Wednesday, April 29, 2015

County Action Speeds Solano Fairgrounds Plan to Next Phase

Dorain McLeod putts at the Joe Mortara Golf Course at the Solano County Fairgrounds in Vallejo. (Aaron Rosenblatt/Daily Republic file)

FAIRFIELD — The next nine months may be the most important ever for Solano360, as Solano County enters into exclusive negotiations with a firm on the development of the project at the Solano Fairgrounds.

The Board of Supervisors has directed staff to enter into an “exclusive right to negotiate” with Solano Community Development LLC in developing the long-debated Solano360 project.

The action does not lock the county into having the company do the development, but does commit county staff to negotiate only with Solano Community Development during the nine-month time frame.

The principals of Solano Community Development – a company that includes Kenwood Investments, JMA Ventures and partner Steven Kays – have been involved in major developments in Northern California such as Ghirardelli Square, the Sacramento Arena Project and Treasure Island Redevelopment.

Solano Community Development wants to be the county’s and city’s private sector partner to invest in the Solano360 project, with a fully integrated, sustainable development that includes the private- and public-purpose areas, the firm said in its presentation.

“We can put heart and soul into this project,” said Darius Anderson, chief executive officer of Kenwood Investments and co-manager of Solano Community Development. “We believe there is a tremendous interest in this project, if it’s done right.” 

Proposal features mixed uses
 
Anderson in a presentation to the board this month outlined various elements that could be included in development of the 149-acre fairgrounds site in Vallejo at the interchange of Interstate 80 and Highway 37.

“We will complement your vision and activities,” Anderson said. “We believe we have the technical background to enhance what you have already done.”

Solano Community Development envisions a variety of retail and commercial uses for the site that would include retail food, beverage, clothing and lifestyle options, sporting goods and outdoor activity functions and the like, the presentation said.

“We believe retail is key and crucial,” Anderson said.

Retail uses would include a shopping and entertainment center that would provide a destination for the approximately 1.5 million people who live within 20 miles of the site, according to the presentation. It could possibly include some retail that has not previously been featured in the region, Anderson said.

Restaurants would include a mix of large, family friendly operations and smaller, local options, the presentation specified. It’s considered a great location for innovative dining, Anderson said.

Given the site’s location adjacent to Lake Chabot, the Solano Community Development presentation said it would expect a water feature to be a prominent aspect of any potential development. The presentation also includes a water park as part of the development.

“The challenge is how do you add to the amount of time the guest is already spending there,” Anderson said. “We believe a water park resort would add a day.”

The portion of the development devoted to the fair, meanwhile, would be different from what has been seen there.

“The fair of the 20th century is not the fair of the 21st century,” Anderson said. “The fair of the future across the state will look different.”

The fair does not require the space it did, he said.

“But it would still have the charm and attraction that we all grew up with,” he said.

It would become a year-round venue for traditional fair uses, with innovative and cutting-edge technology, according to the presentation. It will address local needs, as well, Anderson said.

The Solano Community Development presentation also revealed plans for live entertainment as part of the project. Solano Community Development would partner with Another Planet Entertainment LLC, a Bay Area icon in the field of promoting and managing live entertainment events, the presentation indicated.

Another Planet Entertainment is excited about the location in relationship to the population, Anderson said. 

Homes or apartments as well?
 
Solano Community Development is also considering a residential component for the development. It will allow the development to be vibrant 24/7, Anderson said.

Supervisor Linda Seifert, who represents Vallejo, questioned including housing as part of the development.

A residential component would keep the property engaged at night, Anderson said. He admitted, however, that Solano Community Development may come back later with a change about including housing in the development.

“We want to look at it,” he said. “That’s what we would go to work on if we’re selected.”

Seifert questioned if the retail portion of the development would include a large department store.

There needs to be a blend of a variety of things, but not a big-box store, Anderson said.

“We would come back to you on a regular basis to collaborate,” he said. 

Who’s in charge?
 
Many details will need to be worked out in the negotiations, but one of the main factors will be whether the county can take the lead on the project.

“My position is that I want the county to be the master developer,” Supervisor Jim Spering said. “I want to make sure that you’re comfortable with that.”

“The reason why I was proposing that is because we’re dealing with the fair of the future,” Spering said. “We’re dealing with a space that’s going to be a public space. It really is what we’re hoping is going to be the iconic feature of this project.

“And we’re going to be dealing with a lot of regulatory agencies, dealing with the city of Vallejo,” he said. “And I think it’s very appropriate that since the county developed this vision or this plan, that we act in that role.”

That would need to be worked out in the details of the negotiations, Anderson said.

“Just like we did on Treasure Island, we were the master developer and I would argue that we enhanced it and we did all the things that you just described for the city,” Anderson said. “Once we do become your developer, in essence, everything you described is also our top priority.” 

Six Flags protections
 
Spering also stressed to Anderson that the county and the city of Vallejo don’t want anything to affect the Six Flags Discovery Kingdom amusement park, which is adjacent to the fairgrounds, in a negative way.

“The county and the city are very concerned about the parking for Six Flags,” he said. “Six Flags is a major employer in Vallejo and an operation that we want to keep healthy and we would like to see grow.”

“We see tremendous benefit to those two projects if they’re working hand-in-hand,” Spering said.
Solano Community Development would integrate and embrace Six Flags Discovery Kingdom and other Vallejo assets such as the area’s waterfront, the firm said in its proposal. 

A significant draw
 
Spering also expressed a need for a central element to the development.

“From my perspective, there has to be some iconic feature to this project that is really what draws people there,” he said.

Anderson said he and Spering were on the same page on the matter.

“I agree with you 100 percent,” he said. “If it’s either a business that’s iconic, if it’s art that’s iconic, if it’s an attraction that’s iconic, we believe to get people to get off the freeway . . . they’re already coming to go to (Six Flags) . . . but if we’re going to be successful we have to get them to stop there.”

Whatever is done there, there’s going to have to be one or more iconic features, he said. 

Big project, single presentation
 
Seifert complimented Anderson on the Solano Community Development presentation, but asked staff why there was only one presentation.

“That raises at least some concern for me about why you think that happened,” she said.
Circumstances concerning the development affected the responses, staff said.

“I think the limiting factor of the (request for qualifications) is the county not selling the property,” said Bernadette Curry, Solano deputy county counsel. “We are only ground leasing the property. That is a major issue why so many folks decided not to put in a proposal.”

A couple of developers who the county anticipated would submit a proposal had expressed concern about the lease issue, staff said. The other concern was overdevelopment of the entire property. They weren’t sure they wanted to be a developer for an entire property, as opposed to the private-purpose areas only, staff said.

“We did discuss in a previous board meeting that we would take no more than three finalists to this meeting,” Curry said. “But at the end of the day we did just get one proposal that met the criteria that we had in the RFQ and the proposal is very solid. They have a very strong financial background.”
Solano Community Development and Extreme Sports Production were the only two firms that submitted a proposal in response to the request for qualifications from the county. The Solano360 Implementation Committee – comprised of Board Chairwoman Erin Hannigan, Spering and Vallejo City Council members Pippin Dew-Costa and Jess Malgapo – recommended Solano Community Development as a finalist to make a presentation to the board.

The county had distributed the request for qualifications to hundreds of development-related firms and individuals as well as posted the request on the county website, according to Curry. County staff and consultants conducted site visits Jan. 20 and Feb. 4 – prior to project submittals – at the fairgrounds property. 

What’s next
 
Agreements that will need to be worked out with Solano Community Development during negotiations concern ground leases, possible financing agreements, integration and operation of the project, according to county staff.

Various other details that staff said need to be worked out with the board include allowed uses, site development parameters, incorporation of any anchor users identified through this solicitation, responsibilities for infrastructure investment, schedule of performance and phasing, process for further environmental review, if any, and business terms and conditions for lease.

Anderson, meanwhile, outlined three elements that Solano Community Development will begin working on. Those elements include a market study, working with supervisors individually to get additional feedback and talking to vendors to get people on board, he said.

“Those three tracks would be running at the same time,” Anderson said.

Supervisor Skip Thomson after the presentation questioned the development’s benefit to taxpayers.

Those at Solano Community Development hope that at the end of the day, this would provide public use and a tax benefit, Anderson said.

Thomson indicated, meanwhile, that he is anxious to know how the development will be paid for.

“The concern I have is when the project actually unfolds, how are we going to pay for it?” he said. “We don’t need to talk about it today, because it’s going to be coming back. But that’s what you’re going to have to prove to me, that this makes sense from the taxpayers’ perspective.”

Hannigan, who also represents Vallejo, joined other board members in complimenting Solano Community Development for its presentation.

“I think the projects you have in your portfolio are iconic,” she said. “They’re ones that support history of a site and look toward the future as far as a use. And I think that’s something you’ve heard is really important to us. And it’s important to the fair board members. That’s a bonus for Solano County and the fair.”

“We’re very anxious to get going,” she said. “This is kind of the dating phase that we’re going into.”
While complimenting the other supervisors for their questions, Spering urged them to move ahead with the project.

“I don’t want to wait another year,” he said. “I don’t think we can afford to do that.”

Thomson echoed those thoughts.

“We need to get this thing going,” he said.

A bit of history
  • Solano County decided in 2000 to renovate the fairgrounds and its aging buildings that date back to 1950. Various ideas have been discussed during the past decade on how to transform the facility into a year-round attraction with businesses, restaurants and entertainment ventures, as well as space for the annual fair.
  • Acting as a lead agency, the board certified the final environmental impact report for the Solano360 specific plan in February 2013 and approved the specific plan as the master plan for the long-term development. Supervisors approved a development agreement with the city of Vallejo for the project in June 2013.
  • The request for qualifications was released this past December, with a submittal date of March 13.

Article Source: Daily Republic 

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