What's Up With Ailing Colusa Circle Development?

A prominent long-vacant lot, the closure of Post Meridian, a stalled development project and a long-empty restaurant space are signs of the toll taken by the lagging economy around Colusa Circle in Kensington.

For a brief moment in time, it seemed that almost every vacant space in the Colusa Circle area was occupied.

After several years of vacant storefronts, a new art studio (4Cats) opened, and then a fitness center (The Fuse Fitness) moved in next door, leaving only the former Brazilian restaurant next to Circus Pub, as a vacant space.

But in late May, Post Meridian, Kensington’s own French restaurant, served its last dinner, with owner Robin Valerie giving in to the poor economy.

The economy, as well as health, has also taken its toll on the two major developments proposed for the Circle area (or "Circus," for those of you with an English bent).

Ed Hammonds, who succeeded in winning approval to develop a three-story project at the corner of Colusa and Santa Fe Avenues, still plans to go ahead “at some point” but said that his poor health has prevented any serious movement. His plans were approved almost four years ago.

At least, the unattractive wooden security fence on the triangular plot  was taken down over a year ago when the Dan Lynch Company, a general contractor, moved in. It was a step forward but not the “health and wellness” center Hammonds envisioned.

One thing Hammonds does intend to replace is the mural, which covered the building wall next to Angel Court. “That mural had a lot of meaning for me, and I will definitely bring it back. Just not in the same location,” he said. The mural had to be destroyed when the wall was repaired to fix dry rot. It depicted many of the merchants in the building and was unique in the area.

Back on the other side of the circle, at the long vacant lot at 401 Colusa, things are pretty much the same, according to Ed Crowley, managing partner of The Circle Partnership, which owns the property. A year after his last appearance before any governmental body, it’s apparent that Crowley is still bitter about his treatment, but he said he still intends to move ahead with his three-story, mixed-use project.

“I’m still going to develop my property according to the approval granted in the 1983 PUD (Planned Use Development),” Crowley said, but then admitted that the current economy has made moving ahead problematic, and that he would have a tough time getting bank financing.

“It’s just not feasible, economically,” he said, admitting that he would have to purchase the adjoining property at 411 Colusa to make that project work and to be in compliance with the 1983 PUD. “I haven’t bothered to even put in an offer on that property because of the economy,” he said.

The home at 411 is currently occupied, but when the Planned Use Development was approved in 1983, the lot would have provided parking space for his project.

The plan was opposed by several area residents, via the Colusa Circle Improvement Association headed by Rodney Paul, who lives across Oak View Avenue from the property.

Paul noted that he still heads the group, which meets only when issues come up, but added that he was acting as a neighbor whose view would have been impacted in opposing the development.

The county had worked out a plan which limited the height of the building in some areas, but the proposal was withdrawn before any vote was taken. Crowley claimed the only financially viable building is the one originally approved. “Until I can build that building, I’ll just let the land stand vacant,” he said, clearly understanding that it’s an eyesore for the neighborhood.

But moments later, when asked about other possible uses for the land, he softened a bit and admitted he planned to have the lot cleaned up and the grass cut. The fence will have to remain, for liability issues, but he said that he recently agreed to let the Sunday Farmers' Market use the land to park the trucks used by vendors.

He said that he’s just waiting for some liability documentation from their insurer and then they can park their trucks on Sunday. “I let UPS park some storage pods there last Christmas, so that everyone could have a merry Christmas,” he added.

Other partners with Crowley in The Circle Partnership are Carol Chisholm and her brother Tim Kraus.

Other than the Post Meridian site, the only other location currently vacant is the former restaurant site owned by local radio host, restaurateur and gourmand Narsai David. David did not respond to requests for comment about the future of the former El Porto Restaurant, although one person who viewed the interior of the building says significant investment would probably be necessary before anything could be done in the space.

Regardless of what the developers may or may not be able to do, at least one local business owner wants to see the Circle merchants take some steps to brand the area to attract more business.

Nan Phelps, owner of Nan Phelps Photography, is trying to convince fellow business owners to market the area as a destination. “We should put together a Web page, and market the circle as a destination,” she said, pointing out the mix of merchants from 437 to 370 Colusa would be a compelling draw.

Others, such as Julie Moore, owner of Circle Salon, a long-time Circle fixture, said she would like to see the vacant lot at least cleaned up. “It would be great to have the lot used as something like a community garden site,” she added.

It doesn’t look like much is in the works for now, but at least there are fewer vacant storefronts. Maybe it’s a sign that the economy is improving.

Corrections and clarification: The original version of this story misspelled Ed Hammonds last name as Hammond. It also mistakenly indentified Tim Kraus as Tom Cross. The story also called Ed Crowley owner of the empty lot at 401 Colusa Ave. and said that he owns it with Carol Chisholm and Kraus. The property is owned by The Circle Partnership, of which Crowley is managing partner. Chisholm and Kraus also are partners in the partnership. The article has been corrected and revised to include these facts.

Betty Buginas July 06, 2011 at 05:38 PM
Do you know what it looked like? Did it include a woman and a girl in nightgowns, maybe a clock? If so, that was John's.
Dorothy Coakley July 06, 2011 at 08:29 PM
Yes, it was a Wehrle mural. And its sorely missed! As are Susan Wehrle's Portola masks that once graced the walls of the Kensington Cobbler. All things being equal, I'd rather see empty storefronts at the Circle than see inappropriately tall "new" buildings. (We walk through the area almost daily.) I like the Circle's funky neighborhood feeling, though I am sorry that the French restaurant closed.
Bryce Nesbitt July 06, 2011 at 10:56 PM
Don't forget the closure of the Golden Gate Apple School at 379 Colusa Avenue. As each store closes it puts the rest at risk... foot traffic brings foot traffic.
Toni Mayer July 07, 2011 at 01:22 AM
We were very sad to see Post Meridian had closed. It was a lovely restaurant and Robin worked very hard.
Rodney Paul July 07, 2011 at 04:19 PM
Our neighborhood organization also weighed in recently on the Kensington Police crackdown on traffic violations. I am pleased with the results and grateful for Chief Harman's focus on this. I also agree on the loss of Post Meridian. We enjoyed many fine meals there. Robin did a great job.


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