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The Other Boomtowns

Ben Christopher | March 3, 2014 | Story Real Estate

Even a bubble doesn’t exist in a bubble. As San Franciscans continue to grapple with a dizzying economic and real estate boom, we might find some solace in the fact that we are not alone. Just ask smart-growth advocates in the Silicon Valley suburbs, deep-pocketed investors in Oakland, ambitious city officials in Fremont, or suddenly welcome developers in Berkeley: The economic upheaval that has been redrawing San Francisco is most assuredly a regional event. Here, a few snapshots of the Bay Area boom.

Downtown Berkeley
A year after the city council passed the controversial Downtown Area Plan, with its vision of a taller, denser People’s Republic, developers are seizing the moment—and much of the city’s skyline, too. According to the Downtown Berkeley Association, the neighborhood’s residential population has nearly doubled since 2000, and, with 1,400 new units coming in, it’s expected to double again by the end of the decade. Among the near dozen projects slated to pop up between University and Channing are Acheson Commons, which will pack 205 units into four buildings at the corner of University and Shattuck, and the Residences at Berkeley Plaza, which, at 18 stories and 355 apartments, is an honest-to-God high-rise in a town that’s long been known for its fear of heights.

But Berkeley’s reimagining is about more than density. City government has gone in big for urban planning’s favorite buzzword, “livable”—concentrated, yes, but also built for foot and pedal power. Hence the spate of car-free block parties like Sunday Streets and last year’s Burning Man pregame, Berkeley Spark.

This culture priming will soon get a major infusion with the upcoming relocation of the Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive, which will include an outdoor screening plaza and a public video library, all within strolling distance of BART. It’s a long-overdue upgrade for the museum—and a sign that this once growth-averse city is finally welcoming change.

Jack London East
Though few know it, the stretch of Oakland just east of Jack London Square was once the town of Brooklyn, California. The name couldn’t be more apt—especially in light of the 3,100-unit, 15-building, $1.5 billion mixed-use mega-development known as Brooklyn Basin, which will soon rise along 65 acres of formerly industrial waterfront between Oak Street and Ninth Avenue. The project has been in the works since 2001 but was recently fast-tracked with the help of Chinese investment group Zarsion Holdings. And not a moment too soon: Oakland saw a 76 percent rise in median home sale prices between August 2012 and August 2013, according to the real estate firm ZipRealty.

Brooklyn Basin’s first residents and retail tenants aren’t expected to move in until 2015. Still, when you consider its proximity to new bars and restaurants, the headquarters and flagship cafĂ© of Blue Bottle Coffee, Jack London’s booming solar industry, and the many nonprofits that have recently fled S.F. for downtown Oakland’s cheaper rents, Williamsburg by the Bay doesn’t seem like such a stretch.

North San Jose
Cosmopolitan, carless living isn’t just for the big city anymore—at least, that’s the hope in North San Jose. Even while it pursues corporate developments like Samsung Semiconductor’s R&D headquarters, the area is making a push for downtown-grade residential infill with projects like Brandon Park, which will place 1,300 units between a major bike thoroughfare and a VTA light-rail station. It’s an example of an increasingly common phenomenon: a residential development selling itself as transit-oriented in the midst of erstwhile cartopia.

The city of San Jose, for its part, seems eager to ditch that autocentric reputation. As densification efforts scale up in anticipation of the day that BART finally plugs in to Silicon Valley at the nearby Milpitas transit hub (due in 2018), the city is freeing up some 27 million square feet of commercial space. With such plans on the books, Google bus haters can take heart: Soon enough, techies may be able to commute from the city without those private shuttles. And who knows? Maybe not-so-suburban San Jose will lure them out of the Mission for good.

The economy may be on the upswing across the Bay Area, but no one does optimism like Fremont. The efforts of this oft-overlooked East Bay metro, most commonly associated with sprawl and Solyndra, to rebrand itself as “Silicon Valley East” certainly show some moxie. More admirable still, the city may be pulling it off.

Case in point: downtown Fremont, which, in a welcome surprise even to some of the city’s residents, is actually starting to exist. These 110 acres are now home to developments like Paragon Apartments, a high-end complex popular with the young and childless. And with the extension and makeover of Capitol Avenue, the embryonic neighborhood is getting a properly walkable main drag— a more fitting venue for summer street festivals, gourmet grocery stores, and the newly convened food truck scene.

At the same time—and however unlikely, given the closure of the NUMMI auto plant in 2010 and the infamous implosion of Solyndra in 2011—the bayside Warm Springs district seems to be getting a kick-start. Clustered around the construction site of the Warm Springs/South Fremont BART station, which will be up and running early next year, companies like Tesla (electric cars), Thermo Fisher Scientific (lab equipment), and Seagate (hard drives) are laying the groundwork for an East Bay boom in, of all things, manufacturing. And with 850 more acres of underutilized land to develop in Warm Springs, Fremont is, in characteristic fashion, thinking big.

Originally published in the March issue of San Francisco

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