Riverside’s nascent Innovation District offers a preview of the city’s future
As it is now, Riverside’s 3-square-mile Innovation District is filled with a mix of vintage citrus packing houses, office buildings, educational institutions and residential areas. Given time, it will develop into a home for thousands of additional high-tech, high-paying jobs that will attract even more investment and also add to the quality of life for local residents.
Once the plan is fully realized, city administrators say, the area’s diverse population will be able to live, work, go to school and play in an area that will be walkable and also have multiple transportation options.
“In five years, we can have a thriving, very cool district — and people will want to be there,” said Scott Brovsky, director of UC Riverside’s EPIC Small Business Development Center.
The concept for Riverside’s Innovation District took off after Mayor Rusty Bailey outlined it in his 2016 State of the City address. Other areas around the country — including Boston, Raleigh, North Carolina; and Oklahoma City — have successfully established similar tech-driven districts, capitalizing on each location’s unique strengths, according to Nathan Freeman, senior project manager in Riverside’s Community and Economic Development Department.
Among Riverside’s strengths are cultural institutions, historic buildings, shopping and entertainment opportunities, and a growing population in the downtown area, Freeman said. “One of our main selling points is downtown has become a 24-hour downtown.”
Higher education also is a key component. Riverside has top-notch institutions that include UC Riverside, California Baptist and La Sierra universities and Riverside City College, along with a well-educated workforce — an important factor in the district’s establishment.
“The writing was on the wall when we saw talent leaving the area,” said Steve Massa, Riverside’s senior project manager for innovation and entrepreneurship, who added that city officials noticed that highly educated residents were increasingly accepting jobs in Los Angeles and Orange counties, along with other areas.
The Innovation District is going to keep those students here,” Massa said.
Riverside’s Innovation District, the largest such area in the U.S., includes a portion of downtown, packing houses east of downtown, the Eastside neighborhood, UC Riverside and other adjacent areas.
Within that boundary and a short distance from the UCR campus, the California Air Resources Board, or CARB, is constructing a 380,000-square-foot facility that will become its Southern California headquarters when it opens next year. Set to employ 350-400 workers, it also will be home to the state agency’s motor vehicle and engine emissions testing and research lab.
Organizations and companies doing business with CARB will want to be nearby, creating a synergy sure to attract even more clean energy technology and other related companies, city administrators and others said.
Also, UC Riverside is working with the business community and local government to provide programs that assist entrepreneurs’ development of business concepts in order to launch or grow existing ventures.
One of those programs is ExCITE, an accelerator for new technology businesses that supports their growth by giving them access to facilities, mentorship and financial resources, among other things.
Another program is EPIC SBDC, which stands for Entrepreneurial Proof of Concept Center — Small Business Development Center. The program works with tech entrepreneurs and companies in the early stages to help grow their businesses. Free services include specialized consulting, training programs and assistance accessing capital.
UCR is playing another role through its Bourns College of Engineering Center for Environmental Research and Technology, or CE-CERT. Established in 1992 and currently the largest research center at UCR, work is proceeding on a variety of environmental challenges including air quality, climate change, energy and transportation.
To that end, CE-CERT projects include installing signal controllers to coordinate stoplights and improve traffic flow along a six-mile section of University Avenue between downtown and the UCR campus.
The goal is to reduce the use of fuel and auto emissions for drivers traveling along the corridor, according to Guoyuan Wu and Peng Hao, assistant research engineers. Three intersections — at Chicago, Cranford and Iowa avenues — already have upgraded signal controllers, with more to follow.
Also being installed are sensors that will offer a clearer picture of air quality conditions in specific neighborhoods as opposed to the more regional data currently available. Information from the sensors will help power a smartphone app, which is in the prototype phase.
“It will allow everyone to know what the air quality is like in their area,” said Nicole Cleary, CE-CERT deputy director. “It will say which is the healthiest route to take if you’re walking or riding a bike, and also give different options and travel times if you want the least [air pollution] exposure while getting around the Innovation District.”
Other Inland Empire cities are taking steps to foster the growth of high-tech industries, but Riverside has more of the pieces in place for such a pursuit, Brovsky said.
Clean energy, clean air and agricultural technologies can flourish in Riverside, he added, as can biotechnology and medical technology focusing on underserved areas. Logistics and the development of the technology necessary to run vast warehouses also is a fieldthat can find a home in Riverside.
“We can be a region that has key success in these verticals,” Brovsky said.
Wanted: Office space
The Innovation District does need some extra ingredients such as office space, particularly the type referred to as Class A that consists of spaces of substantial size, centrally located, with plenty of amenities and attractive architectural details.
Citywide, Riverside has an office vacancy rate of 4.9 percent, while the downtown core is about 2 percent, Freeman said.
The entire Riverside market — which also includes Corona, Moreno Valley and adjacent communities — has a shortage of office space, said Rich Erickson, senior vice president at Lee & Associates Commercial Real Estate. That broader area has a vacancy rate of about 8 percent.
“There is simply not enough product,” said Erickson, who attributes the shortage to a lack of speculative development — the type of development that takes place without having a tenant lined up to move in once the building is completed.
Such construction cooled a little more than a decade ago after the start of the Great Recession. There is, however, developer interest in building in a handful of areas including near the Riverside Convention Center, but more is needed, Erickson said.
One of the last available downtown office spaces was in the Citrus Tower at University Avenue and Lime Street. But that was snapped up by Konica Minolta Business Solutions, which moved into the building in July after 53 years in San Bernardino.
“One of our first Innovation District successes is Konica Minolta,” Freeman said.
The company, which provides technical services to large and mid-sized businesses from Fresno to San Diego, went shopping for newer office space in Corona, Ontario and Rancho Cucamonga, but found that Riverside was the best fit, according to Lyon Peraji, Konica Minolta’s vice president of sales for Southern California.
“We were looking for a city that embraces technology and innovation,” he said, adding that 75 employees made the move and there’s space to comfortably accommodate another 25 employees the company hopes to add within the next three years.
The new offices provide a pleasant environment for employees, Peraji said. In addition, the building is close to two Metrolink stations and a variety of restaurants where employees can have lunch meetings with clients and corporate officials.
Being in Riverside’s Innovation District also could lead to relationships with local companies that develop new programs and services that Konica Minolta could then provide to its customers, Peraji said.
It also offers opportunities to be involved in education in the areas of science, technology, engineering and math.
“We are very cognizant of what happens in education,” he said.
To address the office shortage, city leaders in 2017 lifted height limits on the construction of office buildings downtown, Freeman said. Prior to the change, office buildings had a 60-foot height limit.
The city also is taking steps to facilitate the construction of hotels that eventually will bring about 1,000 more hotel rooms to the city, he said. One of those projects under construction is the Hampton Inn rising across Market Street from the Hyatt Place near the Convention Center.
Old buildings, new uses
Some developers aren’t interested in building from scratch. They’re looking for historic buildings and Riverside has some long-vacant citrus packing houses — which were busy places a century ago during the height of the citrus-growing era. Today, those structures can be turned into office, retail, restaurant and live-work spaces, city administrators said.
One such packing house is already home to a clean energy business. SolarMax Technology, a solar energy systems company, set up its operations in the former home of the Food Machinery Corp., also referred to as the FMC building.
SolarMax was established in 2008 in City of Industry, but operations were moved to Riverside in 2012 after necessary building renovations were made, according to Aaron Correll, the company’s digital marketing manager. Moving east made sense for multiple reasons, he added.
“Riverside is very centrally located for doing solar installations in all of Southern California,” Correll said.
SolarMax’s Riverside building has a long history. It incorporates a brick facade from a structure built in the 1920s for the Stebler-Parker Co. During World War II, the FMC facility went from producing agricultural equipment and canning machinery used by the citrus industry to one that made amphibious landing vehicles for the U.S. military.
Known as the Water Buffalo, more than 11,000 of the armored craft with turret-mounted cannons were built there and eventually saw combat during 20 different battles in the Pacific.
After renovating the historic building, SolarMax had 165,000 square feet of space for its headquarters, warehouse and solar panel assembly facility. But the company doesn’t use the entire building; architects and other professionals rent some of the space for offices.
The renovation earned Old Riverside Foundation’s award for adaptive reuse of an industrial building in 2016.
Being located in Riverside makes it easier for the solar company to work with UC Riverside and other nearby educational institutions on research, technology and educational and business projects, Correll said.
“We do have a lot of young talent,” Correll said. “We have a lot of interns and graduates from UCR who end up working here.”
Getting packing houses and other decades-old, now vacant structures back into use enhances the areas where they are located and also offer endless possibilities for developers, Massa said.
Added Erickson: “Developers consider those buildings a ton of work, but they do have a lot of character.”
Riverside’s Eastside neighborhood, one of the city’s oldest and largest residential neighborhoods, is effectively at the center of the Innovation District, with downtown to the west, the Hunter Industrial Park to the north and the University neighborhood, with UCR, to the east.
Many Eastside residents fear development could lead to the area becoming gentrified, making it unaffordable for them to continue living there.
Freeman said the city is sensitive to those concerns and will be vigilant to ensure future projects respect Eastside and honor and preserve its culture. Future housing developments, for example, could include affordable housing requirements, he said.
To attract the companies and the opportunities that will make Riverside’s Innovation District a success will take going out and telling its story, Freeman added. That means talking about existing amenities, the companies that have opened new locations in the area and next year’s arrival of CARB.
Getting that message out will take different forms, including telling that story through the media, directly contacting companies that could potentially locate into the area and building a website that contains detailed information about the district and the opportunities that it could bring.
“We have to make it as easy as possible [for investors to learn that story],” said Massa, who added the website will be launched in the coming months.
Riverside’s Innovation District will bring opportunities that will benefit all city residents, Brovsky said. The creation of more well-paying jobs will increase demand for new restaurants, along with additional entertainment and cultural activities.
As the Innovation District begins to flourish, people from across the country and beyond will take notice of Riverside, and that will attract investors and companies of different sizes, he said. Significant results could become visible within five years.
That said, similar areas in other cities have taken up to three decades before reaching their full potential. Riverside’s version will probably take just as long, Freeman said.
“Patience is a virtue,” he added.
As it is now, the Innovation District is seen as a pilot and will help in the establishment of other districts in Riverside, city administrators said.
In five years, Freeman said he hopes to be fielding calls from other cities interested in learning how Riverside created a successful Innovation District.
INNOVATION DISTRICT | UP CLOSE
Riverside’s Innovation District consists of a 3-square-mile area and is the largest such district in the country, according to Riverside city administrators. The district includes:
- Part of downtown Riverside
- An area along North Main Street
- An industrial area north of Third Street near the 60/91/215 freeway interchange
- The area with old packing houses east of downtown
- The Eastside neighborhood
- UC Riverside and the area where the California Air Resources Board is building a new facility
- Population: Nearly 23,000
- Number of businesses: 1,700
Several vacant buildings within the Innovation District are old packing houses from the area’s citrus-growing days. Such structures often require extensive renovations before being occupied. The result, however, is an attractive building that can become an office, retail or live/work space, among other uses.
One such structure is the Sutherland Fruit Co. packing house at 3191 Mission Inn Ave., which is now Old Spaghetti Factory. Other former packing houses and empty lots in the district include:
- National Orange Co. Packing House: 3604 Commerce St.; opened in 1898 as Anderson Wotton and Godfrey, but burned down in 2001; today it’s a vacant lot
- Riverside Navel Growers Association: 3141 Ninth St.; a Spanish Colonial built in 1923; 27,000 square feet
- Strachan Fruit Co.: 3496 Commerce St.; a wooden structure built in 1908; 11,300 square feet
- Packing House Business Center: Corner of Third and Vine streets; 70,000 square feet