Developer Plans Retail and Office Project in Clayton, Calif.

Nov. 25--CLAYTON -- A rookie developer hopes to bring a veteran's touch to a new retail and office project in the downtown area, which quietly has become a hive of new commercial development activity.

Uzoma Nwakuche, who has lived in Clayton for nearly a decade, plans to launch construction this year of a two-story, 15,000-square-foot building at the corner of Oak and Center streets. The $4 million project, which is expected to be completed in mid-2008, is one of several developments that city officials hope will revive a sleepy downtown.

"I always thought of Clayton as an untapped oasis in the middle of all this retail and commercial activity," Nwakuche said. "The demographics in Clayton support a vibrant downtown."

Flora Square, which Nwakuche named after his mother, is the first building he has developed. Nwakuche, an attorney, came to the United States from Nigeria in 1992.

Nwakuche said he believes the city makes perfect sense as a development center.

Well-heeled consumers live in Clayton. The most recent available data show that Clayton has a median household income of $102,000. The East Bay median household income is $69,000.

"The building that I'm putting up is just the beginning of what I think will be a renaissance downtown that can support many restaurants and many small shops," Nwakuche said. "It can support the local community and also attract people from other cities."

That's the outcome city officials seek, said Jeremy Graves, Clayton's community

development director.

"We want downtown to become a retail and restaurant row," Graves said. "There is some critical mass starting to develop there."

Among the recent projects downtown:

--Longs Drugs opened in September one of its retail stores, along Clayton Road.

--Village Market is undergoing a major renovation. When complete, the project will have a new delicatessen and office along with the market.

--Moresi's Chop House opened in August.

--Nine residences are being added downtown.

Despite the promising outlook for the area, Nwakuche often had to travel a bumpy path to get his project to the point of breaking ground. First he and his company, Komgold Inc., had to compete against three other developers to win the rights to build the project.

Then, Nwakuche had to get financing. And that was no easy task, especially with the credit crunch that has been unleashed by the collapse of the housing market.

The developer turned to the Colliers International realty brokerage to market the site and scout for an equity partner that also would invest in the project. Colliers agents located an investor who was willing to add to the pool of cash that Nwakuche had.

"Bringing the equity partner into the deal made things go a lot smoother for the developer," said Tina Sutorius, an investment specialist with Colliers.

The investor who is teaming up with Nwakuche is Robison Family Trust, Sutorius said.

Without the additional equity, the project might not have materialized.

"It was difficult to find a bank to get interested in this," Nwakuche said. "I really struggled with financing."

Now, it appears that the project could land tenants before much longer, said Sandra Weck, a Colliers broker.

"We've got a lot of interest already," Weck said. "So many people have talked to us about leasing this because it's a brand-new project downtown, the first one there in a number of years."

Tenants want to rent both the ground-floor retail and the second-story offices, she said.

"The potential tenants are seeing that with the growth of Oakhurst and the surrounding area that there is more need for retail downtown," Weck said.