Many of us who live in San Leandro are frustrated about the lack of shopping, dining and cultural opportunities in the city. Even during the economic boom early in the century, San Leandro languished. Our downtown is practically a ghost town, devoid of compelling shopping and entertainment venues. The only reason why anyone goes downtown at all is to go shopping at Safeway or get money at one of the remaining banks. An empty downtown wouldn’t be a problem if there were other more alive sectors of the city, but that’s not the case either. San Leandro has a myriad of low-end chain stores, a newly renovated but deserted mall and a wonderful library – but there is nowhere in town where to go for a stroll and do some window or actual shopping, no place that can compare to 4th street in Berkeley, Rockridge, Piedmont Ave., Park St. in Alameda or even downtown Pleasanton or Hayward.
The excuse City Hall has given is that San Leandro doesn’t have the demographics to attract high end stores or restaurants. And while it’s true that San Leandro’s median household income is of under $60,000 a year, other towns with similar demographics manage to have vibrant business districts. A vibrant business district (combined with more effort putting into improving our schools) would attract a higher demographic to the city, which in turn would attract more businesses.
I think a great part of the problem is that City Hall is not doing its job of trying to attract businesses. The City spent tons of redevelopment money on the MacArthur Project Area, but has done little to promote it to businesses that might actually attract customers and bring some life into the city. For example, Vila Cereja (formerly Jake’s Lion), a pretty large restaurant in that area, is up for sale as the owner wants to retire. This would be a wonderful location for an East Bay branch of a San Francisco restaurant. The venue was remodeled recently and while it’s a little quirky (for example, it doesn’t have any windows), that could be turned into an advantage. Its large banquet room could be used as a jazz/world music club – somewhere for grown up entertainment. It’s right next to the freeway, so it could easily draw customers from nearby cities. All the City has to do is find someone to invest in the business (and it’s very reasonably priced, Jake just wants to retire) and then promote it. The idea being that once people outside San Leandro start thinking of San Leandro as a “place to go”, other businesses will think of settling here as well.
As for downtown, the City is already paying the Downtown Farmers Market $15,000 a year to operate. It’s a wonderful FM and it seems very popular, but the City has no strategy on how to use it to revitalize downtown. One type of business I think could do well, both in conjunction with the farmers’ market and other downtown businesses, is a nice wine/cheese shop. It could be located in the space next to Le Soleil, which has been empty for years. It would have to offer some moderately priced wines for the local crowd and some unusual, attractive selections – to encourage oenophiles from nearby cities to come by. The City could start by contacting established San Francisco wine shops and pitch the idea that they open a second branch in San Leandro.
In short, what the City’s business developer needs to start doing is developing business: identifying businesses that would do well given our demographics/location/market trends and approaching those businesses to come to town. They should concentrate on established name-brand businesses, who already have local notoriety, so that San Leandro can gain from their cache, and sell them on our great central East Bay location, starving (if limited) middle-class Berkeley-refugee base, low rents and generally easy parking. They are not coming to us, so let’s go to them.