Fremont's Search for a Downtown -- and for Stronger Link to Silicon Valley
By Aaron Mendelson
Fremont, the Bay Area’s fourth-most-populous city, has long been overshadowed by bigger neighbors. But the city hopes to make a name for itself by taking advantage of a strong economy, its location within Silicon Valley and access to transit. That effort starts with building a real downtown for Fremont -- from scratch.
Fremont was born when five different communities merged in 1956 for fear of being annexed by Hayward. Those five areas -- Centerville, Irvington, Mission San Jose, Niles and Warm Springs -- had their own centers, but the new city of Fremont never had a real heart.
As Mayor Bill Harrison puts it, “Being born and raised in Fremont, I know that since its incorporation in 1956, Fremont didn’t have a downtown.”
Fremont, now a city of 220,000, has a central area that looks classically suburban, with lots of cars, wide streets and generous amounts of parking.
At a groundbreaking for the city’s downtown initiative in July, food trucks and live music were on hand to give residents a taste of the more urban feel that Fremont seeks.
“I’ve been waiting forever for a downtown,” said Sally Morgan, a resident of 27 years who attended the event. “I just would love to live near a downtown. I mean, that’s part of the community, right?”
Morgan says she misses the central business district in Los Altos, where she grew up.
During a speech at the groundbreaking, the mayor gave thanks to the woman he called the city’s “downtown czar,” Deputy City Manager Jessica von Borck.
“Yes, we’re suburbia right now," von Borck says. "And it looks very much that way, but it’s riddled with opportunity because it is underdeveloped.”
Von Borck says there will be denser development here, and eventually a new city hall. The entire downtown effort could cost $250 million from a mix of public and private sources. The funding for the first step being celebrated at the groundbreaking comes from a $5.8 million One Bay Area Grant awarded to the city in 2013. The project will extend Capitol Avenue, connecting employment and retail centers and developing, Mayor Harrison promises, a real Main Street feel.
As things stand today, von Borck says, “a lot of our community needs to go outside of Fremont in order to seek out restaurant options or entertainment options.” She hopes a busier, pedestrian- and transit-friendly downtown will convince residents to stick around instead of heading to Palo Alto or Livermore.
Egon Terplan, the regional planning director with SPUR, the San Francisco-based urban planning organization, says the lack of a downtown in Fremont is due in part to the fact much of the area was rural and agricultural. In fact, his grandmother grew up on a farm near the city's planned downtown.
Terplan says that a city creating a downtown needs to focus on how buildings relate to walkways and streets.
“How close are they to the sidewalk?" Terplan says, reciting a list of key questions. "Is there a big setback with a parking lot behind it? Or is there a generous sidewalk that you can walk by? Does the ground floor of the building have active uses that are inviting, that make people want to be a pedestrian?”
Those are small things, but if you do them right, you can see the difference from space. In an event room at SPUR, Terplan gestures to a satellite map of the Bay Area.
“You see a couple places where there’s a grid pattern, there’s a set of taller buildings surrounded by often a leafier residential neighborhood. And so the downtown pops in that context,” he says.
Terplan points to downtowns like San Jose, Palo Alto and San Mateo. On the satellite map, Fremont doesn’t pop.
“It doesn’t jump out as much a traditional downtown,” Terplan says, the kind that was built before World War II.
Terplan says it will help if Fremont plans around transit. The current downtown is about half a mile from the city’s existing BART station. BART falls just outside downtown, as depicted on city planning documents.
Next year, Fremont’s second BART station is expected to open. To be known as the South Fremont/Warm Springs stop, it will be the first step in BART’s march into Silicon Valley.
“One of the reasons that’s a game-changer for Fremont is that it transforms it from being the end of the line of a system, to being in the middle of the line,” says Terplan. He adds that his grandmother used to be able take the Southern Pacific from Fremont to San Jose. BART will make that trip possible again when the BART Silicon Valley line opens in 2018.
The station in the Warm Springs area is 6 miles south of downtown, and the city has big plans for the area. If downtown Fremont is about amenities and a civic heart for people in Fremont, then Warm Springs is about luring business currently outside Fremont.
As Jessica von Borck puts it, “The Warm Springs innovation district is more outward-facing, and finding a place for Fremont within Silicon Valley itself.”
“We are a sleeping dragon,” von Borck says, laughing. “We have a lot of opportunities that are really unknown to a lot of companies.”
Fremont hopes that development around Warm Springs, already the city’s largest employment center, will add 12,000 jobs over the next quarter-century. If all the planning comes together, the sleeping dragon could be about to wake up.