Vallejo’s Mare Island leads the Up Bay Boom.

It’s a little hard to imagine: a Bay Area location that provides a blueprint for enlightened business development — and with room to grow. A visit to Vallejo, located 30 miles from San Francisco on the northeastern shore of San Pablo Bay, leaves one in awe of this hidden gem. How has this community remained off the radar of madcap Bay Area development? And yet here it is, a waterfront city and emerging college town with a flourishing business community and thriving arts scene, with hundreds of acres of open space and hiking trails. Vallejo offers everything that is loved about the Bay Area’s diverse aesthetic of work, live, play, and was the most affordable and hottest real estate market in the nation in 2017. And with the recent announcement of 157 acres of waterfront development, Vallejo is poised to become the location of the next big Bay Area project.

Like several other cities in the Bay Area, Vallejo’s business renaissance began with the rehabilitation of a former military site, specifically Mare Island. This former naval shipyard was decommissioned in 1996 after 144 years of service. Today, Mare Island has been transformed into a golden address, with its working waterfront property touting advanced manufacturing, tech startups, craft beverage producers and historical sites, with a high-speed commuter ferry service to Downtown San Francisco.

The greater Vallejo community provides more insights into this transformation. Home to one of America’s most diverse populations, and consistently ranking at the top of the Bay Area real estate market, its residents first made a collective effort to improve their city’s fortunes in 2011. That’s when they enacted Participatory Budgeting in addition to a 1% transaction and use tax that was extended indefinitely in 2016 and provides annual revenue for infrastructure and service improvements. Additionally, the city is moving forward with a number of innovative public–private partnerships such as VallejoNET, a partnership with Mare Island-based company Inyo Networks Inc. that makes use of the existing fiber optic network to provide a gigabit Internet service to businesses at greatly discounted rates. This year the 90-acre “Waterfront Project” is set to break ground with plans for mixed-use development, and the city is moving forward with the development of the Blue Rock Springs Golf Course.

But it’s Mare Island that best epitomizes the Vallejo alchemy, with more than 110 businesses employing over 2,500 workers. Like the Presidio before it, Mare Island is home to historic structures, with 3.6 million square feet of mixed use space, a majority of which is managed by Lennar Mare Island. Unlike the Presidio, Mare Island offers 157 acres of waterfront property to be developed and to act as the economic engine for the city. Each year more than one million passengers pass through the Vallejo and Mare Island ferry terminals to and from Downtown San Francisco, making the commute a breeze for employees and employers

The booming tech economy means that the best employees can afford to be fastidious about where they work and live. To this end, Vallejo’s current development appears to encompass much more than square footage and fiber optic networks. The city of 125,000 people is attracting creative talent, drawn to an affordable lifestyle in visual arts, culinary, distilling and other artisanal arts, just as other Bay Area cities are experiencing an aesthetic exodus.

If the most dynamic towns these days begin with their breweries, Vallejo appears to be well ahead in the suds parade. Mare Island Brewing Co.’s recently established 8,000 square foot Coal Shed brewery is set to open in spring and is owned by a pair of actual Mare Island residents! The existing popular Taproom in the Vallejo Ferry Terminal Building is already expanding its dining area. The Napa Smith Brewery left Napa for Vallejo in 2016, doubling its taproom output to 5,500 barrels in a new 36,000 square foot space.

When the craft breweries come, the distilleries will surely follow. Savage & Cooke will bring bourbon, whisky and rye to the Mare Island Historic Core this spring when renovations are completed on a waterfront brownstone built in 1864. Not far away, the former Commander’s Quarters is already host to the Vino Godfather Winery Mansion Tasting Room, another fantastic venue for luxuriating in style or hosting an event.

The Vallejo cultural scene is full of spirit as well, with a festival-rich schedule anchored by several art studios and cooperative galleries. The Artiszen Cultural Arts Center, for example, rents studios as well as its 1,600 square foot gallery for retrospectives and events. The 8,000 square foot Coal Shed Art Studios hosts 18 artists in a Mare Island historical building, part of the island’s repurposing boom. The island has been transformed into a cultural event scene with the annual Obtanium Cup and Fly Away Festivals, and even the former Naval Ammunition Depot has metamorphosed into Re:Sound, an experimental music venue.

The advanced economy is already humming on Vallejo’s Mare Island. Factory_OS is located in Mare Island Shipyard’s historical machine shop. The innovative modular housing design firm is determined to transform home manufacturing by creating and delivering fully functional units that address housing shortages and high costs. 

Earthquake Protection Systems invented the “Friction Pendulum” seismic isolation concept, revolutionizing earthquake protection in buildings such as the San Francisco Airport Terminal. Film Mare Island has established one million square feet of filming space, where its professional team has developed the finest film facilities in the Bay Area. 

Not surprisingly, advanced education thrives in Vallejo. Cal Maritime, a campus of the California State University, teaches 1,200 undergraduates at the only maritime academy on the west coast. Touro University California offers graduate and professional degrees in Health Sciences, Public Health, and Education. Solano Community College’s3,000-student modern Vallejo campus has created a curriculum that prepares students with a two-year degree or certificate and the potential to transfer to a four-year school. The program also prepares professionals for new career pathways and promotions.

Vallejo offers the opportunity to live affordably, within an easy commute of some of the Bay Area’s most innovative and exciting businesses. This intersection of talent and opportunity, when coupled with room for expansion, casts the Mare Island and Vallejo live-work community in brilliant light for its diverse and creative population. Close to San Francisco, Napa, and the spectrum of Northern California lifestyle amenities from beaches to brewpubs, Vallejo has taken off again.