The good, the bad, and the unknown in Walnut Creek’s economic outlook

–The latest Nutshell to arrive in my mailbox, and, which you can, of course, view online, has City Manager Gary Pokorny saying that “things look pretty bleak for the coming years.” The city is facing a “staggering” budget shortfall that will exceed $7.3 million in 2009-10.

Pokorny says the economy has made things worse, but acknowledges that “our problem is structural and we’re going to have to make fundamental changes in our expectations and focus on the essentials.”

The city has already frozen 22 positions and will leave vacant jobs unfilled, but needs to do more, and is looking for more community input. The city just finished a series of “Community Partner” meetings, and will announce another series in the near future.

–What about all those empty storefronts you see around town, including most recently, Viking Home Chef and Z Gallerie? Not too worry! So says the Contra Costa Times. In a business article, “Walnut Creek Realty Heating Up,” the Times says that commercial realty investors are snapping up downtown parcels, where prices are down as much as 10 percent.

Parcels recently sold include the sites occupied by Chili’s Bar & Grill and Z Gallerie. The article proclaims that property investors “exude” confidence about downtown Walnut Creek’s future and quotes a broker as saying that investors “think that whatever is happening with the economy, downtown Walnut Creek will survive and prosper.”

Let’s hope that’s the case. However, as fond as I am of my hometown, methinks the writer doth gush too much when he proclaims that Walnut Creek’s retail and restaurant scene “tops Oakland’s,” rivals “the best San Jose can muster” and “is worthy of being in the same conversation as San Francisco and Beverly Hills’ famed Rodeo Drive.”

Sure, I’ve seen shopping industry reports in which Walnut Creek’s retail scene is ranked in lists with San Francisco and Rodeo Drive, so, yeah, Walnut Creek can boast that shopping claim to fame.

But dining? Sorry, there are downtown restaurants that I love and chefs as talented as you’ll find anywhere. But in terms of reputation in the foodie world (and not just the world according to the SF Chronicle‘s Michael Bauer), Walnut Creek’s dining scene doesn’t rank with San Francisco, Oakland, or Berkeley. No, people don’t drive from all over the Bay Area to eat in Walnut Creek, not like they would to any of those cities or to Napa or Sonoma counties.

–One new investor who is bullish on Walnut Creek is Yul Kwon, the winner of the 2006 season of TV’s Survivor and a Walnut Creek native, who just opened a Red Mango frozen yogurt franchise in the former Maggie Moo’s. While Kwon agrees that opening a store in this economy is “frightening,” he tells the Times that “Walnut Creek is poised to grow when the economy rebounds. In an interview posted on Diablo magazine’s website, the Northgate High grad, who now lives in San Mateo, explains why he opened his sixth Red Mango store in Walnut Creek and how he’d love to move back to the East Bay in the future.

–But one potential investor, who could have helped Walnut Creek’s pursuit of stronger foodie pedigree has possibly backed out of plans to relocate here. That would be four-star Chef Roland Passot. He’s most famous for his Russian Hill restaurant La Folie (which I once had the privilege dine at; very romantic, delicious spot for a very special occasion date night!). But around here he was known for the Left Bank Brasserie in Pleasant Hill. Well, it was just announced that the affiliated company that runs Pleasant Hill Left Bank has shut it, But Passot has reportedly abandoned plans to move that Left Bank into downtown Walnut Creek. The Left Bank was supposed to set up on the ground floor of the Mercer condominium building, according to the website, SF Eater, but the “unforgiving economy” is forcing Passot to scale back his restaurant operations.

–Local day spa Changes has joined the fight to bring Neiman Marcus to Walnut Creek, sending out an e-mail urging customers who are Walnut Creek residents to sign a petition backing the pro-Broadway Plaza Initiative. Or better yet, the e-mail says, volunteer to join in the effort to gather signatures. The signatures are needed to place on the ballot an initiative that would affirm the City Council’s approval of the luxury department store coming to downtown Walnut Creek. The initiative “is a counter-attack to the bullying tactics of mall rival Taubman which as launched two referenda efforts against the city and Neiman Marcus,” the e-mail says.

The e-mail continues: “Your friends and neighbors have come together to protect what’s best about Walnut Creek and to defend our community from … Taubman Company—the owner of Sunvalley Mall who reportedly has interests in a new upscale mall planned for San Ramon.”

10 thoughts on “The good, the bad, and the unknown in Walnut Creek’s economic outlook

  1. Typical business cycle, although this one is steeper than we've seen in the history. Businesses set up based on a roaring economy (think $500 shoe shop), pay a high rent due to roaring economy. Things slow, businesses drop, rent becomes cheaper, new stores move in. Business cycle. I'm sure WC will fare better than most.


  2. I agree that people don't drive from all over the Bay Area to come to our dining establishments. It may be that although there are some unique stores and boutiques left in town, for the most part they're chain stores. People that shop at chain stores probably eat at chain restaurants. Just look at the success of Cheese Cake Factory, Calif. Pizza Kitchen and PF Changs. It's disappointing that Passot wont be at the Mercer but understandable.


  3. What you are saying 12:46 AM, Walnut Creek's retail shopping area is just another mall.

    Chain stores and restaurants are what the Neiman Marcus promoters would have you believe makes a “vibrant” and “unique” downtown that can only be saved by adding yet another chain store. How about putting a Walmart in the mix to add interest. Talk about a revenue generator!


  4. 7:29

    I didn't hear anything like that from NM promoters. And wow, chain stores and unique in the same sentence. The small shops in the older section of town makes the downtown unique in my opinion. Keeping the plaza with the larger stores, as it's always been since the Emporium Capwell days, and having a section of small stores and restaurants is a good mix.

    The comment about Walmart makes no sense.


  5. 7:44

    In the Emporium Capwell days there were many “one of” local stores mixed into the Broadway Shopping Center (as it was know before it became a posher sounding Plaza). Believe it or not, there was even a meat market along with both Magnins, Penneys, Capwells etc. A truly “unique” shopping area as it provided somewhere for everyone of every economic level to shop. All of this and a very busy and “vibrant” Main and Locust Street shopping district.

    Walnut Creek truly was a very “unique” place to shop. It has now become just another town with expensive chain stores in the “Plaza” and other little shops struggling to stay open by possible luring some shoppers their direction to help pay their sky-high monthly rental charges.


  6. Anon 7:44 –
    You heard what you wanted to hear from the NM promoters.

    Would you have been as receptive to 92,000 sq. ft. of new retail that required amendments to the General Plan if it had been for a Walmart? Doubtful, but I would bet that Walmart would generate as much or even more in sales tax revenues than NM and would draw just as many or more people to town than NM. It woud also serve the needs of local citizens better than NM who are looking for a “complete” store in one location selling products most of us can afford.


  7. “It woud also serve the needs of local citizens better than NM who are looking for a “complete” store in one location selling products most of us can afford.”

    I hear ya pal, Target down the block is just too expensive and doesn't offer a big enough selection.


  8. Well before you go comparing walmart to NM, in both cases it would be wise to evaluate what the real impact to sales tax would be. I have read in the past that when walmart comes they like to negotiate in sales tax incentives (read rebates) as part of the cost of coming. Which of course now would mean mom and pop shops get the shaft via no tax break and a competitor that can muscle their way with an economy of scale. As added treat Walmart then moves just outside the city limit leaving the huge empty store only to get a tax deal from the county…NOW THAT IS SERVING THE COMMUNITY.


  9. “It woud also serve the needs of local citizens better than NM who are looking for a “complete” store in one location selling products most of us can afford.”

    Hey, in addition to Target you have Ross, Longs and 7-11 within one block of the future NM. Take your blinders off. If you know the needs of the area so well you should be developing your own stores.


  10. Hello 5:40 AM

    Do you keep up with the planning news in Walnut Creek?

    If so, you would know that the 7-11is on its way out (thankfully, dirty , ugly, disgusting)with the latest Dudum development along with the old Security Bank building (again thankfully)on the corner of Newell and S. Main. Mixed use ground floor retail and 3 floors of housing will cause more traffic but might just be worth the trade for better looking building.

    In the General Plan, Ross and the surrounding shopping center are also slated to be replaced. Lets see, that leaves only Longs/CVS as a shopping alternative to NM within a block. Does this really serve the shoppers from our community? Doubtful.

    If I had buckets of money like Macerich and some of our other wealthy downtown developers I would like to have the opportunity to provide stores for locals to shop in. Having lived here almost 50 years I do sort of feel that I know the needs of the community when I talk to my friends, both young and old who spend most of their money elsewhere. High end shops in Broadway Plaza are not there for young families or retired people who are struggling to make ends meet.

    Call me an old fart if you please, but don't expect to see me downtown laden with shopping bags from fancy stores. Nice place to walk the dogs and window shop in the evenings.


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