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El Cerrito’s Future is Bright With Balanced Budget, Spruced-Up San Pablo Ave., Mayor Tells Chamber

El Cerrito Mayor Ann Cheng Wednesday offered an upbeat assessment of the city's progress in fixing up the city's commercial artery, and she acknowledged the cloud over redevelopment funding.

With a balanced budget, a spruced-up main drag and a clear vision for the future, El Cerrito’s outlook is bright, told the monthly luncheon gathering of the Chamber of Commerce Wednesday at Trevino’s. Marring the upbeat assessment is the uncertain future of redevelopment funds.

The threat from Gov. Jerry Brown’s proposal to abolish redevelopment agencies is a serious one for El Cerrito with San Pablo Avenue and the city’s two BART stations falling within the redevelopment area and most of the activity in the Planning and Economic Development departments revolving around those sections.

El Cerrito has a balanced budget thanks to the passage of Measure R, which within the city April 1, Cheng reported. And the city has developed a strong sense of place with the work done in recent years on the main thoroughfare through the San Pablo Avenue Streetscape Project.

“San Pablo Avenue has been transformed over the past couple of years,” she said, with improvements completed or in the works, such as better lighting and the addition of park benches, public art, and pavers set along the street to share tidbits of the city’s history.

 “We have a whole new front door to welcome people,” she said. “When you hear ‘El Cerrito,’ you have an image to associate with it.”

Highlighting the role redevelopment has played for the city, Cheng said the San Pablo Avenue work was funded by $4.7 million in redevelopment funds, plus an additional $2.7 million in related federal and regional monies.

A focus of the city this year will be to continue to build on the improvements to San Pablo Avenue with emphasis on the areas around the two BART stations and bringing in a new project for the site at Moeser Lane that will be vacated when Safeway moves to site of the old Target

Cheng said the city needs to support existing businesses as well as bring in new ones and make the city more walkable to connect various destinations.

A plan El Cerrito is developing with Richmond for a shared vision for San Pablo Avenue is close to completion. It’s important the two cities work together, she said, because some businesses along the west side of the street are actually in Richmond.

Cheng described herself as a “homegrown mayor,” having moved to El Cerrito when she was 5 and getting her first job as a counselor-in-training for the city’s day camp program. But she also brings to the role a career as an urban planner with a focus on making cities friendly to bicyclists and pedestrians.

While acknowledging that what the city is accomplishing now is the result of the efforts and planning of earlier council members, Cheng said the current council brings a fresh perspective. She noted that three members — herself, Greg Lyman and — are all in their first terms on the council.

When she ran in 2008, she said, her campaign sign was green with a picture of a bicycle. The fact that she was the highest vote getter with that symbol, she said, was "a loud and clear message.”

Another indicator she offered of where the city is headed is the mission statement the council developed in recent weeks. She said it represents the first time the council has come up with a concise description of what it hopes to accomplish. It lists as priorities public safety, economic development, environmental leadership, and multi-modal transportation.

Cheng said there is a sense of trust and collaboration among not just council members but also city staff and the community.

The community will have a chance to join in a celebration of the city’s progress at a “Spring Fling” 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. Saturday, May 14, focusing on the San Pablo Avenue Streetscape Project. The event kicks off with a welcome in front of the historic Cerrito Theater, also known as Rialto Cinemas Cerrito.

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