Click photo to enlarge
The newly opened Starbucks at the corner of Treat Blvd. and Jones Road on Thursday, Oct. 6, 2011 in Pleasant Hill, Calif. Starbucks is the only business that has leased commercial space at the new development at the Plesasant Hill-Contra Costa Centre BART station transit village. (Jose Carlos Fajardo/Staff)

The new Starbucks at Treat Boulevard and Jones Road was bustling Friday morning with grab-and-dash office workers and sit-and-surf laptop users.

The coffee shop is the first commercial tenant at Avalon Walnut Creek, the latest addition to the transit village at the Pleasant Hill-Contra Costa Centre BART station. Completed last year, the mixed-use development includes 422 luxury apartments and about 34,000 square feet of commercial space. But so far, an insurance broker is the only other business to rent a space.

Mike Scott, sitting at one of the outdoor tables Friday, said he enjoys taking his dog Mushroom to cafes. He didn't relish the long walk from his home over the freeway to reach places on North Main Street.

"It's the best choice for me. I've been waiting for them to put things in here," said Scott, who's surprised so many empty storefronts remain in what seems like a prime location. "To me, this place screams restaurants and cafes."

Craig Semmelmeyer, of Main Street Property Services, which is leasing the commercial space at Avalon Walnut Creek, acknowledged that the sluggish economy hasn't helped. But rather than fill storefronts quickly with typical strip mall outlets, Semmelmeyer said he's recruiting businesses that will make the place unique.

"We're not just leasing the shopping center -- we're creating a neighborhood," he said.

"We want to make this neighborhood so cool that people from outside the neighborhood want to come share it."

Three restaurants -- a pizzeria, an eatery that serves American-style comfort food and a fusion sushi place -- are very close to signing deals, Semmelmeyer said. He's also trying to lure an ice cream parlor and an upscale bike shop to take advantage of the development's proximity to the Iron Horse Regional Trail.

"It's a little neighborhood village much like you have little neighborhood villages in San Francisco or Oakland that everyone loves to go to. That's what this will be," he said.

Avalon Walnut Creek is part of the Contra Costa Centre transit village area, which covers 140 acres, includes 2,800 residential units and is home to major employers such as Nextel Communications and Bank of the West. Developer AvalonBay Communities did not return calls for comment.

Edward Del Beccaro, managing director of Grubb & Ellis in Walnut Creek, said the housing and offices in the area don't provide enough population density to support the available retail space. Amenities such as restaurants, a dry cleaner, a florist or a spa that cater to the apartment residents would fit in, but he doubts those businesses would attract harried BART commuters or draw customers in cars, particularly to the storefronts that aren't on Treat Boulevard.

"When you do this kind of interior retail, it's walking distance," Del Beccaro said. "Once you're in your car, you go to the bigger stores."

Walnut Creek leaders are closely watching the Avalon experience.

Developers recently jump-started a long-delayed plan to build a $100 million transit village at the Walnut Creek BART station. The project includes up to 600 luxury apartments and 22,000 square feet of retail and commercial space. But two council members have expressed doubts about plans for an additional 16,700 square feet of space that could be commercial or residential, given the empty storefronts at the Pleasant Hill-Contra Costa Centre BART project.

At Starbucks, Ned Ryder, a retired residential real estate developer whose office is a short distance away on Treat Boulevard, said he thinks the limited street parking will hurt the project. He also doubts that the apartment tenants will be enough to support the retail at the development.

"The way the retail's oriented here, I don't think it's going to be very viable," he said. "I think it's pretty obvious they haven't been able to lease the space. So I think it's going to be a problem."

Staff writer Elisabeth Nardi contributed to this report. Lisa P. White covers Martinez and Pleasant Hill. Contact her at 925-943-8011. Follow her at Twitter.com/lisa_p_white.

null

Jose Carlos Fajardo/Staff
Starbucks is the first commercial tenant at Avalon Walnut Creek, which has 34,000 square feet of commercial space.