|A Dream Grows in the Barrio
Fruitvale Transit Village is built around two buildings
lining a plaza. It includes a wide pedestrian walkway
connecting the BART station and a bus station to the neighborhood's
central shopping district; a 16,000 square-foot child
development center for 200 infants, toddlers and preschoolers
with a spacious, tree-dotted play area; the 15,000 square-foot
C´esar Ch´avez branch of Oakland's public
library, with the city's most extensive collection of
Spanish-language resources; a computer technology center
for job training and educational enhancement; La Cl´inica
de la Raza, originally a pioneering local health clinic,
now a 40,000 square-foot state-of-the-art health facility
with 130 people staffing a medical lab, pharmacy, X-ray
center and 10 dental chairs; 10 units of affordable housing;
37 market-rate units with large decks; a lively senior
center called Las Bougainvilleas; commercial development
that includes doctors' offices, a range of restaurants
and stores, 80 percent of which are reserved for local
merchants, and a retail branch of Citibank, which underwrote
$27 million in funding for the project. The official estimate
is that Fruitvale Village will result in 700 to 1,000
new jobs for the neighborhood.
|Connecting the Dots
Since 1971 the Ford Foundation has made grants totaling
$9 million to Fruitvale's Unity Council. Foundation funding
for Fruitvale Transit Village is part of a larger initiative
that is supporting efforts to connect neighborhood development
with regional efforts to reduce poverty and injustice.
Grants have assisted transit-oriented projects, mixed-income
housing and the creation of vibrant public spaces, such
as the Fruitvale project. The work seeks to harness the
dynamics of changing demographics, market forces and social
justice to forge new approaches to community development.
Fruitvale by the
* Per capita income is $11,814.
* In 1999, 24 percent of the population was living
below the poverty level.
* The average household size is 3.7, compared to 2.6
for Oakland as a whole.
* Only 31 percent of housing units are owner-occupied,
compared to 41 percent for Oakland as a whole.
* Foreign-born residents make up 47 percent of the
population. Places of birth include Bosnia and Herzegovina,
China, Pakistan, Cambodia, Laos, the Philippines, Thailand,
Vietnam, Mexico, El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras.
* The population is 7 percent white, 19 percent African-American,
17 percent Asian, 53 percent Latino and 4 percent other.
* The residents are young: 32 percent of the population
is under 18, 54 percent is under 30.
* Spanish is spoken in 43 percent of
the homes. Of these households, 40 percent are linguistically
isolated, that is, all family members over 14 have difficulty
with English. An Asian language is spoken in 16 percent
of the homes. Of these, 45 percent are linguistically
* Only 51 percent of adults have a high school diploma.
Only 10 percent have a college degree.
* Most residents work in construction, manufacturing,
retail, health care, food and other service industries.
Source: Main Street Program
It has taken more than a decade, but Oakland's Fruitvale neighborhood
is coming back to life in a big way.
by Elizabeth Blish Hughes
Oakland, Ca.—Life is not easy in the Fruitvale district of
Oakland. Per capita income is under $12,000 a year and nearly a
quarter of the people live below the poverty level. A predominantly
Latino neighborhood, Fruitvale is also home to people from China,
Pakistan, Cambodia, Laos, Thailand, Vietnam, the Philippines and
the Balkans. Foreign-born residents make up 47 percent of the district's
population. About half of the adults have a high school diploma;
only 10 percent have a college degree.
Yet Fruitvale is a place that has come to believe in itself and
its future. The story of how that came to be has much to do with
Fruitvale's most venerable neighborhood organization, the Spanish
Speaking Unity Council, and its equally venerable leader, Arabella
Martínez. Both instructive and inspiring, the story is perhaps
better termed a saga. At its center is more than a decade of struggle
by Fruitvale's residents to assert their community's identity and
their claims to a better life. It culminates in the construction
of a $100 million community development project, called Fruitvale
Transit Village, that is built around a rapid transit station and
a bus hub. It is nothing if not out of the ordinary.
The story begins in the 1960's, when the Bay Area Rapid Transit
system (BART), the San Francisco region's mass transit agency, broke
ground for a station in Fruitvale, promising it would help bring
economic development. That did not happen, but neither did the neighborhood
rise up in protest. So when BART officials, in 1990, began planning
to build a parking garage between the station and Fruitvale's main
shopping strip on International Boulevard, they didn't ask for the
views of residents of what seemed like just another hollowed-out,
inner-city area along BART's routes to suburban satellite office
centers. BART riders needed parking, which the garage would provide.
It was as simple as that.
The officials were wrong. When Fruitvale residents learned about
the plan the following year during an environmental hearing on construction
of the garage, "BART ran into a firestorm," says Jeff
Ordway, BART's manager of property development. "It wasn't
that the community didn't want the parking. The point was that the
parking was in the wrong place. The garage got stopped dead.''
That was 13 years ago. Now the garage — positioned so it
does not cut off the station from the neighborhood — is one
element in the Fruitvale Village project, which contains a range
of others, from a health clinic to a child development center to
a computer technology job-training center.
The project has become a national model for transit-oriented design
in a high-density, inner-city neighborhood. It is also a reminder
that community building is a complex process that takes time as
well as funders with the vision to be flexible and patient.
Leading the drive for Fruitvale Village was Arabella Martínez
and the organization she helped found in 1964, the Mexican American
Unity Council, later renamed the Spanish Speaking Unity Council
to reflect the influx of Latinos from Central and South America
into the neighborhood.
Martínez left the organization in 1974. She was subsequently
appointed an assistant secretary in the U.S. Department of Health,
Education and Welfare in the Carter administration. She returned
to the Unity Council in 1989, when she was asked to lead the organization
through a time of crisis. It had $3 million in short-term debt,
service programs operating at a loss and development projects teetering
on the brink of foreclosure. Martínez faced two options:
Close the council or revive it.
She chose the latter, which surprised few. "She had bought
into the vision that a community development organization that was
well-designed could make a difference," says Raul Yzaguirre,
president and C.E.O. of the National Council of La Raza, who has
worked with Martínez for more than 30 years.
BART became involved in the Fruitvale Village project when it bowed
to community opposition, led by Martínez and the Unity Council,
to the parking garage. "They never thought they'd find an organized
community voice in a lower-income community," says Manuela
Silva, senior executive officer of the Fruitvale Development Corporation,
the Unity Council's real estate arm. But that's what BART found.
"What Arabella brought back to the Unity Council was the awareness
of a great purpose," says Silva.
In 1992 BART officials signed an agreement on Fruitvale Village
with the Oakland City Council and meetings began. Nearly two years
later, this phase culminated with the Spanish Speaking Unity Council
— now known informally as the Unity Council to reflect the
influx of Southeast Asian and Eastern European refugees into the
neighborhood - scheduling a meeting on a Saturday morning so local
residents could review project plans. The architects decided to
offer a single solution to the neighborhood's complex needs.
BART's Ordway recalls the scene. As the presentation ended, one
man pointed to a set of also-ran drawings on the wall, saying he
thought a pedestrian plaza, or walkway, between the BART station
and International Boulevard was a good idea. Other people weighed
in. By the end of the meeting, there was fervent community support
for the walkway.
"It's a place that's been waiting to happen for a long, long
time," says Pat Cashman, a board member of the local development
corporation who first saw the need for a pedestrian connection between
the BART station and International Boulevard when he was a graduate
student of architecture in 1971. No matter how logical the connection
may have seemed, however, Ordway says, "without the Unity Council,
the community would not have stood up and said ‘This is what
Nevertheless, Fruitvale still lacked a comprehensive plan. "We
knew that it had to be on a significant scale if it was to have
enough impact to transform the community," says Silva. "The
transformation had to address social, physical and economic conditions.''
Meetings were convened. Funds were raised. Decisions were made.
Despite all the effort, however, the project existed for years only
as drawings and talk. Silva remembers thinking the project "was
like the Bible. Whatever your preference, or your religion, everyone
reads the same book but gets something different out of it. Every
feasibility study said it couldn't be done."
Other things were getting done, however. The Unity Council started
financial education classes to help prepare residents to buy their
own homes. It coordinated a home-improvement program with a local
Sears store. Martínez and the Unity Council also attracted
the attention of the National Trust for Historic Preservation, which,
since 1980, had been using historic preservation as a tool for commercial
revitalization in suburban and rural areas desolated by malls. Preservationists
itched to take on inner-city shopping areas. They knew community
support was the key to success and that a commercial district had
to be made attractive if businesses were to succeed.
In 1996 the Unity Council launched the Main Street Program, a pilot
project for the National Trust. With help from the program, Fruitvale
businesses began sprucing up their buildings. More than $4 million
in public funds and $3 million in private funds were invested in
the business district. The program also raised more than $2 million
for street improvements, expanded the annual Dia de los Muertos
Festival into a regional attraction that drew 80,000 people in 2003,
and established a zero-tolerance anti-graffiti program. In six years,
the Main Street Program created 224 new jobs and assisted in the
growth of 66 new businesses.
Fruitvale merchants formed a business improvement district in
2001, voting to tax themselves about 14 cents a square foot to raise
$200,000 annually. The money pays for daily sidewalk sweeping. The
tax also pays "ambassadors" wearing blue and white striped
shirts to patrol the street, reporting anything amiss to the Oakland
Police Department. Crime dropped in the district and shoplifting
is now the main worry, according to Jenny Kassan, who oversees the
Main Street Program.
A shopping center opened on the other side of International Boulevard,
on the site of a former cannery, in October 1997. It was the first
development of its kind in 25 years and included a chain supermarket,
an auto supply center and a Starbucks that is a joint venture with
Magic Johnson's Urban Coffee. Today the center has 18 retailers.
As the local merchants began seeing the neighborhood improve, the
transit village project ran into another problem. La Clinica de
la Raza, a local health clinic which had started in 1971 with five
volunteers and grown to be the largest employer in Fruitvale, was
going to be one of the project's anchor tenants. But Silva learned
that its funding depended on its owning the new facility and the
land it was to be built on. "So we had to subdivide the land
and sell them a parcel," says Silva.
That was just one of the funding conflicts the project faced. For
example, some $14 million in grants and loans for the project came
through the city, each with a different set of rules, often in conflict.
As Martínez chased funding, she risked losing time-defined
money obtained from other sources. By 1998 it was clear that one
person had to oversee the project or it wouldn't get built. Martínez
tapped Manuela Silva, who had joined the Unity Council staff in
1990 with a background in developing affordable housing.
Silva put together a proposal suggesting that funding sources
loosen up; if a specific use wasn't prohibited, she asked them to
accept that "it doesn't say you can't.'' There were more than
30 funding sources for the transit village project. Silva took her
message to each one. "Usually, people make decisions on what
they believe they can't do, but that eliminates the possibilities
and I couldn't work that way," Silva says. Martínez
and the Unity Council leveraged public dollars and grants, notably
$25 million in public funds for the project. The two women developed
a style that let them play to their respective strengths. Martínez
focused on the social goals. Silva imposed the discipline needed
for successful real estate development.
"This was an incredibly complex project, and it took somebody
like Arabella to keep all the balls in the air," says La Raza's
Yzaguirre. "She can work with anybody. She listens to people."
The core of Fruitvale Village, two buildings lining a pedestrian
plaza, remained the goal. The plaza and transportation were central
to the plan. Connecting Fruitvale to the rest of the region was
crucial because it meant local residents would have better access
to jobs, and businesses would have better access to customers. "In
new immigrant households, if they don't have transportation choices,
they're locked out of mainstream America," Silva says. "We
wanted the pedestrian plaza to invite people from the community
to ride BART, and we wanted to make the plaza a center of celebration
and community life."
Still, for six years, the project moved slowly, a dream consisting
of drawings and near-endless talk. "If you were discouraged,
Arabella would pump you up," says Ordway. "She never lost
sight of the vision."
"For-profit people would have pulled the plug on that project
10 different times,'' says Pat Cashman, F.D.C. board member. At
least one private developer invited to participate backed off, saying
the project was too complicated and too difficult with too much
uncertainty for returns. "Arabella said, ‘Maybe for them,'"
Cashman recalls, but not for her and the Unity Council.
Several banks were interested in the financing but faced with Silva's
untested model, which showed that the estimated net operating income
from the project could support almost $30 million in debt, they
dithered. Silva then approached Citibank, which dispatched Steven
Hall, deputy director of community development. "After meeting
with Arabella and Manni, walking through the model and how they
expected it to be used, we really didn't see much risk in this,"
By that time, Fruitvale was harvesting the benefits of a decade
of Martínez's leadership. Indeed, by 2001 there were almost
no vacancies on International Boulevard, and Fruitvale had become
Oakland's second largest generator of sales tax revenue.
Citibank became the sole conventional lender, providing $27 million
in construction and permanent financing. Another investment banking
firm acted as project underwriter and marketed the tax-exempt bonds
issued by the City of Oakland. Citibank's financing covered $19.8
million for the project and an additional $5.8 million for La Cl´inica
de la Raza. In addition, Citibank's Social Investments Group provided
$1.4 million in equity-like debt as a matching source for other
funders. The money went to the Fruitvale Development Corporation
on Dec. 21, 2001. A year later, construction was at the halfway
point. The first phase of Fruitvale Village was completed 10 months
later, in October 2003, and was marked by a gala celebration.
Despite awards and acclaim, there are skeptics. One, John Landis,
chairman of the University of California at Berkeley's department
of city and regional planning, says that it will take at least five
years to see if the project can sustain itself. If tenants like
the Unity Council move out to make way for businesses when market
rates increase, Landis says, that will be a sign of success.
There are also worries about maintaining the often tense balance
between improving a low-income community and defending it against
gentrification, a constant challenge in the Bay Area's overheated
real estate market. Yet Landis thinks there is not yet evidence
that Fruitvale Village will cause anything more than interest in
the neighborhood. Others familiar with Oakland say grittier, mixed-use
areas with more warehouse, shipping and factory space are more likely
targets of gentrification. Nonetheless, home prices in Fruitvale,
admittedly low to start with, rose 43 percent last year, the second
steepest climb in Alameda County.
The big question remains: Can Fruitvale Village be a model for
similar transit-oriented projects elsewhere? At least two other
Oakland communities are already pursuing their own versions. Martínez
would also like to see the Unity Council reinvent part of itself
as a consulting team for similar projects. "The Unity Council
has the technical capacity, and it would be a source of revenue,"
she says. There is virtually total agreement, however, that Fruitvale
Village cannot be a financing model for other nonprofits. In any
case, Cashman says, "Being the pioneer was difficult. Would
you replicate something if you knew it would take all those years
and all that money? Probably not, but I don't think the next one
With 40 years behind it, the Unity Council had a reputation for
delivering, but, like Martínez, it also had the experience
to know a project like this couldn't be done alone. Like Martínez,
too, the council knew where and how to build coalitions, and as
importantly, they knew that a neighborhood's people and institutions
must play key roles in building their community. "The message
may be as simple as that its success is rooted in the community,"
says Ordway, "and without that, a project like the transit
village is simply not going to work."
The next phase of realizing Martínez's and the Unity Council's
dream of a "vibrant and livable community" includes about
215 more housing units, a seven-acre waterfront park on nearby reclaimed
land, a public market, a land bank to prevent local businesses and
residents from being displaced by rising property values, and Martínez's
The housing should be completed by 2008. Martínez expects
to leave later this year. Her exit, she says, will be preceded by
intense fund raising to ensure the Unity Council maintains fiscal
strength. She realizes that because of its growth, the council needs
a better system for tracking performance, and for tracking paper.
It needs a chief financial officer, not just accountants.
But what it needs most, it already has — a vision —
thanks to Martínez. "Arabella once told me that a lot
of what I considered vision was actually experience," says
Manuela Silva. "And at some point, I started seeing the vision.
I think that is how the baton is passed on."