That’s the word from merchants and city officials alike, who last week gathered to celebrate the completion of Brentwood’s overhaul of its traditional downtown business district.
“Welcome to the official re-opening of our downtown,” said Kwame Reed, senior community development analyst for the city during a ceremony held last Thursday morning. Expected to run $6.2 million, Reed said the project came in at $5.8 million – well under budget and just a few weeks later than forecast despite 30 days of rain delays. Additional work on Brentwood Boulevard will wait until the roadway is turned over to the city and the “Highway 4” designation is relocated to the current Bypass, expected to occur next year.
“This took a lot of hard work and sacrifice,” Mayor Bob Taylor told the crowd, which included County Supervisor Mary Piepho and representatives of state Sen. Mark Desaulier and Congressman Jerry McNerney. “A lot of people put up with a lot of things, but I know this will significantly enhance the downtown.”
The overhaul includes wider sidewalks, entrance monuments, a new fountain, decorative streetlights and new trees (with lights still to come). There are all-new benches and bike racks, and trash bins designed to collect recyclables in addition to garbage.
Funded entirely by the city’s Redevelopment Agency, the project received some criticism from residents who felt that spending the money during the current recession was unwise. City Manager Paul Eldredge said at Thursday’s ceremony that building during the slump in the economy made it possible to do more, thanks to the soft construction market. He also pointed out that since the project began, Gov. Brown has radically changed how redevelopment agencies work in an effort to balance the state budget.
“Had we not done this when we did, the money would be gone to the state and we wouldn’t be standing here right now,” Eldredge said.
The project was the result of years of input from business owners, residents and city planners and consultants. It was needed not only to replace aging utilities that could not support the restaurants and other businesses it’s hoped will soon fill the remaining vacancies, but show current and potential occupants that the city is serious about supporting them, Reed said. It’s hoped the work will inspire the private sector to make investments of its own.
That message is one that Peter Charitou, owner of Sweeney’s Grill & Bar, echoed.
“I think the downtown looks good. I like it,” Charitou said. “It took a while to get it all done, but it’s nice. The customers seem to like it. The city has done its part to improve the area, now it is up to the businesses to do their part to bring people in.”
One of the first to take advantage of the new 20-foot wide sidewalks designed to accommodate outdoor dining, Charitou has already begun capitalizing on the opportunity by placing a half-dozen tables in a new patio dining area along his Oak Street frontage. In the works are plans to remodel the interior and the outdoor façade, and install new lighting and a retractable awning in the back patio. He plans to make the renovations early next year to be ready for spring, as most customers won’t be requesting outdoor dining as the weather gets colder and the rains arrive.
Toan Huynh, manager of the restaurant Pho Vietnam on First Street, also plans to take advantage of expanded sidewalks to install outdoor dining, but plans to wait until the spring when customers will be more inclined to use the outside eating option.
“Our customers are looking forward to the coming changes,” said Huynh. “They seem to like the new downtown – especially now that all the construction is over. Now we just need to get more foot traffic down here. I really like what the city has done to the area, and I hope more people will come to check it out.”
Retailers who struggled through the construction are also hoping to see foot traffic return. Laura Dee, owner of the Catwalk Boutique, said the sidewalks provide an opportunity to hold sidewalk sales – once customers get used to the new layout.
“Right now, my biggest concern is getting people to come back downtown,” she said. “The construction chased customers away, and the new parking situation continues to deter customers.”
Widening the sidewalks to make them dining- and pedestrian-friendly resulted in the conversion of some diagonal parking to parallel. Reed said there were 170 parking stalls in the downtown core prior to the project, and currently 120. The parallel parking also required that some of the handicapped parking (which requires wider stalls) be relocated to parking lots. There are five city-owned downtown parking lots, plus the recently opened civic center parking structure that adds almost 300 stalls a block away next to the nearly complete city hall.
“We’ll see what happens in the spring when there are more events,” Dee said. “Hopefully that will increase foot traffic. I like the look of the downtown. I think it’s great, but we need to get people out here.”
Some downtown businesses are already seeing an increase. Keisha Zogg of WR Properties said more people are dropping into their First Street offices since the barricades went away.
“We get a lot more walk-ins; the remodel has been great for business,” she said. “The goal has been accomplished.”
The new streetscape has already seen a few big crowds. The Brentwood Chamber of Commerce’s Hometown Halloween attracted thousands, more than a few of whom were seen playing in the water of the new fountain. The formed-concrete, water table-style feature includes the city motto “Heritage, Vision, Opportunity” as well as inscribed paving stones bearing the names of donors who helped build the original monument to Art Gonzales, a former mayor and teacher.
The Liberty High School Homecoming Parade rolled through the upgraded environs two weeks ago, and the new seating planters and benches were filled to capacity with observers.
“This is really nice,” Drew Ebersol said as the procession passed. “We have a nice, new downtown, but we’re using it to show off pride in our high school just as we have for years. It’s the perfect blend of tradition and progress.”
Samie Hartley contributed to this story.