasn't tried: historic commercial buildings, many of which sit on the Hayward earthquake fault, have been retrofitted in recent years. A downtown supermarket moved from an outmoded building to a 60,000-square-foot building on the east end of downtown in 2002. Albertsons shares that shopping center with a number of other retail tenants. A new city hall opened downtown in 1998. A few blocks away, the new Cinema Place is scheduled to open in fall 2008 with a dozen movie screens and eight to ten restaurants. The city has added several new parking lots to the area, too.

"We're hoping Cinema Place provides additional stimulus to [existing] retail and restaurants," said Bartlett.

Although downtown's sidewalks and lighting have been upgraded, city officials have heard frequent complaints that downtown panhandlers, empty buildings, trash and low-level crimes keep visitors and shoppers away. The Hayward City Council is expected to vote in early December on spending several hundred thousand dollars on new efforts to clean up downtown, Bartlett said.

It's not a problem unique to Hayward. "A lot of downtowns have issues like this," Bartlett said.

City Councilman Bill Ward, (510) 583-4357.
Maret Bartlett, Hayward Redevelopment Agency, (510) 583-4260.
Charles McTeag, Citation Homes Central, (408) 985-6071.
Stuart Cohen, Transportation and Land Use Coalition, (510) 740-3150.