One recent afternoon, two businesses that bookended a strip mall at the Southwest corner of Rincon Avenue and Pine Street brought steady buzz of customers in and out. In between them sat a sea of asphalt, stucco and eerie quiet.
The strip mall, which first opened in the 1950s, is called the Livermore Center. It is located just north of May Nissen Community Park — not in the center of town as the name might suggest. The activity that day, as with most days in recent years, was concentrated at Ben’s Burgers off Rincon Avenue and at Contreras Market, a specialty grocery, carniceria and taqueria, along Pine Street.
Under a redevelopment proposal, two of the four buildings that make up the complex will be razed to make way for 91 townhomes, with six of them being live-work units, according to plans filed with the city. While various redevelopment plans for the site have proceeded in fits and starts over the years, the latest proposal appears to be gaining traction, and word is spreading.
“Is Ben’s Burger’s Closing?” Reddit user The Homestarmy asked in a new thread to a Reddit subgroup dedicated to Livermore. “I just caught wind that the Livermore Center (I think that’s what the shopping center is called) on Pine is getting torn down for housing. Anyone know for a fact if Ben’s and the Contreras Market are closing?”
According to documents filed with the city by The True Life Companies, a firm that focuses on developing in-fill housing, the owner wishes to preserve and remodel the Contreras and Pine Street Bar Buildings fronting Pine Street, and to demolish the rest of the complex, the building surrounded by windows that houses Ben’s. A gas station on the corner of Pine Street and Rincon Avenue is not part of the project. A call and an email to the development company and calls to the owner of the property were not returned.
In addition to the three-story townhomes, development plans call for an outdoor plaza between the commercial buildings, a public walkway through the site to May Nissen Park, pedestrian and bicycle safety improvements with protected bike lanes, a crossing island and a mid-block flashing pedestrian crosswalk on Pine Street.
Earlier this month, the Historic Preservation Commission gave the developer a go-ahead to proceed with obtaining demolition permits. Demolition and remodeling of buildings older than 50 years first require a “Certificate of Appropriateness” from the commission.
An in-depth review of the site’s history was conducted, which included reviewing property, and building permit records from the 1920s to the present, old city directories, historic aerial photographs and other available sources.
The analysis concluded the site lacked historical significance, although it did reveal some interesting aspects about its history.
From the 1920s to the 1950s, the property was mostly used for orchard plantings. The strip mall was built in the early 1950s with a grocery store. It was later expanded. At various times, it included a bowling alley, a doughnut shop, bingo, hobby shop and drug store.
One notable tenant from the past, was professional boxer, two-time heavyweight champ and Olympic gold medalist George Foreman, according to the current owner. It is said Foreman had a house on Mines Road in the 1970s, and leased part of the Livermore Center for a practice facility, which included a ring with bleachers on both sides for the press to watch.
Sam Noh, owner of Ben’s Burgers for the past 13 years, worked the grill last week, while his wife waited tables and ran the cash register. Noh declined to comment for the story and did not wish to speculate about the fate of his business. The business has been operated as Ben’s for 37 years. It was originally opened in the 1970s as a Diary Belle Freeze.
There are many who consider Ben’s a neighborhood mainstay. It gets high marks from customers who review it on Yelp! And, according to The Homestarmy, “I’d be pretty heartbroken. Place has easily the best milkshakes in the city.”