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Birth of the Cool. What is behind the slew of luxe apartments, hip restaurants, and upscale shopping

April 27, 2015 | Diablo Magazine

By Clay Kallam

If you drive through Walnut Creek, you’ll see dozens of construction zones. With each new beam that’s lowered into place, sleek apartment buildings, intriguing new restaurants, and a $250 million revamp of 63-year-old Broadway Plaza are taking shape, changing the face of our already vibrant community.

On the west end of Lafayette, new housing is cropping up. Go a few miles down Interstate 680, where the historic Danville Hotel has been gutted and is slated to reopen in late summer, with apartments, restaurants, and shops. Keep driving south, and in San Ramon, a huge project will give that city its first downtown, complete with apartments, restaurants, and a hotel.  

Much of the evolution is being fueled by an improving economy. But who is moving into these new apartments and creating a demand for the next generation of restaurants and retail? Well, downsizing empty nesters who favor walkability, for one, and young professional families who want good schools and big backyards—but with the amenities they once enjoyed in more urban settings.

Add to that an entirely new demographic—millennial worker bees in their twenties and thirties feeding on the honey of San Francisco’s booming economy—and you have the recipe for a cultural revolution.

If revolution sounds like an exaggeration, look at what’s coming, and you’ll find an extremely lively lifestyle emerging. Apartment buildings with wi-fi cafés and wine cellar lounges. A rooftop restaurant. Craft breweries with bocce ball. Even a new mix of theater offerings with comedy and improv.

Now, living in San Francisco is no longer a slam dunk, even for young people. And as far as where to have fun? Fighting weekend Bay Bridge traffic may become a thing of the past.

The suburban East Bay is changing before our eyes.

Spilling Over From San Francisco
Much of the boom is being driven by San Francisco, which is growing so rapidly that the venerable 415 area code will no longer suffice. The San Francisco of today overflows into the East Bay, thanks to a boom in jobs and a demand for housing, and with that population spillover comes opportunity.

Those train tracks laid way back in the ’60s are leading the way to dramatic changes in the East Bay landscape. Cities on the BART line—including Oakland, Lafayette, and Walnut Creek—are especially poised to take advantage of the boom, as young commuters look for more affordable digs and easy ways to get in and out of the city.

Oakland was the first East Bay city to start emanating cool. Enticed by low rents, eager artists migrated from San Francisco. Galleries stayed open late once a month, and crowds began gathering for Art Murmur and First Fridays, and for shows at the Fox Theater. Restaurants such as Flora and Duende brought hip dining to Uptown. Apartment buildings sprang up, luring more residents drawn by the arts and culture, dining, and nightlife.

“It’s mind-boggling,” says Steve Snider, district manager of the Uptown/Downtown Community Benefit districts, of the sudden shift in both the perception of and reality in Oakland. More than 140 ground-floor downtown storefronts have opened within the last five years, with dozens more coming.

“It’s a critical mass,” says Snider.

And Oakland doesn’t show signs of cooling down. The national press has taken to calling it the new Brooklyn, and Uptown’s abandoned Sears building is getting a $50 million makeover, with creative offices to lure tech giants and a ground-floor mix of retail and restaurants to appeal to the affluent young tech workers.

Neighboring cities to the east are taking notice.

Listing an impressive array of street fests and special events before the mayor of Walnut Creek’s State of the City address, Walnut Creek Chamber of Commerce Chair Scott Butler put it very simply: “If you can’t find things to do in Walnut Creek, that’s not our problem.”

And with more than 1,500 new apartments recently built or approved, Walnut Creek can expect the same kind of atomic impact that Oakland has seen.

“If you look at other cities that have gone through similar transitions,” says Byron Best, the executive director of Walnut Creek Downtown, “you see changes in the retail and dining mix. We’re anticipating a more upscale, younger crowd.”

Evidence of this change can already be found at Brio, a 300-unit apartment complex just three blocks from BART on Civic Drive that opened in October. It is expressly designed for a new style of young professional who prefers city to suburban living, but with more amenities than the typical San Francisco apartment.

“We benefit from having more space,” says Alvaro Leiva, business manager of Brio, as he ticks off new amenities, including a wine lounge (where residents can entertain and store wine in the 700-bottle wine cellar); wi-fi café; and game room with TVs, a pool table, and Foosball. All of this is in addition to the more standard swimming pool and fitness room.

“Some communities in San Francisco might have a few of these, but there just isn’t enough space to have them all,” says Leiva.

Nearly 30 percent of Brio’s residents work in the city but choose to live in Walnut Creek. A 667-square-foot one bedroom starts at $2,235 a month, and the 1,051-square-foot two bedroom starts at $3,215.

Brio residents are just the first wave of the generation known as the millennials to turn up on the once-sleepy shores of east-of-the-Caldecott suburbia.

Apartments: No Car Needed
Here are some of the luxury apartment homes sprouting up within a few blocks of downtown Walnut Creek.

This 300-unit apartment complex opened in October 2014 just a few blocks from BART and downtown Walnut Creek.
Target resident: San Francisco commuters, empty nesters, and young professionals working along the 680 corridor.
Monthly rent: From $2,235 to $3,215.
Amenities: Wine lounge, wi-fi café, sports lounge with gaming center, and concierge services including grocery delivery.
161 North Civic Drive

Agora at South Main
This mixed-use project close to Broadway Plaza and the heart of downtown will include 49 condominium homes atop retail space.  
Target resident: Young professionals and empty nesters who want to be close to the action.
Cost: TBD.
Amenities: Outdoor patio areas, pool, and two-story parking garage.
Estimated completion: End of 2015.
1500 Newell Avenue

1500 North California
On the edge of Walnut Creek’s booming retail/dining area, this vertical mixed-use development will have 140 units.
Target resident: Commuters and people from nearby cities looking to downsize.
Cost: TBD.
Amenities: Fitness center with views of Mount Diablo, rooftop deck area with game room, and a ground-level pocket park.
Estimated completion: Fall 2016 (or sooner).
1500 North California Boulevard

The Landing at Walnut Creek
This 178-unit proposed development is slated for the 680/24 interchange across from the Walnut Creek BART station and will likely appeal to young professionals looking for easy access to San Francisco.
Target resident: Millennials, childless couples, and renters by choice.
Monthly rent: TBD.
Amenities: Rooftop deck with outdoor entertainment, yoga platform, outdoor movie theater, resortlike pool, and pet-friendly conveniences.
Estimated completion: Early 2017.
1800 Lacassie Avenue 

New Kids on the Block
These millennials are the Holy Grail of the modern business owner. Although there are different definitions of what makes a millennial, the term generally applies to those ages 20 to 32. The demographic is larger than the fabled baby boomer generation that so radically altered the character of America over the last 60 years.

“The millennials are a force to be reckoned with,” says Christine Firstenberg, former managing director of Metrovation Brokerage, which specializes in retail development in the greater Bay Area. “They will have as big an impact on society as the baby boomers.”

The millennials, at least up to this point, are less materialistic than their predecessors. The goal of the quarter-acre yard and single-family home with dogs, kids, and a swimming pool is not one they hold dear.

“When I was in my twenties, people thought about buying a house and starting a family,” says Firstenberg. “Now, it’s food; it’s entertainment; it’s socializing.

“Consumerism is still rampant—don’t get me wrong,” Firstenberg says, especially when it comes to the millennials’ love affair with all things Apple. “But millennials aren’t conventional shoppers, especially when compared with their predecessors in the same age group. Their largest activity is in food.”

As the average median household income in the area has increased in recent years, Walnut Creek has seen a surge in luxe new retail offerings, such as Neiman Marcus, a Bentley dealership, and the new Davidson and Licht jewelry store. Of the more than 1,500 new and approved apartments, expect a mix of young commuters, empty nesters, and retiring boomers, which means there will still be newcomers interested in doing some high-octane shopping.

“The luxury market is still going strong,” says Firstenberg. But a shift in the retail market—and who it’s trying to attract—is already in the works.

Millennials: The New Kids
Peter Cincotta and his girlfriend, Sarah Prybylowski, both 26, were drawn to cool amenities at the new Brio apartments in Walnut Creek.

“We use the wi-fi café a ton,” Cincotta says, “and there are a lot of young people our age.”

The couple commute to work in San Francisco. Cincotta says their coworkers who live in the city complain that simple activities such as getting groceries are difficult.

In Walnut Creek, life is comparatively easy. “It’s awesome,” he says. “Everything we need is right here. We rarely need to leave Walnut Creek.”

The couple stroll to Main Street for food (Opa is one of their favorites) and drinks. Plus, they have more money to spend than if they lived in San Francisco. “We knew how high the prices were,” he says, “and compared to the city, we’re getting a lot more room.”

Great Eats
A mix of hip dining and nightlife—and lower rents—help attract San Francisco workers to the East Bay’s downtowns.

Shopping and Dining: A New Scene
Developers in Walnut Creek are working hard to make sure that as millennials arrive at apartment complexes like Brio, the city will have the right mix of dining, drinking, shopping, and entertainment.

Macerich, the development company that owns Broadway Plaza, is investing $250 million to renovate the shopping center, which will have fountains and more open space, including an outdoor area for special events. The first phase of the new shops will open for the holiday season, with most of the renovation coming online in 2016. Revamping an already successful operation speaks loudly that big change is coming fast.

“Our research shows we do have young urban professionals, but we also have empty nesters and a lot of families,” says Tracy Dietlein, the senior marketing manager for Broadway Plaza. “We are working on a mix so that there is something for everyone ... but we want to add a modern twist.”

Dietlein says Broadway Plaza’s mix of eating and drinking establishments will meet the needs of the millennials.  

“You’ll see plenty of restaurants,” Dietlein says. “We’re expecting new residents, and you prepare for that.”

Walnut Creek developer Brian Hirahara hopes to build just the thing for this adventurous new crowd, with his new two-story and rooftop project at 1500 Mt. Diablo Blvd., across the street from Tiffany and Co., Neiman Marcus, and Pottery Barn.

“We’re trying to bring more variety and interesting cuisine here,” says Hirahara, the man who developed Va de Vi and Sasa. Both carefully crafted restaurants elevated Walnut Creek’s dining scene and brought in a new vibe, which has been echoed by a slew of newcomers such as Corners Tavern, Kanishka’s Neo-Indian Gastropub, and Sunol Ridge.

Hirahara recently signed a Spanish chef from a well-known and wildly popular restaurant in Barcelona to open the second story of the 1500 Mt. Diablo project. Plans for a rooftop restaurant are still in the works, but the focus is on creating a spirited spot.

“The lightbulb went on when I was visiting Denver and we went to a rooftop restaurant,” Hirahara says. “It snows in Denver, and those kinds of restaurants work there, so why not in Walnut Creek?”

Blaine Landberg of Walnut Creek’s Calicraft Brewing Co. hopes to appeal to this younger, beverage-focused group with a taproom planned for Shadelands by the end of the year. Phase one includes an indoor-outdoor place to drink beer and lounge, followed by a garden for hops, bocce court, and solar-powered beer shed in phase two. The plan is to transform the business park into a bustling community where people can mingle, drink, and relax.

That kind of innovation can also be expected at the Lesher Center for the Arts, which is looking to revamp its mix of performances and offer more comedy and improv, for example. “There are going to be more opportunities to sell shows we couldn’t 10 years ago,” says Peggy White, executive director of the Diablo Regional Arts Association. “We want to stay culturally relevant.”

Developer: Force for Change
Brian Hirahara is on a mission, it seems, to liven up Walnut Creek. Twelve years ago, he was the developer behind The Corners, the game-changing project with Tiffany and Co., Apple, and Va de Vi. Then, Hirahara renovated a century-old Main Street building into the stunning Sasa. Now, he’s building 1500 Mt. Diablo Boulevard, a sophisticated two-story plus rooftop shopping and dining extravaganza, featuring a Spanish tapas eatery from Barcelona and a rooftop space.

Q: Walnut Creek will soon have thousands of new residents in downtown apartments. How will this change the city?
A: Right now, restaurants tend to slow down around 9:30 p.m. and stay quiet until 11:30, when the bars get busy. This new demo is a good thing: They are people that will go out to eat dinner at 10:30 at night.

Q: You grew up in Walnut Creek. How has that shaped these projects?
A: I grew up at the foot of Boundary Oak, and I lived near a creek. That led me to a love of aquariums, which inspired the koi pond on the back patio of Va de Vi. We also saved the oak tree, and repurposed what was essentially a parking lot into this European-style dining area, very much inspired by Walnut Creek’s lush natural beauty.

Q: Can you point to a tipping point in Walnut Creek’s evolution from small town to chic city?
A: When Apple wanted to come in. The city made us design a one-level storefront with a balcony above, with a wood trellis and a nice terra-cotta yellow brick facade. [Apple] wanted to have a stainless steel storefront, and we said, “You’ll never get that approved.” So they said, “OK, Steve [Jobs] would like to meet with you.” So Steve Jobs came over and met with us, and obviously, it got approved, and everybody loves the store.

Small-Town Charm to Small-Town Sophistication
But there’s more to the story than just Walnut Creek. Smaller nearby cities are seeing the impact of the changing demographics. Although Lafayette and Danville don’t have the space for big new housing developments, both are evolving in dramatic ways.

“When I arrived 24 years ago,” says Steven Falk, the city manager of Lafayette, “I felt the quality of the downtown didn’t match the income demographics. Moribund was a good word.”

Now, restaurants such as The Cooperage and Roam Artisan Burgers can count on more traffic, as new buildings spring up at the west end of town. They’ll bring more people looking to spend quality time in a downtown without battling the traffic to get to San Francisco or trying to find parking in Walnut Creek.

Another project in design is a complex of 69 new condominiums by the Lafayette BART station, although it’s a couple years away.

In general, people relocating to Lafayette are younger families looking for quality schools, access to BART, and a downtown with small-town sophistication. As Falk says, the list of cities that have all those things is “pretty short.”

Meanwhile, the very suburban, very family-friendly Danville is seeing major changes.

The Danville Hotel, built in 1891, will have a brand new look. When the 37,500-square-foot development reopens later this year, with 16 second-story condos and two studio apartments, residents will be able to wander downstairs to explore new restaurants and retail shops.

Of course, they’ll also find an already increasingly energetic downtown, with the new Revel Kitchen and Bar, Incontro Ristorante’s lively patio, and the fun dueling piano bar at McGah’s Pub and Pianos.

As for a huge influx of millennials and younger workers, Danville isn’t the place. “We are very much an executive housing community,” says Jill Bergman, Danville’s economic development manager, “and we’re going to continue to be.”

San Ramon Gets Ready to Sizzle
Many of those executives, of course, work just to the south, in Bishop Ranch, one of the primary economic engines in Contra Costa. As Bishop Ranch changes its focus to attract more tech start-ups, workers with young families from Silicon Valley will take advantage of San Ramon’s comparatively lower housing prices, open spaces, and good schools.

Those young families will find a downtown in San Ramon when Sunset Development Company’s huge City Center opens in spring 2017.

By huge, think a total of 420,000 square feet of retail space for shopping and dining, plus close to 500 apartments and a hotel—all within walking distance of San Ramon’s new city offices and much of Bishop Ranch—when the project is complete.

“What’s significant is that it’s not a grocery-anchored shopping center,” says Eric Figueroa, the city’s assistant city manager. “It’s open; it’s walkable: The theme is that it’s a piazza. It’s not an indoor mall; it’s an outdoor experience.”

Alexander Mehran Jr., the president and chief operating officer of Sunset Development Company, puts it another way. “We’re trying to create a downtown,” he says.

“We don’t see this as a retail outlet mall: We’re trying to create a community connection.”

Roundhouse Market, the former Pacific Bell building, will open in late 2015 surrounded on three sides by a lake. Visitors will be able to rent boats, cruise around the lake, and choose from a wide variety of dining options when they head to shore.

When the City Center is complete, there will be music and art shows, and the apartments will be much like Walnut Creek’s Brio, which will bring some millennials along with more of the start-up crowd to the San Ramon mix. “The apartments will be highly amenitized,” says Mehran, and designed for the highly educated and sophisticated Bishop Ranch workers.

“It helps bring housing into the downtown core,” says Figueroa, but Mehran has a slightly different goal. “People are looking for surprise and something exciting,” he says, “and we hope to give it to them.”

Surprise and exciting aren’t usually words associated with suburban living, but the times, as a voice of an older generation once pointed out, are a-changin’. “Inherently,” says Mehran, “moving to the suburbs is a compromise,” for young professionals.

But that compromise is getting easier and easier to make, thanks to dramatic changes that are invigorating communities whose most exciting activity was once the county swim meet.


SummerHill Homes is a nationally-recognized home builder focusing on the unique needs of the San Francisco Bay Area and Southern California. SHH has earned recognition and respect as one of the nation’s premier residential community builders. The company is renowned for developing specialized single-family detached and multi-family housing communities in established residential settings throughout California. Since its inception in 1976, SummerHill Homes’s goals have been to provide quality homes for its customers, Communities of Distinction for cities, and sound business opportunities for its partners.


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