Three years after its completion, most of the storefronts remain vacant in Avalon Walnut Creek, the mixed-use development at the Pleasant Hill-Contra Costa Centre BART station.

With a restaurant and a pet business scheduled to open soon, the leasing agent believes the transit village finally has turned the corner. But one local real estate expert says projects that combine housing with retail space are a poor fit for the suburbs.

Mochica, an upscale Peruvian restaurant with a San Francisco location, and Zoom Room, a dog training and pet supplies franchise, are scheduled to open later this year in two spaces fronting Treat Boulevard. The new businesses will join Starbucks, an insurance broker and Third Workplace, a co-working space.

The coffee shop, which opened two years ago, was the first retail tenant at Avalon Walnut Creek, which includes 422 luxury apartments and about 34,000 square feet of commercial space.

Although Starbucks has thrived, drawing customers from the surrounding residential neighborhood and nearby offices, its success wasn't enough to lure other retailers to the development, said Craig Semmelmeyer, of Main Street Property Services, which is leasing the commercial space.

However, Mochica's commitment is sparking interest from other restaurants, he said. Three trendy eateries -- a pizzeria specializing in wood-fired pies from Oakland, a San Francisco dessert bar/bakery and a Chinese taco fusion place -- are close to signing deals, according to Semmelmeyer.


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"I think there's enough density there at Contra Costa Centre that you have this built-in base that supports this quality retail mix and the icing on the cake is you have the suburban folks who say that is a cool place," he said.

But deals have fallen through in the past. Several restaurants reportedly were close to leasing space about two years ago, too. Ultimately, high construction costs and an abundant supply of commercial real estate in central Contra Costa doomed those deals, he said. Now Semmelmeyer has two move-in-ready storefronts he hopes will attract unique tenants that don't have a lot of capital to invest in outfitting the space.

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.

The apartment complex has drawn young, affluent professionals who commute on BART to jobs in San Francisco and Oakland.

Although there is also a mixed-use project planned for the Walnut Creek BART station, suburban transit villages lack the close parking, pedestrian traffic and adequate signage retailers and restaurants need to succeed, said John Cumbelich, owner of a Walnut Creek commercial real estate brokerage firm. Customers want to pull up in front of their destination, not park in a dark garage, he added.

"Once they open their doors they will have to try and survive in an environment that is fundamentally flawed and always will be," Cumbelich said of the new Avalon tenants. "It's a project that should be purely residential with maybe 5,000 square feet of retail."

Cumbelich speaks from experience. His firm is the leasing agent for the 23,000 square feet of ground-floor commercial space at The Mercer, a luxury condominium and apartment building in downtown Walnut Creek. Although the project is about six years old, until recently, three spaces had never been rented, he said.

"The only projects that don't lease in this environment are these contrived mixed-use projects that jam retail space under residential with structure parking."

Lisa P. White covers Martinez and Pleasant Hill. Contact her at 925-943-8011. Follow her at Twitter.com/lisa_p_white.