In her Oct. 16 column in The Bee, Yvonne Holt looked across the region and asked, "What do people want in a good downtown?"
One suggestion was streets with popular venues (anchors) at each end, with enough in between to invite pedestrians. Some towns, she noted, have the charm of being old- fashioned, many with Western looks. Turlock has "a quiet feel to it" and boasts "neat, small cafes" for lunch. Merced keeps "people coming to their downtown with plenty of special events."
She described Modesto as having "some good places here and there" and suggested there should be more "fun places in between," perhaps with an artists' district, more cafes, and a mix of high-end and affordable shops.
So what will Modesto become? Downtown improvement requires innovative planning, a process already under way, said H. Brent Sinclair, director of community and economic development.
He reported that "by the end of 2013, Modesto will have a quality, up-to-date general plan," plus amendments to the redevelopment master plan. According to Sinclair, "Our goal is to fully utilize this down economy season as a time to engage in creative and significant planning for our community. We want to do our part in facilitating a new 'renaissance' in downtown Modesto with all the tools available to us."
One of those tools is the Downtown Core Zone ordinance, enacted in 2010 for "higher density, mixed-use development to create a balanced, vibrant downtown and active neighborhood centers" with more housing choices.
It seeks improved pedestrian circulation, planting of large shade trees and preservation of "historically eclectic architecture" and private open spaces. A nice touch is promotion of "store frontage and display along public streets." Less clear is the challenge to "ensure development occurs at a human scale."
Early in 2013 the city will hold a third public forum on expansion of this code, with a draft plan to be presented in June.
Modesto has been talking about a downtown renaissance for nearly two decades, during which time we secured some huge gains such as the Gallo Center for the Arts and the Tenth Street Place complex. But the aesthetics and vitality of our downtown still lag far behind neighbors such as Turlock. Recently, we've seen removal of chewing gum from downtown streets, some new wall murals, and an excellent restoration of the famed arch.
And there is a new "Hospitality Zone Program," which, according to a May 14 memo to the City Council from the city manager, will assess the operations and management of downtown Modesto. That vague mandate was expanded to address issues of parking, vagrancy, panhandling, policing, cleanliness, plaza events "and others."
That last open-ended authorization has led to an interesting pilot project, the creation of model parklettes at 10th and J streets, which is consistent with the city's ongoing emphasis on improving the 10th and J corridors.
We are grateful for any downtown creativity. But there is risk from putting features on the ground before the community has a chance to advocate what we want and where we want it. We all embrace the concept of building a balanced, vibrant downtown. But what will it look like? What investments, public and private, are needed?
Holt concluded that it takes interested and dedicated people to turn a downtown into a vital place. Indeed. The Modesto City Council should task the hospitality group, with its two dozen participants largely from government and economy-related groups, with hosting a series of forums to secure ideas for a downtown renaissance strategy.
Then a small team can produce a concise document of proposed public and private actions, similar to a citizens' blueprint report that a dozen volunteers, including me, put together in 2004.
Very simply, the public must have a bigger role in defining the future of downtown.
Jones writes about a variety of Modesto issues. Send comments or questions to email@example.com.