Originally published on The Island

Diane Rizzo remembers the golden years at the Harbor Bay Landing Shopping Center, where she and her business partner, Sue Devlin, bought and ran the Wolf and the Hare gift shop for three years. The gift shop became a fixture: gourmet food samplings, friendly chats with a loyal clientele, and monthly meet-ups. But those days vanished, Rizzo recalls, as rents started to rise and conditions at the shopping center continued to deteriorate.

“(The shopping center) is such an eyesore and general embarrassment to all of us who live here in Harbor Bay, and remember what a wonderful place it used to be,” said Rizzo.

The only commercial area on the Bay Farm Island, Harbor Bay Landing has been losing its tenants one by one as leases expire. Over the past several years, popular establishments including the Wolf and the Hare and Cafe Enrico’s have disappeared, much to the dismay of tenants and patrons alike, and the spaces they once occupied have yet to be filled.

Rizzo said she and her partner put their shop up for sale as their lease came up for renewal after receiving assurances from her landlord that any rent increase they received would be minimal. “However, as soon as we attracted some interested buyers, the landlord decided to increase the rent to an amount so prohibitive, we were unable to sell,” said Rizzo. The shop closed in 2008.

Recent tenants to leave the shopping center include Alameda Eye Optometry, Harbor Bay Travel Services, and Paul Ting D.D.S. General Dentistry, though the shopping center is still anchored by two large tenants, Safeway and CVS. A count of empty spaces in February found 14 vacancies at the shopping center, while Loopnet, an online commercial real estate website, listed six spaces for rent.

The amount of sales tax revenue generated by Harbor Bay Landing, Bridgeside, and Alameda Towne Centre offers some insight into the level of business at those locations. Between 2007 and 2009, sales taxes generated by Harbor Bay Landing remained relatively flat at around $167,000 at the same time Towne Centre saw sales tax revenue increase by 19 percent, from $868,000 to $1.02 million and Bridgeside increased 30 percent, from $148,000 to $192,000. (All three shopping centers saw their sales tax take drop in 2010.)

In addition to the poor economy, past and present tenants blame rising rents, and what they called neglect on the part of the center’s owners, who they said barely met the most basic maintenance needs. Rizzo said that the owners continually neglected problems at the shopping center, including leaking roofs and windows, electrical issues, and broken and uneven brick pathways. At her shop, there was no heat or hot water – a problem that wasn’t fixed by the owners.

“One never knew if a request would be met with a professional and quick response,” Rizzo said, “or go into a black hole.”

The shopping center’s owners, Harbor Bay Landing LLC, did not respond to repeated requests for comment. The company, formed in 2001 to manage the shopping mall, is managed by Chien Ping Liu, Kan Ping Liu, Michael C.H. Chang, and Sandy H.C. Chang, according to state filings. 

Some of the center’s tenants said that they experienced the same silence when they make even the most basic maintenance requests.

Takao Minatoya, who owns the Angel Fish Japanese Restaurant, has seen the evolution of the shopping center over his 12 years there. Minatoya said he has seen the steep increase in rents push out a number of tenants, and has dealt with the unresponsiveness of the owners.

“The landlord is very hard to deal with,” Minatoya said.

But Minatoya, who said he would like nothing more than to leave the shopping center, doesn’t plan to anytime soon; he does good business where he’s at, and he feels uncomfortable moving to another location in this economy.

Alameda Eye Optometry’s Michael Britt said he shut down this second location as a cost-cutting measure to save on staff costs, but he still pays for the space since his lease hasn’t expired. Britt noted occasions when clients tripped and fell on loose stones and other obstacles scattered across the shopping center. The deteriorating conditions, coupled by the inaccessibility to the owners, were troublesome.

“(The center) needs a face lift, and an owner that sees themselves as a partner,” said Britt, who said his business picked up after he left Harbor Bay Landing.

It’s difficult to pinpoint how much exactly the owners of the Harbor Bay Landing shopping center are charging their tenants, thought Britt said his rent had recently increased from $3.50 per square foot to $4. Loopnet was advertising six spaces at a rental rate of $33 per square foot annually or $2.75 per month in early February, but has since changed the rate to negotiable.

Harbor Bay Landing’s rental rate was higher than a number of the other shopping centers in Alameda when a reporter checked in February: Bridgeside Shopping Center had spaces running $29.40 per square foot annually or $2.45 per month; Marina Village Shopping Center, around $25, or $2.08 per month; and Neptune Plaza, at $24 or $2 per month.

Dorene Soto, who manages the city’s business development division, said the economic recession have caused leasing issues for business, and she has noticed rents declining as a result.

“Yeah,” Soto said of Harbor Bay Landing, “they’ve got quite a few (vacancies).”

Although the city doesn’t have programs to assist shopping centers, Soto said they’ve offered Harbor Bay Landing’s owners assistance in the form of streamlining a planning check for prospective tenants. She said the center’s owners declined the help.

Rizzo recalled that when her shop closed down, the owners didn’t cover up the windows immediately. If you walked by the store and looked through the window, she said, you would see a lone broom leaning against a column in the middle of the empty shop – a stark reminder of what used to be and was no more.

“We regretfully had to close a shop that had been a fixture of the Landing for 12 years,” Rizzo said. “Thank goodness for the overwhelming support of the community during that time.”