Thursday, July 17, 2008

"Little Kabul" Email to My Afghan Friends

Here is a report on the issue of “Little Kabul” and the meeting on Wednesday, July 16, 2008 concerning the ongoing General Plan development of the City of Fremont. This was one of a series of meetings reporting on the City’s General Plan progress and getting feedback and new ideas from the public. This was not a meeting specifically about “Little Kabul,” but some of us are persistently and graciously promoting this new vision of the future. This sees the Centerville district being upgraded into a world-class tourist destination using both the brand names of “Little Kabul” and “Centerville.” Obviously, Afghan-Americans must participate in this whole process in order to convince the skeptics that this idea can bring prosperity and honor to Fremont.

Special thanks must be given to Dr. Mohammad Qayoumi, president of Cal State East Bay, who has participated since the first community meeting last year. In spite of his extremely busy schedule Dr. Qayoumi has made this issue a priority. I feel his comments and endorsement last night provided tremendous credibility to the “Little Kabul” tourist concept. Another Afghan speaker that carefully added a few encouraging words was Bilal Murtaza, one of the first Afghans to relocate to Fremont decades ago. His brief comments focused on sharing appreciation for all the City of Fremont has done for Afghans. His hope is that a “Little Kabul” tourist development would return prosperity and blessing to Fremont.

Besides the three of us who shared a few minutes during the “question & answer” time for public feedback, there were a few other Afghans whose presence strengthened our comments. Everyone had to patiently sit though hours of unrelated details since the meeting covered four sections of Fremont Blvd., and the “Little Kabul” issue belonged only to the Centerville section (number 3 on the agenda). But seeing the big picture can open up new ideas, for after the Centerville presentation the architectural consultants presented the “Decoto Section” which revealed a huge piece of property, formerly reserved for the Highway 85 bypass. (CalTrans released their control of the property since their plans for 85 changed.) This undeveloped lot could be an even better location for a “Little Kabul” development, thereby freeing all of Centerville district for the “Historic Centerville” tourist development. There is also a creek (currently in an underground culvert) which could be landscaped with naturally flowing water to add to the beauty of the Decoto site. This expands the possibilities for all kinds of developments, as the consultants demonstrated. But back to “Little Kabul” and my comments:

After the Centerville presentation, which included ideas like redesigning Fremont Blvd from 4 lanes to 2 lanes (to create conditions like downtown Palo Alto) I jumped in to present the “Little Kabul Plus Centerville” tourism development vision. I started off emphasizing my connection with the historic Centerville Presbyterian Church, the keepers of the Pioneer Cemetery (with many names of Fremont streets on the gravestones). Here are the points I hope I made:

    1. The idea of creating a world-class tourist attraction is not at all like the current “Little Kabul.” The vision requires re-designing from the ground up at Disneyland-type quality.
    2. This is not a “Little Kabul versus Centerville vision.” The plan is “Little Kabul PLUS Centerville,” which I call the binary-star tourist attraction.
    3. There is a need to pursue feasibility studies to determine that it is realistic to attract a sufficient number of tourists from San Francisco. Frequent bus tours of tourists go south to Monterey and north to Napa, so why not east to Fremont?
    4. The site plan would be along Fremont Blvd., divided by the train depot and Pioneer Cemetery. From the tracks to the south all the way to Central Ave. would be“Historic Centerville” (looking like the Old West section of Knott’s Berry Farm). The “Little Kabul” section would be built north from the Cemetery to Thorton Ave (unless the scale of the anticipated tourist market would suggest the Decoto lot—a new idea).
    5. A Business Interest District (BID) could be created to investigate and champion this vision. Other cities have employed BIDs to refine and promote vital change.
    6. Such a vision, properly researched and planned, would revitalize the economy of Fremont and “put the center back in Centerville.”

I tried to get all those points across in just a few minutes. I think the architect who made the presentation on Centerville was frustrated that I basically ignored their work and cast a whole new vision. Nevertheless, Mayor Wasserman and councilmember Anu Natarajan were present, with 3 members of the planning commission and numerous City staff members. Besides the three of us that spoke to the “Little Kabul” tourist idea, no one else mentioned it or said anything against it. I think for many this was the first time they heard the idea. So we planted some seeds, and we need to figure out how to water them.

Here are some next steps:

    1. Go to the City of Fremont’s web page about the general plan:
      Here you can sign up for email updates and see the results of their survey, etc.
    2. Fill out online survey (but note that the survey doesn’t mention “Little Kabul,” or tourism. It does use terms like “cultural diversity” and economic development).
      Note: You don’t have to give your contact info to take the survey. If you do there is some further info they want, including “native language.” Only 2 of the 694 respondents (as of 7/17/08) selected “Persian (Farsi).”
      Question 6 allowed only one “focus” out of 6 choices. So I chose “other” and wrote in “Focus on both historic past AND cultural future,” because I don’t think it should be an either-or choice. I could have written “Little Kabul PLUS Centerville” but I kept my wording generic. Most of those who took the survey were long-term residents of Fremont and most also selected preserving historic identity as a priority.
    3. Let me know if you want me to keep you updated on this issue. I am also very involved in promoting the Sister City arrangement between Fremont and Kabul, so I’ll let you know about developments on that issue as well.

Thank you for reading this far in my long email. I hope what I shared is helpful.

Bruce Green
Bridge Building Facilitator

Tuesday, March 25, 2008

What I Wish I'd Said to the City Council

I attended a Fremont City Council meeting on March 18, 2008 where the future of the "Unified Site" was discussed. Read the online report of the Fremont Bulletin which summarizes it well: Centerville Unified site starts from scratch again. Before the City Council discussion, cards were passed out for any community members who wished to speak. I didn't fill out a card because I am not a Fremont resident and I felt very alone with what was on my heart to say. So I just listened to the interaction, but my heart was burning with a message. Here is what I would have said if given the opportunity to speak.
Honorable Mayor Wasserman and City Council members, staff, developers, and community members…

A common frustration was aptly summarized by Mayor Wasserman when he referred to the eight years of Unified Site dead-end discussions as "whipping a dead horse." He also made an appeal for fresh new ideas. I would like to suggest a new fresh horse, capable of pulling the Centerville "cart" into a prosperous future.

Once I received a pearl of vocational advice: "Don't just do something you can do; Find a job doing something that ONLY you can do." Following this advice led to my current strategic work as "Bridge Building Facilitator," building better understanding between Muslims and Christians. So how does this pearl of advice apply to the Unified Site? "Don't just do something you can do with this site" (retail, housing, mixed use, park, etc.). "Do something that ONLY the City of Fremont can do…" And what are the unique factors that ONLY apply to this site?

I see two unique factors working together. To emphasize the synergy and potential of these two components I would name the new horse "Binary Star" and the cart is "Tourism." Only Fremont offers the world these two attractions: Little Kabul and Centerville. Taken apart they could be seen as competitive identities, but working together as complementary brand names they could revitalize a blighted area and attract thousands of Bay Area tourists.

A recent chapter of Centerville history could tell of a community that welcomed Afghan refugees starting in the 1980's. Centerville's economic blight of those days made it attractive for enterprising Afghans to start businesses. It is a refugee success story which is still being written. The future chapters could include how the "Little Kabul" identity was welcomed alongside "Historic Centerville" as the "binary star" economic engine that transformed and revitalized this district.

How could this look? The primary tourist showpiece, built on the 6.6 acres of the Unified Site, would capitalize on the branding of "Little Kabul." A developer/management partnership would need to oversee the whole region, including the Centerville section located along Fremont Boulevard from the train station to Parrish Ave. Obviously this would require the cooperation and partnership of the several property owners in this business district. The Centerville tourist development would preserve some historic sites (like the theatre), but most of the area would be completely rebuilt on the themes of Old California.

For now a possible action could be for the City to commission scientific studies of the feasibility and scope of developing a world-class tourist attraction in Centerville. I would suggest commissioning Economic Research Associates (ERA, ) to do this study and also form a Business Interest Distict (BID, see Wikipedia on BID ) to encourage the participation of all the affected property owners. Perhaps if the City cannot justify the estimated $60,000 for ERA to do a preliminary feasibility study, then the BID partners can finance this step.

As a final word, I hope you will take action and not repeat the mistake of my friends in Bahrain where I worked in the 1980's as a tourism consultant. Bahrain had the opportunity to develop as the tourist/stopover destination in the Persian Gulf. They hesitated and now Dubai fills that role and Bahrain is playing catch up.

Thank you for hearing me on this "binary star" tourist attraction. I hope you will consider this vision and do something that only Fremont can do. It would bring positive attention to Fremont if the city officials were to even consider this possibility. Fremont could be known as the city which honored displaced Afghans and prospered as a result.