Saturday, June 17, 2006

On the Waterfront ... Transformation leads more and more people to rediscover Suisun City

From Vacaville Reporter
By Amanda Janis/Business Writer

Rewarding results from more than 20 years of redevelopment efforts are increasingly tangible in Suisun City's waterfront area.

A quick glance at the dramatic "before and after" photos makes plain the once grim, crime-ridden area has undergone an incredible transformation through the years into a charming little waterfront and marina peppered with alluring shops, restaurants, and entertainment.

Debuting just days ago, in fact, was - a new Website dedicated to the waterfront, its businesses and numerous outdoor markets and events, as well as its history and redevelopment. The site is just one of the projects of the Suisun Historic Waterfront Business Improvement District, a consortium of the area's business owners who've been working hard for several years to brand and promote Suisun City.

Their (voluntary) efforts in tandem with city's seem to be working. The marina's vacancy rate is one of the lowest in the county, with its guest dock frequently full on weekends. Events are well attended - more than 15,000 are estimated to have visited last year's Fourth of July festivities. And more development is in the pipeline.

"It's a huge difference," acknowledged Scott Corey, Suisun City spokesman.

Corey explained the area had its beginnings as an industrial shipping center, as ships from San Francisco would arrive to procure goods from surrounding valleys, but the harbor was eventually bypassed by the interstate highway system, and as shipping declined, Corey said, "everything just sort of changed."

"The waterfront became the place where you put everything you didn't want to see anywhere else in town," he said, "so what we ended up with were a bunch of industrial uses and various things that just don't scream out this is a beautiful place to be."

Furthermore, he noted, the marina was riddled with dilapidated docks and partially sunken boats and was bordered by "The Crescent" - a high-density, high-crime neighborhood that consumed well over half of the city's law enforcement budget.

"It just was not a good place to be," Corey said.

The city decided to step in, he explained, and set up a redevelopment agency in the early '80s. Bonds to the tune of $60 million were issued to pay for the extensive make-over. Much property was purchased, cleared and cleaned, Crescent residents were relocated as the neighborhood was demolished, and the marina infrastructure was created.

A 5,000-foot waterfront promenade was built, as was a downtown plaza with outdoor stage, a 170-seat theater, and new pedestrian oriented residential neighborhoods including live/work units.

"Really, we just started pouring investment into the downtown," Corey said, noting that a good deal of that investment - such as dredging the harbor and constructing sea walls - is literally underground.

The city's substantial investment and commitment to its vision of the waterfront as an attraction convinced many business owners and investors to "Rediscover Suisun" - as the slogan conceived by the business improvement district urges.

That's one of two reasons The Wiseman Company developed One Harbor Center, a 50,000-square foot, three-story, upscale office building that overlooks the water.

President Doyle Wiseman explained that the city's positive attitude about redevelopment was a major attraction. "You had the feeling that it's only going to get better," he said. "That was a factor - that local government, particularly for such a small city, has been very effective. It's a can-do government."

Corey confirmed, "It is the high priority project for us, from the city council on down."

And the other reason The Wiseman Co. believed Suisun City to be a sound investment?

"The Suisun City waterfront is very unique in the county - there's nothing else like it," Wiseman said. "It's just a wonderful place to go every day. People like being there."

Michelle Hicks, owner of waterfront business Yoga Junction, concurs.

"I grew up in Vacaville," she noted, "and Suisun had always been an armpit, where you never wanted to go. I hadn't visited there in a long time even though I live in Cordelia."

As she looked for a new home for her yoga studio, she said, "Something told me to go visit. I went to lunch at the Athenian Grill and I was blown away by how beautiful they had made downtown Suisun."

The feel of the revitalized waterfront area, coupled with its numerous festivals, Hicks said, made her want to join the community.

"I'm delighted to be a part of it and I think it's only going to get better," she said. "It's exciting to see a town turn itself around and they've really done a good job. I think there's still lot of people who don't realize, like I didn't, what it's become. So many people still don't know where Suisun is, and I think that's going to change. I think it's going to be a real hub for people."

As does Shelly Kontogiannis, president of the Suisun Historic Waterfront Business Improvement District, and owner of the Athenian Grill located in Harbor Plaza. The second building on the waterfront, the Athenian Grill has been operating successfully for nine years, and its property value has more than doubled, Kontogiannis said.

"It's just going to get better as time goes on and the development is happening," she asserted.
She is referring to the Main Street West project, which entails redevelopment of 13 parcels near the waterfront, Main Street and Civic Center Boulevard by Main Street West Partners, LLC.

The centerpiece of the project, which will likely break ground in late August, will be several two-story mixed-used buildings constructed in a plaza-style fashion on the corner of Solano and Main streets.

Completion of the first phase of the Main Street West project, Corey said, will work as a catalyst for redevelopment of neighboring parcels.

Similar sentiments were shared by Garry Rowe, who runs Family Values Magazine from one of the live/work units bordering the promenade.

"Main Street West is going to break the whole thing open," Rowe predicted. "I think 2010 is really going to be our year - you'll see a vibrant downtown where on a Friday or Saturday night you're going to have a hard time getting into a restaurant, you're going to see a lot of people walking around having a good time, you'll see people in public courtyards enjoying music or strolling up the promenade."

In the next two years alone, Rowe, said, "We're anticipating space for 30-40 new businesses."
The challenge, Corey noted, is in ensuring that good development decisions are made, and the city is being very selective about what fills the waterfront space, working closely with Main Street West Partners.

"We're at this juncture. We've done all the sort of heavy-lifting, major investments into the waterfront," he said. "We've created a terrific environment, an environment people want to go to, a place that's now economically viable. We have the assets. Now we're moving into that phase of putting in the things we'd always envisioned here, making it a destination."

Amanda Janis can be reached at

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