Alameda's West Side Story

Alameda Magazine

Since a wooden trestle spanning San Antonio Creek first connected pre-Island Alameda to downtown Oakland in 1871, Webster Street has, for better and worse, been the vanguard of the West End.
    In a bygone era of bathhouses and beachfront frivolity, Webster Street served as a direct line to the sand. After the closure of the Alameda Naval Air Station in 1997, however, Webster became a line in the sand—one that many Islanders simply chose not to cross. In its long, colorful and sometimes sordid history, the 1.1-mile thoroughfare has generally operated with little regard to the rest of the city.
    But when the Naval base fell victim to the nationwide reduction of military installations, Webster Street’s autonomy held little currency. Having covered much of its rich past with drywall and stucco in deference to the paychecks burning holes in the pockets of “5,000 horny sailors on leave,” in the words of one city official, Webster Street was a sight to behold in the aftermath of the fleet’s departure. “Bars and tattoo parlors,” says Alameda Mayor Beverly Johnson.
    Proving even more durable in the wake of the economic apocalypse have been the gas stations and liquor stores.
    Webster was sorely in need of a 12-step program. Enter Georgia Madden and Mi’Chelle Fredrick, who" width="300"/> had no idea what they were getting into when they accepted an invitation to a West Alameda Business Association focus group on Webster Street revitalization in 1996.
    “We attended a lot of boring late-night meetings,” says Fredrick, who operates a planning and design studio out of her Santa Clara Avenue residence. “I knew it would be a long, uphill battle. But I didn’t expect it to take eight years.”
    The light at the end of the tunnel came on Oct. 21, when WABA hosted the groundbreaking ceremony for the Webster Street Renaissance Project.
    “I never gave up hope,” insists Madden, a landscape designer. “I was aware, and Mi’Chelle was aware, that it would be a long process.”
    And it’s only just begun. The project will be undertaken in phases, and there’s only enough money in the till for $2.4 million Phase I. Partially funded with an $881,000 grant from the Metropolitan Transportation Commission, Phase I will incorporate the one-third-mile stretch of Webster from Central Avenue to Pacific Avenue. The MTC is the state and federally funded planning, coordinating and financing agency for transportation in the Bay Area’s nine counties.
    “We needed to start in our historic core,” says Sue Russell, management analyst for Alameda’s Department of Development Services. “That’s where the majority of our shopping and retail is. And that was the logical place to start, really.”" width="200"/>Though Phase II has yet to be defined in financial or geographic terms, the general consensus is that it will cover the quarter-mile stretch of Webster between Pacific and Atlantic avenues that project architects refer to as the “transition zone.”
    “Within the next few months, we will be starting the process of looking to see where we can get grant money for Phase II,” says Sherri Stieg, a former regulatory banking attorney who became the executive director of WABA in 2003. “But until we actually got this one started, it’s difficult to go back, because everyone wants to see that you’ve used the funds for this one wisely.”
    The remaining section of Webster, the nondescript half-mile runway between Atlantic Avenue and the tubes, will likely be defined as Phase III. This area was identified in 2001 by BMS Design Group as the key to providing “a strong sense of arrival to West Alameda” and putting the breaks on high-speed traffic, especially on the incoming route. BMS is the San Francisco firm that drew up the revitalization plans.
    That final phase has yet to advance beyond the drafting board. A myriad of factors has turned the northern end of Webster Street into a political and financial porcupine. Among them are potential internal development projects by the College of Alameda. “To tell you the truth, discussions stopped a couple of years ago between the college, the city, Catellus (the developer) and WABA,” says Cecilia Cervantes, president of College of Alameda. “It’s just starting back up again.”
    Further exacerbating plans for the city to redevelop the entire street is the fact that the California Department of Transportation has yet to relinquish the state highway designation on Webster north of Atlantic, where it’s still California Highway 260 (and has been for 40 years, despite an ambiguous highway-sized sign on the incoming tube route identifying Webster Street with Highway 61, or Central Avenue). It took a state assembly bill sponsored by Alameda’s Wilma Chan to get Caltrans to sign over the bulk of Webster to facilitate development on what would have otherwise been illegal on a state route.
    Phase I of the Renaissance Project got underway in early October when a portion of Webster Street was shorn of its trees. “They were cracking the sidewalks and blocking merchant signage,” says Stieg. West End residents buzzed about the resulting denuding, but the lack of foliage brought into sharp review the disconnection of the building facades on the street’s historic end.
    Rosenblum Cellars founder Kent Rosenblum, who owns the land occupied by the Webster Street Post Office and his adjacent veterinary clinic, expresses hope that the civic upgrades will prompt landlords to follow suit.
    “We’re going to have a real pleasant place with great trees, great lighting, great bricks, little bulb-outs and a lot of opportunity for sidewalk dining,” says Rosenblum, summarizing the project. “I think it’s going to be the first part of the renaissance of the West End. We are planning to do a renovation on the vet clinic; we’re going to put a little effort into our end, and I think you’ll see other owners doing that too.”" width="300"/>The most prominent feature of the renaissance will be the “mid-block amenity plazas,” brick-lined sidewalks that extend 7 feet into the street, offer uniform newspaper racks and some type of outdoor seating. Similarly, the “bulb-outs” at each corner will also be bricked and extend 7 feet into Webster, pinching the street in an effort to promote pedestrian safety. The bulb-outs will include transit shelters for bus riders as well. Infrastructure improvement, including new storm drains and utility conduits, are also part of the project.
    Going the way of the old trees along the Phase I corridor will be the towering light standards currently illuminating the street. They are to be replaced by “pedestrian-sized lighting and pedestrian-sized trees,” according to Michael Smiley, BMS’ lead architect on the project. The new trees, crape Myrtle and Aristocrat pear, will be 15 feet tall when planted and spaced a uniform 25 feet apart.
    “They also are trees that put on a show in more than one season, so maybe we get some spring flowers and some fall color,” says Smiley, who was a key player in the redesign of the streetscape on San Francisco’s Embarcadero.
    Phase I is due for completion in April.
    Besides encouraging a café atmosphere, a key function of the extended sidewalks is to provide what engineers call “traffic calming.” Presumably, that’s different from the gridlock on Park Street during daily rush hours, but Webster Street merchants are hailing the change as long overdue.
    “When you’re building a new library, a new theater, a new parking lot and a new streetscape,” says Webster Pharmacy owner Ed Clark, rattling off a list of the upcoming projects on or near Park Street, “maybe you ought to do something for Webster Street.”
    At least one Park Street business owner concurs.
    “We’re already economically much healthier than Webster Street,” notes Kelly Park, the proprietor of Kelly’s of Alameda, a jazz-oriented nightclub. “The Navy base closure was good for Park Street. It killed Webster Street. So the city needs to pick Webster up by the bootstraps, whereas Park Street kind of takes care of itself.”
    The death knell of the Alamada Naval Air Station signaled a close to the longest chapter in the curious history of a peculiar street.
    Just six years after Alameda was officially chartered in 1872, America’s Gilded Age showered the West End with prosperity in the form of bath resorts, a baseball field and plenty of saloons. The bay front property now largely encompassed by Robert Crown Memorial State Beach was one of the most popular weekend destinations in the Bay Area.
    To accommodate the crowds, the Britt Hotel was constructed at the corner of Webster Street and Central Avenue in 1879. Four years later, it was purchased by James G. “Doc” Croll and became primarily a tavern, which it has remained for the past 125 years.
    According to Alameda historian Woody Minor, Webster Street, aided by the electrification of the city’s streetcar system, flourished until about 1895. Subsequently, Minor wrote in a 1993 publication, “the West End receded to the periphery of the city’s economy after the resort boom collapsed and residential construction shifted to the central and eastern sections of Alameda, contributing to Park Street’s robust growth.”" width="200"/>But abundance returned, several times over. The opening of Neptune Beach in 1917 marked the beginning of Webster Street’s halcyon era. For the next 22 years, tens of thousands of visitors flocked to the bathing resort-amusement park each weekend during its five-month season. They flooded through the gates of Neptune Beach’s exotic 100-foot entrance tower, which stood sentinel at the south foot of Webster.
    It strains even the most vivid imagination to gaze upon the serene shores of Crab Cove today and picture the teaming masses of roller-coaster riders, swimmers and midway patrons that inspired Neptune Beach’s nickname as “The Coney Island of the West.” But it was here, so goes the legend, that the snow-cone was invented.
    Two years after a modernized version of the Webster Street Bridge was opened in 1926, the 980-foot steel drawbridge was replaced by the Posey Tube—an architectural wonder that gave ships unfettered access to the Estuary. The tube also served as the model for the Trans-Bay tube and sub-aquatic tunnels worldwide. It would be the sole traffic entrance and exit to West Alameda until its twin, the Webster Street Tube, was dedicated in 1963.
    In 1930, the 232-acre San Francisco Bay Airdrome opened along Webster between the tube and Atlantic Avenue. It was billed as “America’s first downtown airport.” For 11 years—until the Navy took the property to build housing—automobile and aviation traffic awkwardly co-existed, side by side. Aerial extravaganzas brought Neptune Beach-sized crowds in 1938 and ’39." width="300"/>Webster Street, scarcely a mile long with a busy airport at one end and a renowned amusement park at the other, was destined to an unconventional course.
    But the Depression made entertainment dollars scarce, and the opening of the Bay Bridge in 1936 eventually ground to a halt the Southern Pacific ferryboat and train tandem that was so integral to importing Nepture Beach patrons to the Island. The fun came to end in 1939, when the facility’s proprietors, the Strehlow family, declared bankruptcy.
    By then, however, construction on the Alameda Naval Air Station was well underway. When it opened in 1940, Webster Street was back in business. After war came the following year, business was booming. The base employed some 100,000 military personnel and civilian aides—nearly three times the population of the Island at the time—at its nadir during World War II.
    For nearly a half century, Webster Street contorted itself to serve a naval presence. In 1985, the opening of the Constitution Avenue skyway began diverting traffic entering Alameda via Webster Street toward the nascent Marina Village project. Lucky—the West End grocery store at Webster and Central and the district’s business anchor for 21 years—followed the traffic in 1988 and moved to its current location (as Albertson’s) in Marina Village.
    When the Navy finally weighed anchor more than seven years ago, Webster Street sank into economic turmoil, and businesses that had tied their fates to sailors on shore leave sank.
    Subsequently, chains like Walgreens, Kinkos and Starbucks eyed the city’s plans for conversion of naval housing on Atlantic Avenue, and Webster Plaza was born opposite the college in 1998.
    But momentum stalled with the economic downturn, and Alameda threw up its own literal roadblock. With the 9 p.m. closure of the tubes leading in and out of town each weekday for 31⁄2 years beginning in 2000 for construction repairs, Webster at night was eerie.
    But with the 2003 opening of Hawthorn Suites on the eastern side of Webster between Pacific and Lincoln and the land clearing for the 485-home Bayport Alameda project on Atlantic between the College of Alameda and Alameda Point (formerly the naval base), the resurgence that justified the Renaissance Project has taken hold.
    “There has been a tremendous change in businesses here,” says Stieg. “There have been some zoning changes, but what’s really allowed these changes are the changing economic times. Eventually, businesses started to recover. We’re getting almost 500 new homes at Bayport. We’ve got the tubes reopened, and there’s nothing that creates progress like the promise of further progress. The city’s adding in capital improvements. All those things excite retailers.”
    The Alameda Art Center, which houses WABA, opened earlier this year after a vast remodeling of an eyesore—the Red Cross Building—at Webster and Pacific. Across the street, a Mexican restaurant is being built at the site where the popular Mexicali Rose burned down in 2000. What once was a raucous bar on the southeast corner of Webster and Lincoln has been transformed into a health-food store. The influx of boutique merchants like Needle in a Haystack and Coffee for Thought Internet Café has given Webster Street a Park Street-feel, especially in the corridor defined by Phase I of the Renaissance Project.
    Although there’s a certain ambiguity to an out-with-the-old, in-with-the-new philosophy in a historic district, Alameda’s mayor believes that Webster Street will evolve naturally enough, guided by the laws of economic survival.
    “As things improve, rents are going to go up,” says Johnson, whose grandfather, Ben Follrath, owned a television sales and repair shop on Webster and Pacific for more than three decades. “Businesses that aren’t doing well enough to pay higher rents are going to move out, and businesses that can afford to pay more rent are going to move in. That’s what’s happening on Park Street. I don’t see a big overnight change in the businesses.”
    The city, however, is helping to steer the evolution of Webster. “Non-conforming usage” zoning laws invoked on the street are aimed at phasing out gas stations, garages, bars and liquor stores. Essentially, any such existing establishment that closes for more than a year can’t be replaced by a similar business (although such zoning only currently applies to automotive-related businesses in the Phase I corridor).
    Spurring the gentrification of Webster Street was the promise of an influx of new residents to the area. San Francisco-based mega-developer Catellus, in a joint venture with Warmington Homes California, is well underway with its Bayport Alameda development. Catellus construction manager Phil Owen estimates that some 50 residents will have closed on sales of their homes in the
master-planned community by the end of 2004. Although one of the four communities within Bayport is largely composed of duplexes being reserved for moderate-income housing, the rest of the housing falls roughly within the $750,000 to $1,000,000 range.
    “We on the board at WABA have felt we needed to get this project started and finished before those homes are finished,” said Clark, a former WABA executive director who opened his pharmacy in 1970. “We feel it’s important that a good first impression is being made. That’s why we felt it was important for the city to expedite this. They accommodated our wishes.”
    With the project comes the city’s newest street, Tinker Avenue, which will run parallel to Atlantic on the backside of Bayport and eventually behind the College of Alameda. It’s currently under construction from Main Street to Fifth Street; it’s scheduled for completion, along with the rest of Bayport, by summer. After that, only a fence and a bit of bureaucracy will separate Tinker Avenue from direct access to Webster Street via the Mariner Square Loop exit.
    That exit potentially could provide ready access from the tubes into a South Shore-sized retail development. Catellus owns an option on a sprawling piece of land between Alameda College and the Estuary waterfront. But that’s likely years away, if it comes to fruition; the land isn’t currently zoned for such usage, and Mayor Johnson concurs with Catellus’ Owen that that retail plans are “just conceptual right now.”
    Though city officials are loathe to admit it, a significant hurdle in the long-term development of the business district was leveled on Nov. 3 when federal judge William Alsup denied Alameda’s bid for a temporary injunction against the Fifteen Group. The Florida-based developers own the crime-riddled, low-income Harbor Island apartments on Buena Vista Avenue, just west of Webster, and had issued eviction notices to tenants in order to overhaul a complex that is being engulfed by new-home developments. The city stepped in, ostensibly in defense of Harbor Island residents, but Alsup dismissed the injunction request as a public relations ploy. Alsup’s ruling clears the way for the gentrification of a neighborhood that kept Alameda Police Chief Burney Matthews’ forces jumping.
    “Statistically, we do have an inordinate amount of calls for service on Harbor Island,” Matthews concedes. “There are a lot of socio-economic issues, and that’s a factor.”
    One of the most intriguing issues facing Webster Street will be the equilibrium of its development. Some merchants, like Domenico’s Deli owner James Murphy, aren’t convinced that the implementation of Phase I will give businesses in Webster Street’s historic district much of an advantage over those on the rest of the street.
    “When Lucky closed, two or three thousand people a day went away,” says Murphy, whose business is next to Rosenblum’s vet clinic. “They put Walgreens on that end, but you need some kind of anchor on this end.”
    Clark concurs. “We have come to the conclusion through our strategic planning that a food market would be the best anchor for our historic street,” he says. “When we lost our anchor store, it was pretty rough for a while. We’re looking for a Whole Foods or another high-end market.”
    Clark points to the land at the southwest quadrant of the Webster-Central T—land once occupied by Lucky and now the site of the Neptune Plaza mini-strip mall—as ideal for such an anchor. He suggests that the adjacent Foster’s Freeze, up for sale, could be also be leveled for such a purpose.
    Like the retail development at the opposite end of Webster, however, it’s all merely speculation at this point. Given its history of eccentricity, projecting Webster Street circa 2010 or 2015 is merely guesswork. But Johnson suggests that as development spreads ever westward, an upgraded Webster Street will establish itself in the minds of Alamedans as the Island’s midpoint—just as the maps have always indicated.
    “You’ve seen it in Oakland along International Boulevard; governmental improvements are made and the landlords follow,” says Don Lindsey, who owns several pieces of property on Webster Street, including the Croll’s Building and his adjoining property-management firm, Gallagher & Lindsey. “I’ve been watching the business districts for 40 years, and things just happened very slowly. But this is certainly going to help move Webster Street in the right direction. There will be more and more pressure on the marginal businesses. It’s been a long time in coming.”