On a desolate stretch of MacArthur Boulevard deep in East Oakland, Foothill Square shopping center has long stood out as a symbol of the economic decline of a once vibrant area.
There was nothing more depressing than driving past the weed-filled expanse of mostly abandoned storefronts -- home to a dialysis center and a bingo hall -- with a rusty Foothill Square sign towering mockingly overhead.
For longtime residents, it was a constant reminder of just how far south the neighborhood had gone since they moved there in the 70s and in some instances even earlier.
But now, after years of empty promises from city officials and developers, Foothill Square is stirring back to life.
Day by day, a $45 million development is beginning to take shape at the shopping center that, in 1961, was ahead of its time, featuring the first indoor food court west of the Mississippi. It will be anchored by Foods Co., a supermarket run by the Kroger Company -- America's largest supermarket chain. Other stores and service providers among the two dozen tenants will include Ross Dress For Less, Anna's Linens, Wells Fargo and a Head Start Center -- the second largest in the East Bay. Jay-Phares Corp. is the project developer.
When the new and improved Foothill Square opens later this year, nearby residents won't have to drive to San Leandro to get to the closest bank or supermarket -- taking valuable sales tax revenues with them.
"I have been waiting for this for 20 years," says Gloria Jeffery, chair of the MacArthur Neighborhood Crime Prevention Council.¿ "I have seen 10 different designs for Foothill Square. I'm so ecstatic there is finally something happening."
It's probably hard for people who live in places where having a neighborhood supermarket is something one takes for granted to appreciate why the reopening of Foothill Square is such a big deal to East Oakland residents.
Many see Foothill Square as a hopeful sign that, as investment continues to come into this long-neglected area, East Oakland is beginning to turn the corner. In fact, Foothill Square is just one of many development projects in the works, from the airport connector to senior housing on MacArthur Boulevard.
"There is no place in the city where there are as many developments going on as there are out here where we live," said Councilman Larry Reid (District 7), who I bumped into Monday at Foothill Square, where he was surveying construction progress. "The greatest opportunity for economic development is out here."
Yet, despite the tremendous excitement, there are also concerns about how the shopping center will be impacted by crime in the area.
John Jay, a principal for Jay-Phares, says Foothill Square has always had good security at its complex. "People should know that they can bring their mama and their children to shop here and feel safe," he said.
In order for the shopping center to survive and thrive, it must attract customers from throughout the surrounding area. That includes neighboring hills residents who have been going to other parts of Oakland, Hayward, Castro Valley and San Leandro to shop. Jay said people in the south hills travel as far away as 20 miles away to shop. When the new Foothill Square opens, they'll have access to a state-of-the art grocery, with bulk shopping services, in addition to specialty shops. It will be the largest supermarket in Alameda County.
Yet, they won't come if they are scared off by what they hear about crime in the area.
I told that to Mayor Jean Quan last November during the groundbreaking. City officials, the developers and store tenants must set the tone early that the community will not allow a few bad apples to ruin a good thing.
"We just all have to make sure that the businesses can do business in a safe environment," said John Fonua, a security guard who works at the shopping center. "Oakland is a nice place that has a lot of good things going for it."