Fremont City Council narrowly approved a contentious plan Tuesday to demolish an Irvington shopping center to allow construction of townhomes and live-work units.
In a 3-2 vote, with Vice Mayor Lily Mei and Vinnie Bacon dissenting, the council changed the land use designation for the 3.7-acre property at the northwest corner of Fremont Boulevard and Chapel Way to medium density residential, allowing 14.6 units to 29.9 net units per acre.
The proposed market rate development, called “Connolly Center,” would see a total of 56 attached townhomes in nine two- and three-story buildings and 11 attached live-work units in a pair of two-story buildings on Fremont Boulevard.
Earlier incarnations of the project, including one introduced in 2013, called for 92 condominiums. Other previous options included a mix of condos, townhouses and live-work units, in which the space combines a work area with living quarters.
Currently, this site is home to Connolly Shopping Center, which is anchored by 40,000-square-foot Connolly’s Furniture, at 40774 Fremont Blvd. Other businesses include Bob’s Giant Burgers, Conklin Bros. Floor Coverings, Dominos Pizza and Kelly-Moore Paints.
Representatives of the Connolly family told council members the moribund shopping center, built in the 1950s, is no longer viable.
John Connolly, co-owner of the property with his three sons, said plans to sell the shopping center to San Ramon-based developer Warmington Residential began four years ago after the family concluded retail business in Irvington was declining. Tenants there operate on a month-to-month basis and pay rent at one-third of what they paid five years ago, he said.
“The center is not really functional anymore, economically. It doesn’t make sense,” Connolly said. “We need more roofs in Fremont and I believe a fresh new look on Fremont Boulevard will be a big asset to the city.”
Connolly’s has opened four smaller stores outside the city and there are plans to have a fifth store in Fremont after the existing location closes, he said.
Mike Connolly, one of John Connolly’s sons, said he has served as the unofficial property manager there for more than 35 years. He said his brother Steve plans to relocate the furniture store in spring 2017 when the lease is up, which would leave a huge void because the business is 60 percent of the shopping center.
Annual sales at Connolly’s fell to $4.5 million a year ago from $7.7 million in 2006, according to Mike Connolly.
Warmington is building the Talamore single-family home development on Peralta Boulevard.
Don Babbitt, representing Warmington, said his company agreed to pay the Fremont Unified School District an additional $1 per square foot above the standard $5.70 per square foot, a 17.5 percent increase in school fees. Also, the school district would collect $45,000 per year in new property taxes from the residential project, compared to $3,300 from the shopping center, the developer noted.
While the Connolly family believes the shopping center’s days are numbered, several residents contended it can still thrive — prefering its survival over the construction of more housing.
Many of the businesses in the shopping center have successfully been in operation for decades, resident Chris Cavette said. He urged council members to reject the Connolly Center plan and direct the applicant to submit plans for a mixed-use development, with retail on the ground floor and housing above, as the “best value use” of the land.
“This shouldn’t be an all commercial versus all residential proposition,” he said.
Cavette added the live-work units should be removed.
His wife, Alice Cavette, said she was also “strongly opposed’ to the live-work units. She added Warmington should redesign the project, particularly the location of a proposed “tot lot” playground area adjacent to Universal Tire & Wheel, to be seperated by a soundwall.
Aaron Goldsmith, director of government and community affairs for Fremont Chamber of Commerce, and Jesse Schaa, president of the Irvington Business Association, spoke in favor of the development.
The support of the Chamber and business association were factors in his support of the project, Councilman Rick Jones said.
Bacon, who cast a the lone “no” vote against an earlier version of the project in November 2014, said he had not changed his mind on the project, nor was he impressed by the live-work units.
“I just don’t buy it, to me it’s a pure residential development,” Bacon said.
Mei said she had “similar reservations” and urged a mix of businesses and housing.
Comparing the project to when it was first proposed, Mayor Bill Harrison said Warmington has “done an excellent job” of listening to feedback and addressing concerns. He also favored the live-work component.
“It’s a much better project than what we saw two years ago,” Harrison said.
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