Inside Look at EPACENTER Before January 22 Grand Opening

Today I attended EPACENTER's holiday party at their new building. I was one of the first to see the inside and I want to share my experience there.

Today I attended the EPACENTER (East Palo Alto Center for the Arts) holiday party at their new building at 1950 Bay Rd in East Palo Alto, CA. EPACENTER is a new youth arts center that features "a variety of spaces for learning, creation, performance, and exhibition: studios for dance, recording, art, and music, with adjoining practice rooms; a black box theater; art gallery; makerspace; technology lab and design studio; cafe and indoor gathering area; and an amphitheater" (Source). The building has been largely completed since spring 2021 but unable to open because of COVID-19. Classes will officially begin on January 22, 2022 and enrollment has just opened on their website here. EPACENTER had previously opened its outdoor courtyard for a couple of different events, one of which was a COVID vaccine event which I had stopped by to admire the courtyard.

To my knowledge, today's holiday party was the first event where the inside of the building was opened. I'd like to share my experience at the event with some photos. I arrived just as the door opened and walked through the courtyard. I learned that the event had been entirely RSVP-d. I had not made a reservation in time and luckily they could let me in but without certain privileges like food. Here I've taken a photo looking back from where I entered.

Main courtyard of EPACENTER. I love the nice touch of the poinsettias lining the raised concrete ledge.

I was very excited to explore the inside of the building, since I had seen most of the outdoor areas at a previous event, so I entered through the area in the photo above with a red exterior wall into this yet-to-be-decorated room.

Quarantine times immediately drew my eyes to the X's on the ground. 6 feet social distancing for the sofas?

I then walked up the staircase inside - I do not have a photo of this unfortunately - and exited the building to walk towards the railing which offered a beautiful view of the courtyard. The event had still just started so people were just starting to trickle in.

Here I am looking south towards the Foothills Nature Preserve.

Here is another view from the same position, whre I have panned the camera to the right by around 90 degrees.

Inside the courtyard, the building walls look very colorful and energetic.

Next, I walked along the outdoor hallway as shown in the previous photo, until I arrived at the dance room. In the previous photo, the dance room is straight ahead on the second floor.

Dance floor on the 2nd floor of EPACENTER. Montage neighborhood can be seen in the background outside the windows.

From the dance studio, I turned left 90 degrees and walked forward around 10 feet, and I found the Design Studio. As I turned right and walked towards the next room, I saw a Latino family of 3 walk up the stairs and the boy, around 8 years old, exclaimed "Wow! Mom, look at the new iMac's! Those are so cool!" I felt really happy hearing his excitement about access to new technologies because I remember how for me the iMac kickstarted my love for computers and technology.

The EPACENTER design room features around a dozen new iMac's and is arranged in an open space, collaborative environment.

As I walked back downstairs into the lobby, I was given this flyer about the new programming that opens in January 2022, a month from now.

I took a quick break to get some Johnny Doughnuts which was parked in the parking lot. A few spots had opened for food so the organizers gave me a ticket to get these delicious doughnuts. I got the pumpkin spice flavor and it was amazing!

Johnny Doughnuts from San Ramon drove down to provide delicious doughnuts for the community.

After my quick snack recharge, I continued exploring: this time the ground floor. The cool thing about the ground floor is that many of the rooms have glass garage-like doors that open to expose the room to the courtyard. Here is a room where children were making holiday-themed arts and crafts.

One of the arts and crafts rooms.

By the way, during the entirety of the event there was live jazz music. One of the performers introduced himself as one of the teachers, and they were all very talented.

Live jazz music from the elevated concrete pad outside of the indoor theater. The glass behind the performers is the back window of the indoor theater.

Meanwhile, there was also jazz holiday music being played inside the indoor theater. The indoor theater has a maximum occupancy of 276, indicating that it can be used to host performances for the community. Here is a short video clip I took of the wonderful music.

Live jazz music performance inside the EPACENTER theater

At the end, EPACENTER had a holiday raffle, and I was happy to see so many families sitting outside. Here is a photo below towards the end where people had arrived and the courtyard was filled up. EPACENTER is targeted towards youth up to 18 with arts and music classes, and 18 - 25 with job training classes. It is intended to help families by offering these classes for free and making it convenient for parents to get arts educations for their kids. Hence, it was touching for me to see the families show up - around half of whom were Latino and were not speaking English - to come check out this new major community benefit.

Outdoor courtyard area with a stage. Behind the stage is the indoor theater.

All benefits come at a cost, and I think it is important to mention how the neighboring community in the Ravenswood Business District has suffered from 3 of continuous construction, starting with when EPACENTER broke ground in October 2018 and then the Pulgas Ave and Bay Road improvements started in 2020 and are still currently in progress. I have heard East Palo Alto neighbors complain about all of the dust from construction, the pounding in the mornings, the road closures, and lots of construction trucks driving on the streets for the past 3 years. I hope that EPACENTER gets great enrollment and traction so that the benefits of EPACENTER outweigh the costs imposed on the immediate community.

In January 2021 (this year) I took a series of drone photos of EPACENTER and shared them on the East Palo Alto Neighbors Facebook group for around 8,000 neighbors to see. The community was very engaged on this series of photos that I shared. I want to share them here to make a few comments on what may happen in the area surrounding the EPACENTER over the next 5 to 10 years.

Above is a drone photo looking north at the EPACENTER. In the top left of the photo, you can see the Ravenswood Family Health Center. On the right is the parking lot for the EPACENTER. The road to the left going vertically in the photo is Pulgas Ave, and the road to the north of EPACENTER going horizontally is Bay Road. In January, EPACENTER's exterior was mostly completed, hence it looks similar to how it looks today.

This drone photo above looks southeast at the EPACENTER, with the drone roughly above the northwest corner of Bay Road and Pulgas Ave. The road on the bottom left is Bay Road which extends east towards Cooley Landing, and the road on the bottom right is Pulgas Ave. The water in the background on the top left is the San Francisco Bay. Notice how there is an empty square lot on the right side of the photo where the half closer to the camera is dirt and the half farther from the camera is grass. This lot is also currently owned by EPACENTER, and the City Council on 12/7 agreed to execute a Purchase and Sale Agreement for this lot in order to build our new library adjacent to EPACENTER. You can find the staff report from that meeting on the City website here. The original vision for the EPACENTER lot was to have an adjacent library for its complementary uses, e.g. a parent could bring their kids for guitar classes at EPACENTER after school and then the kids could study or take other after-school classes at the library. And by the way, if someone in that family was not feeling well, they could walk diagonally across the street from EPACENTER for an appointement at the Ravenswood Family Health Center.

Besides the future library - which is not guaranteed to happen since the City would need to coordinate a large fundraising effort to raise over $30 million for its construction -  there is an even larger project being proposed which will be on the lands near the top of the photo where Lyft Level 5's self-driving car test track currently runs. The Landing is the name of the waterfront office project by Harvest Properties which will bring "7 acres of open space, locally-owned retail, affordable housing, new jobs, and infrastructure improvements to EPA and the Ravenswood Business District." Imagine how with restaurants and a food market, there will be additional complementary uses for the family, such as having a place to eat after a day of activities for the kids at EPACENTER and the library, or maybe the parents can go for a walk on the revitalized section of the Bay Trail while their children are taking classes.

As you can tell in this article, I am very excited for the EPACENTER and the benefits that it brings for our community. I do not fall in the age range to qualify for free classes and I do not have children, so you might wonder why I would be excited for this project and how I would benefit. First, EPACENTER is considering making their music practice rooms available for rent to the community after their programming for children ends at night from around 7pm to 10pm. When I spoke with Nadine, the executive director, at the end of the holiday party, she said their team is still thinking about this and they do not know how much the rent will be to use the music practice rooms. Second, I would love to attend performances at the theater: music, dance, maybe film screenings and student-made films. Third, I like the idea of being able to get coffee at the cafe by the main entrance, even though I am not much of a coffee drinker. I feel that it could be a great place to meet up with a neighbor for a chat because currently the closest cafe is the Starbucks next to the Cardenas Market in the Ravenswood Shopping Center which is a 24-minute, 1.2-mile walk away. Fourth - and this is the most important one for me - EPACENTER activates this area of the city. Bay Road used to be flooded with water and RV's and if you look at this Google Maps 3D imagery from a few years ago you can see why people might not want to walk down Bay Road towards Cooley Landing.

Notice the empty EPACENTER lot and the old Bay Road prior to construction improvements. Source: Google Maps.

When I go for runs now, Bay Road is illuminated at night and there is private security at EPACENTER. The RV's were not abandoned either; the City approved a temporary use RV Safe Parking program before the construction of Bay Road. I feel a lot more comfortable getting to the Bay Trail via Bay Road, either by running or walking or biking. Neighbors must feel the same way too, as I am starting to see more and more people utilizing the new sidewalks along Bay Road to get to Cooley Landing and the Bay Trail. EPACENTER gets a lot of credit for activating this part of the city, and it is not even open yet! Imagine how it will be after January 22, 2022, when parents bring their children to classes or kids can bike over or take the bus to the bus stop diagonally across the street.

Some neighbors have expressed concerns about traffic congestion and parking congestion, as the parking lot may fill up and parents may need to park along Pulgas Ave or Bay Road, displacing some of the neighboring residents' cars that currently park there. This is also a minor concern I have, and I will be keeping an eye on how traffic looks once EPACENTER opens.

Stay tuned for more updates!

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