Peter Janopaul III is one developer who has not given up on the residential market, and his lofty plans for housing are something Modesto has not seen before.
Last month, he submitted plans to City Hall for his remodeling of the El Viejo post office in downtown Modesto, which will convert the historic building at 12th and I streets into 10 residential lofts and a 4,800-square-foot penthouse. Janopaul and other investors bought the ornate building in an online government auction last year, paying $1.02 million.
His second project does more to stretch the imagination.
Janopaul wants to convert the former Grange Feeds grain elevators near Modesto Junior College to a 12-story apartment building called the Silo Lofts. He envisions 51 rental apartments for students, artists, professors and musicians, giving them "rooms with a view" of Modesto and the distant mountain ranges.
The preliminary plans also show a penthouse, cafe and studios for artists of all kinds.
"When I first moved here and looked at the silos, I said, 'I want to own this building,' " said Janopaul, who sees a rustic beauty in the structure. "It says so much about Modesto as an agricultural community and here it is right in the middle of town."
The Silo Lofts are a work in progress, but initial plans could be delivered to city planning staff within the next two weeks.
Janopaul has turned older commercial buildings in Denver into residential lofts and made his mark in San Diego with the restoration of the historic El Cortez Hotel and other venerable buildings.
The third-generation Modestan is investing in privately financed projects in his hometown, a city whose leaders are eager to "build up, instead of out." Mayor Garrad Marsh is a strong advocate for residential projects downtown, so he has considerable interest in Janopaul's proposals.
Marsh said he's encouraged by the developer's experience with major restorations. "I am very hopeful for both of his projects," he said. "I think they are consistent with what I envision for the city."
Post office plans
City Planning Manager Patrick Kelly said the post office conversion is permitted under the city's newer codes for building in the city core. Now that the plans are submitted, city staff will determine if the project meets standards for parking and streetside improvements.
The city also needs to ensure it complies with federal standards for historical preservation. The former post office is on the National Register of Historic Places and features Depression-era murals that were created as part of the 1930s Treasury Relief Arts Project.
Janopaul has said the building's lobby with the murals, painted by artist Ray Boynton with the assistance of local artists, will remain open to the public.
According to remodeling plans, the 2,200-square-foot lofts would reflect the post office's Renaissance Revival architecture and include amenities such as 23-foot ceilings and double master suites.
The penthouse would have spacious living quarters, an elevator, commercial kitchen, private pool and glass walls to give the owners a view of the city. The lofts could be sold in the $250,000 to $400,000 range. The price tag on the penthouse could exceed $1.5 million.
Janopaul believes the lofts will appeal to attorneys or young business executives who work locally for E.&J. Gallo Winery and other large employers. "I can see no reason why everyone wouldn't want to live downtown," he said, noting the building is "within walking distance of every important gallery, restaurant, coffeehouse and public institution."
Kelly said he expects the administrative review for the post office remodel will take three or four months. Janopaul hopes to start minor work in the fall and finish construction of the lofts in mid-2013.
Converting the silos
Apparently, Janopaul isn't the first to propose converting the silos to other uses, but he seems determined to make it happen.
He said the decades-old structure with footings sunk more than 20 feet into the ground is seismically sound and he's working with a structural engineer on construction details. The initial idea is to tie the silo walls together with crisscrossing beams and then pour concrete decks over the beams to create the floors.
Architecture firm Conrad Design Group has incorporated hopper-style windows in a concept drawing for the apartments. A rail-car shed at the foot of the silos would be enclosed in glass and then refurbished as a cafe.
Over time, old warehouses and other buildings near the silos could be converted to shops, bookstores, cafes and art galleries, Janopaul said.
Kelly said staff has held one meeting with Janopaul regarding the Silo Lofts. The project will require an environmental assessment and public hearings before the Planning Commission and City Council. The city also needs to ensure the project complies with construction codes.
"We are intrigued and receptive to the idea, although we don't have much to evaluate at this point," Kelly said.
Janopaul, who is chief executive officer of the J. Peter Block Cos., said the silos most recently were owned by the Denver-based Trinidad Benham Corp., which acquired the property after The Grange Co. and related Valchris Poultry were sold in the early 1980s.
Affordability the key factor
Douglas Dyrssen Jr., the student trustee on the Yosemite Community College District board, said he believes some students would rent the apartments just to live in an unusual building. But affordability would be the key factor for most, he added.
"My concern is a lot of grain silos are not up to current code and I would question what it would take to make them habitable buildings," Dyrssen said. "I would also want to see there's enough parking for the building."
YCCD spokesman Nick Stavrianoudakis said that in the past decade, he's heard of three proposals for converting the silos to commercial uses or apartments. But no project was built.
"In the past, we have been approached to see if we were interested in reusing the silos or not," he said. "At the present time, we are more concerned with our funding being slashed and accommodating the needs of our students."
Janopaul said he's working on another proposal that would cover a city block and house people in tall buildings downtown.
"I'm not a developer who builds shopping centers," he said. "It would be my honor to fulfill the mayor's promise to deliver a (multistory) residential project in the downtown."
Bee staff writer Ken Carlson can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (209) 578-2321.