In March, after two decades of fits and false starts, Foothill Square shopping center in deep East Oakland was officially resurrected from the dead.
I used to live in the neighborhood and remember many of the designs and redesigns. The grocery store proposals that didn't pan out. The Home Depot project that never came to pass. I remember being disgusted by having to look at the weed-filled expanse of abandoned storefronts that screamed blight and neglect.
Then, finally on March 26, the new Foothill Square opened amid great fanfare. "Oakland residents don't have to go to Alameda or San Leandro to shop anymore," said Larry Reid, who spent 17 years helping shepherd the project to completion. "They can spend their money here in Oakland."
It's amazing what a difference four months can make.
Foothill Square is slowly but surely beginning to transform what was one of the most desolate sections of Oakland.
I'm not trying to sugarcoat things. The surrounding area is still struggling with violence. Since the mall opened, a 46-year-old man was shot not far away on 108th Avenue. People who live nearby complain about illegal sideshows at 106th and MacArthur Boulevard.
But in the midst of dysfunction, there is also reason for optimism.
It brings joy to my heart to see elderly ladies pushing their shopping carts up MacArthur Boulevard to the Foods Co. market.
One of the first things you encounter when you visit the shopping center are the very visible security guards patrolling in golf carts. John Jay, a principal for Jay-Phares, the Foothill Square developer, stressed that security is tight. There have been no reports of violence on the center's premises.
The main security issues involve shoplifters.
The mall has two dozen tenants. There is a Ross Dress for Less, an Anna's Linen and a Rainbow Apparel. For the first time in ages, there is an actual bank in the neighborhood, a Wells Fargo.
"It's the largest retail project built in Oakland since Eastmont Mall in 1969," Jay said. "It's been a long time coming."
The major attraction for many visitors is the grocery store. I'm not just talking about any grocery store. Kroger Co., the largest supermarket chain in the United States, built an 80,000-square-foot state-of-the-art store. It is the company's largest in California.
Deep East Oakland had been one of the city's worst food deserts. People who live near the mall have gone from having to travel several miles to buy a decent piece of fresh fruit to being able to walk to an expansive fruit and vegetable selection. There is a full-service bakery, and a meat and seafood market.
With its high ceilings and wide aisles, the Foods Co. has the feel of a Costco warehouse.
Ruth Wallace has been shopping at Foods Co. since it opened. "It's done a lot for the neighborhood," she said. "I'm a Southern girl so I also like the fact that they carry a lot of Southern seasonings."
In order for Foothill Square to be successful, it needs to draw customers not just from the surrounding neighborhood but also from the nearby neighborhoods in the hills. The potential market within a 10-mile radius is substantial. Jay said it includes 310,000 residents.
The half dozen or so times that I have gone out to the mall, I have never seen the grocery store crowded.
Foods Co. does not release sales figures. Company spokeswoman Kendra Doyel said the Foothill Square store "is doing really well."
Yet she said Foods Co. has been hampered by the fact that it has been unable so far to obtain a state license to accept food stamps through the WIC (Women, Infants and Children) program.
The state of California cut back on WIC licenses due to widespread fraud among vendors. Given the demographics of deep East Oakland, this means that many of the people who live close to the store won't be able to afford to shop there.
"As you can imagine, that has affected our ability to serve a lot of the customers there," Doyel said.
Foods Co. expects to secure a WIC license in the near future. I sure hope so. It is criminal that with such a beautiful new grocery store in the neighborhood, poor families must still wander the food desert.
Tammerlin Drummond is a columnist for the Bay Area News Group. Her column runs Tuesday and Sunday. Contact her at email@example.com or follow her at Twitter.com/tammerlin.