City council's Hilltop visions: revamping Richmond's dead mall

City council's Hilltop visions: revamping Richmond's dead mall
The Hilltop Horizon Specific Plan will guide future development at the mall and its surroundings.

The Richmond City Council provided feedback last week on the future of Hilltop as part of the Hilltop Horizon Specific Plan, which will guide future development at the mall and surrounding areas.

During the discussion, council members revealed their own visions for the property.

Cesar would like to see a hospital at Hilltop, Soheila wants a bike-ped overpass over the freeway, Melvin is seeking transitional housing, Eduardo has a desire for a signature building tall enough for people to see from the freeway, and Doria just wants a sustainable project.

Prologis, a real estate trust that owns about half the property in the specific plan area, has created a separate plan for the Hilltop Mall property, which includes hundreds of new housing units and retail spaces. 

Prologis pivots: a new vision of Hilltop Mall property
The developer behind Oakland’s sizeable residential project, Brooklyn Basin, unveiled new concepts to transform the Hilltop Mall property on Wednesday night at the Hilltop District Neighborhood Council meeting. The new plan shared by Signature Development Group includes hundreds of new housing units, retail spaces, and new streets that would

City planners will gather information from the planning commission, the community, and the city council to create new concept plans for the property that align with the community's goals and objectives.

"I think we're getting closer, but there is still some area where we need some additional direction and feedback," said Lina Velasco, Richmond's director of community development.

Many Richmond residents have pushed for a large retail destination like the Bay Street shopping center in Emeryville. Planners, however, say it would be challenging to generate demand for retail without enough housing and nearby residents with disposable income.

The Hilltop Horizon Specific Plan includes Hilltop Mall and surrounding areas.

"Right now, we do not have that concentration of housing. So we may have to build some housing first to generate a demand for more retail. If that is the desired land use," Velasco said.

Councilmember Cesar Zepeda, who represents Hilltop, said Richmond has an opportunity to bring a hospital to Hilltop. 

"I think this is one of the last chances that we'll have at a really great location that is central to West County," Zepeda said at last week's council meeting. "Kaiser doesn't have the ability to treat everyone in the West County. We need an additional hospital, and this could be the perfect location."

Zepeda said a hospital would help provide the higher wages jobs Richmond should aim for.

"I don't want to see minimum wage jobs everywhere in this development. We want to make sure that we allow future generations to have these better-paying jobs," Zepeda said.

Councilmember Soheila Bana said the community is frustrated that the redevelopment of the mall property is taking so long.

"People want the project to be implemented and developed as soon as possible," Bana said. "I'm asking you, please, whatever you can do to expedite it; the community would very much appreciate that."

Bana called for a pedestrian walkway to connect the Hilltop Green neighborhood on the east side of the freeway with the mall. The bridge would allow residents to go shopping, explore, and take advantage of any new amenities at Hilltop.

"This provides an awesome opportunity for both sides of the freeway to be connected through a green path for biking and walking, making Hilltop Mall a destination for people living on the other side of the freeway," Bana said.

The Hilltop Horizon Specific Plan encompasses Hilltop Mall and surrounding areas, including the former Chevys location.

Bana said that Richmond needs to maintain and collaborate with businesses in the city. If Prologis becomes dissatisfied and departs, it will take a long time to locate another buyer and complete the development process.

"I hope we can come to a compromise and come up with a solution that is win-win," Bana said.

Councilmember Melvin Willis said he wants to attract retailers who prioritize livable wages, not just those paying the bare minimum. Willis also wants to see a mixed-income development focusing on very low to moderate income that can maximize access to housing. On January 1, Richmond's minimum wage will increase to $17.20 per hour.

"One thing that comes to mind is permanent transitional housing," Willis said. "As we're working with individuals who are homeless and getting back on their feet. Maybe we can have some sort of partnership on housing that is available for those who are turning a new leaf and getting back into it."

Councilmember Doria Robinson emphasized that one of the council's most important responsibilities is determining the city's vision and land uses.

"Cities outlive developments and business," Robinson said. "We have to be responsive to what is happening in terms of trends and what is going to be sustainable, fiscally sustainable, and economically sustainable."

Mayor Eduardo Martinez said we don't have a clear vision for the city's future, but a new development at Hilltop could put Richmond on the map. 

"This city can become a great place that attracts people. Hilltop is a place that creates that center of attention," Martinez said. "When I look at Hilltop, I think that what we need is a signature building. Something that will attract people, something that is tall enough for people to see from the freeway."

Martinez also advocated for making Hilltop Lake accessible to the Hilltop community by allowing people to walk down to the lake and incorporate it into their community.

Martinez said development at the mall stalled because Prologis wasn't "forthright with the community."

"They purchased this land with the intention of building something that it wasn't zoned for," Martinez said. "So, in fact, Prologis was trying to change the face of the city without the city being the change agent."

Mike Ghielmetti, CEO of Oakland-based Signature Development, which is developing the plan for Prologis, said his goal is to listen to the council's input, synthesize what the public and advisory committee have said, and incorporate the feedback of neighborhood stakeholders.

"We do think there are a number of possibilities. We have changed the direction of the project and think it is far more fitting with what the community has in mind," Ghielmetti said. "We really do appreciate you looking at the notion of making something that is economically feasible that we actually can get started within the soonest possible time to build something that the city and citizens can be proud of."

Councilmember Claudia Jimenez is out on medical leave, and Councilmember Gayle McLaughlin was absent. City planners hope to return to the city council with a preferred plan in the first quarter of 2024. 

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