When Mona Bahraini first decided to open The Prickly Pear, a specialty succulent and cacti nursery, she chose Oak Park because she wanted to be part of an evolving environment.
And evolving it is – since 2010, at least a dozen new businesses have opened along the Broadway corridor, a spurt of growth that has brought new life and new residents to a historic area. It’s also sparked some neighborhood opposition to the newcomers, who get blamed for driving up living costs and changing the character of the community.
For young entrepreneurs like Bahraini, Oak Park is an affordable alternative to midtown Sacramento, and offers its own dynamic vibe. She found friends in the women business owners on Broadway and a sense of old-school cool among the brick facades.
Her shop planned a grand opening on Saturday in the backyard of the home on First Avenue she recently purchased with her fiancé. Going forward, the nursery will be appointment-only and she’ll give potting lessons out of the backyard greenhouse.
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The Prickly Pear will be the second nursery to join the Broadway district after The Plant Foundry, which opened in 2015 as one of the early businesses on the once economically depressed boulevard.
In the years since, the strip of boutiques, gift shops and a few restaurants stretching from about 33rd Street to 37th Street has begun shaping the area into an accessible, walkable alternative to midtown for people overwhelmed by the crowds that swarm the grid.
“Midtown’s a great spot and everyone shops and eats and does things in midtown, that’s why it’s so busy,” said Susan Stewart, owner of the gift shop Strapping. “Coming to Oak Park, you get that small neighborhood feel still and it’s easy. It’s easy to come here and do everything and not feel overwhelmed by traffic and people.”
Between Oak Park Brewing Company, Old Soul Coffee Co., La Venadita taqueria and the array of shopping opportunities, business owners on Broadway argue one could spend a whole day wandering the neighborhood. On Saturdays between May and October, the Oak Park Farmers Market offers fresh produce.
“You can park here, you can get breakfast, grab coffee, walk to all the stores, and go back and get lunch, go to the brewery, get dinner,” Rire boutique owner Josie Lee said. “We just need dessert.”
Sam Allen, co-owner of Grounded. Real Estate, said Ron Vrilakas, the developer of the Broadway Triangle project, had a vision of Broadway as an active retail corridor and waited for the right tenants to make that a reality.
“Everything that’s here, we could have leased it out a long time ago,” he said. “We had a lot of people with some great ideas but not a lot of financial backing or business acumen... We couldn’t let them go in and have Broadway be a place where businesses come to fail.”
People looking for office space also reached out, but Vrilakas and Allen, who handles leasing for the project, knew that meant a static storefront. Instead, Vrilakas passed up lucrative opportunities in favor of businesses that would add activity to the neighborhood, Allen said.
Lee thinks some of the activity is due to free parking that makes Broadway more convenient than midtown for people in Land Park, Curtis Park or Tahoe Park, who would have to find and pay for a one-hour or two-hour parking spot when spending a day wandering local shops.
Drawing people from surrounding, largely more affluent neighborhoods rather than starting businesses aimed at Oak Park’s current residents rubs some people the wrong way. But it is a way to increase the probability of success, said Noel Brenner, who has lived in Oak Park for 20 years.
“You cannot really depend upon a neighborhood, I don’t think, to support business,” she said. “You’ve got to have a bigger population than your resident population.”
The transition from blighted blocks to shopping district hasn’t been without its neighborhood detractors. Some residents are frustrated with skyrocketing rents in the traditionally working-class neighborhood, and some are concerned that products offered by some of the new businesses are not relevant to Oak Park’s natives.
The first thing Stewart did after signing her lease was to reach out to the Oak Park Neighborhood Association to ask about what she could do to help mitigate the impacts of rising rents.
The neighborhood historically has served as a cultural base for Sacramento’s black community, and signs of tension have become evident in recent years. Black Lives Matter Sacramento has held protests decrying “gentrification” in Oak Park, warning that longtime residents are being displaced. A mural painted on Broadway and 34th Street by Waylon Horner as part of the Wide Open Walls art festival was tagged in September with white spray paint that read: “Gentrify 101. Make it hip!” followed by an expletive.
Tamika L’Ecluse, interim president of the Oak Park Neighborhood Association, said there are a lot of positive things that come along with a revitalized commercial corridor, but residents remain worried about not being included in the growth.
“One of the things that could really help is making sure that they are hiring within the community and that their employees reflect the diversity of our community,” she said. “Also offering some sort of incentive for residents, such as a neighbors coupon … would really show good intentions and well-meaning actions to be engaged in the community culture that we have.”
L’Ecluse thinks some of the unease in the community stems from lack of communication – residents wonder why one business closed and another opened, and fill in the blanks with rumors when there’s no public explanation. Lately, she’s seen a lot of positive dialogue happen on social media when residents begin discussing a business, and then the owner chimes in to give information.
“Having open and honest communication between the community and the businesses helps to lessen some of that initial shock and concern,” she said. Her focus is on making sure Oak Park residents get the opportunity to launch businesses in the area. She suggested financial literacy classes and workshops on starting a small business.
Anything that leads to “getting the foundation laid for people to be able to start their own businesses in Oak Park,” she said. “I would say we have an amazing opportunity to be really thoughtful and for our leaders to help lead us in the right direction.”
Most of the new business owners on Broadway are women. Stewart said they stay in touch with each other by exchanging cell phone numbers, a Facebook page and by planning events together.
“The girls here on the block, we all talk to each other,” Stewart said.
Stewart opened her store earlier this year, selling a mix of quirky gifts, clothing and kids toys. She lives in Tahoe Park with her wife and she wanted to open a business nearby, close to her neighborhood.
“I started (looking) in Tahoe Park and then I noticed all these kinds of shops popping up here and as a business owner, when you start seeing restaurants and shops in one spot, you gravitate towards that,” she said. “I knew that coming in to this location was going to mean that I also had to be socially aware because there is a revitalization that’s happening in Oak Park that not all the neighbors are excited about or even want.”