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People walk through downtown Hayward, which recently saw the opening of a 474-unit apartment complex. Local business owners hope the new housing will boost the downtown economy.
The MorningStar Senior Living development is under construction in downtown Hayward.
Downtown Hayward, long a scruffy step-sibling to its more affluent and bustling East Bay neighbors, is starting to stir. 
Already, more than 500 residents have moved in to Lincoln Landing, a 474-unit apartment complex that opened late last year on the site of the old Mervyn’s headquarters, which finally closed in 2008 after years of downsizing. The complex is now 71% leased, and ground floor retail deals have been signed by Habit Burger, Chipotle, City Sports Club and several others, according to Crystal Simpson, the property manager. 
The project is downtown Hayward’s first large housing development in decades, and city planners are hopeful that it will be successful enough to resuscitate other projects that have been stalled since the pandemic. 
“It was a catalyst site,” said Sara Buizer, Hayward’s director of development services. “It was a development we were keen on coming to fruition. It’s a rather large site, kind of at the cusp of our downtown, and it serves as a nice gateway into downtown Hayward.”
Of the 474 units in the Lincoln Landing apartment complex downtown Hayward, 71% have been leased after opening last year.
Downtown Hayward has been languishing since the early 2000s when the Mervyn’s department store chain initiated a series of layoffs at its offices which, at its height, employed nearly 1,500 workers. By 2008, the building was vacant and became a popular squat for unhoused residents. In a 12-month period police were called to the property 174 times.
The plight of the property that had been the downtown’s economic engine epitomized the steep decline from the late 1990s when Nick Yoo’s family opened its Japanese restaurant Sapporo on Main Street. 
“Back then every restaurant had lines out the door,” said Yoo. 
Today, Yoo sees encouraging signs that the city’s downtown is in the early stages of a comeback. In addition to running his family business, Yoo is the assistant manager of the Downtown Hayward Improvement Association and, while walking around downtown, he points to new businesses that have opened in recent months. 
Buffalo Bill’s Brewery has reopened in downtown Hayward. The restaurant originally opened in 1983, but shut down when the area suffered.
In August, after a 14-month closure, Alejandro Gamarra — who owns five other restaurants and taquerias in the city — reopened Buffalo Bill’s Brewery, which was one of the first brew pubs in the United States when it first opened in 1983. On the same side of B Street — Hayward’s main strip — the city is processing an application for Arthur Mac’s, a beer garden that will serve food out of repurposed BART train cars. 
Other new businesses include Mad Butter Bakery, Blue Crown Bay & Bistro, and East Bay Eats, a food hall with 20 spaces that will provide ghost kitchen units for delivery as well as a dining area where customers can eat on-site. East Bay Eats is set to open next month.
Unlike other, faster growing parts of the East Bay, like Fremont and Dublin, downtown Hayward has a central core with historic buildings ready to be revived. It has a BART station and a new $60 million library. Across from the library is Heritage Plaza, which opened in 2021, a central open space that is about the size of San Francisco’s Union Square. 
Marco Li Mandri, president of New City America Inc., which runs the business improvement district in downtown Hayward, said downtown Hayward has advantages that many other cities can only admire.
Downtown Hayward has seen more housing and local business sprout in its city center recently.
“It’s a sleeper,” he said “It’s got great bones. It’s much easier to fill a place in than to try to build it from scratch.”
Like most downtowns, Hayward has seen periodic bursts of investment, followed by stretches of neglect. In 2008, just before the Great Recession, a 12-screen Cinemark theater opened a $12 million redevelopment project at a former Albertson supermarket site. 
“When the movie theater opened, everybody, all the merchants, were so happy,” said Ignacio Ramirez, whose family has owned Los Compadres restaurant on C Street since 1966. “Every storefront had a sign that said something was ‘coming soon, coming soon.’ And then all the signs disappeared.”
Meanwhile, just as the city was crawling its way out of the economic doldrums, the Hayward Loop was completed, a major overhaul of how automobile traffic moved through the city. The loop was part of a 6-mile renovation of Foothill and Mission boulevards through the heart of Hayward, a stretch used by 65,000 motorists a day, offering a shortcut between Interstates 580 and 880, or Silicon Valley and points east. 
“It’s a traffic engineer’s dream: Move cars as quickly as possible and disregard what is going on in downtown,” said Li Mandri, whose firm has created hundreds of community benefit districts around the country. 
While the loop increased the speed at which drivers cruised through Hayward, it created a noose around downtown’s neck, with the heart of the historic city center cut off by four lanes of traffic whizzing by on three sides. The increase in automobile traffic led to a decline in pedestrians frequenting downtown businesses like Sapporo, said Yoo.
Development is becoming a more common sight in downtown Hayward.
“In principle, it sounds good — they are moving a lot more people and vehicles through Hayward,” said Yoo. “But it did make it difficult for the downtown businesses, like ours.”
But while the loop has not been great for downtown stores or restaurants, the city’s plans for downtown residential development could more than make up for it. 
Under Hayward’s housing element — the state certified housing plan every California city has to complete — the city must permit 4,624 units by 2031. Of those, about 1,600 are planned for downtown sites, and another 750 for parking lots surrounding the downtown Hayward BART station. 
One of those downtown projects, Maple & Main, has been approved for 325 units, and city officials are hoping it will break ground next year. One project is under construction, a 76-unit affordable senior development at 28000 Mission Blvd. 
Ramirez, who grew up in Hayward, said an influx of downtown residents could provide the vitality that was expected to come with the opening of the theater 15 years ago. 
“Who doesn’t like a movie?” he said. “Who doesn’t like to get out of their home and escape for two or three hours?”
Reach J.K. Dineen:
J.K. Dineen covers housing and real estate development. He joined The Chronicle in 2014 covering San Francisco land use politics for the City Hall team. He has since expanded his focus to explore housing and development issues throughout Northern California. He is the author of two books: “Here Tomorrow” (Heyday, 2013) and “High Spirits” (Heyday, 2015).