RIVERBANK — Scott Pettit teaches self-defense in a downtown building that once housed a five-and-dime store.
Doing business can be a battle in itself in this part of Riverbank, which has not had the revival seen in many other downtowns throughout the region.
"It's tough," Pettit said Thursday morning. "Nobody wants to leave the highway, and the Crossroads (shopping center) has sucked everything up."
The Riverbank City Council soon may take another step in the long effort to boost the historic core. On Monday night, it will consider certifying the environmental impact report for the Downtown Specific Plan.
The plan, which the council could approve at a later date, is nothing if not bold: It calls for nearly 900 new housing units, mostly townhouses and apartments rather than the single-family homes that occupy many of the 30-plus downtown blocks. Shops, offices and other uses would be mixed in, some of them in buildings as tall as four stories.
Much of the development would be at the former cannery just west of downtown, most recently known as California Fruit and Tomato Kitchens. The rest would be on vacant or underused parcels downtown.
Nothing will happen, however, unless the real estate market recovers from its seven-year slump and people buy into this vision for a walkable downtown.
"Property owners need to look at demand today and what kind of demand there could be in the future," said J.D. Hightower, the city's director of development services.
Rick DiNapoli, the San Jose-based co-owner of the cannery site, said he has no timeline for its development. He did say certifying the EIR would allow the owners to proceed with further planning, including the specific numbers for homes, retail space and other details.
"If we feel that there is a market that would justify the risk of building it, we will go forward," DiNapoli said.
Close to city's roots
Downtown is close to where Riverbank got its start as a Stanislaus River ferry crossing in the 19th century. It also became a stop on the railroad that today in known as the Burlington Northern Santa Fe.
"Downtown was the place for families to gather and for residents to shop for everything from groceries and apparel to women's accessories and saddles," the draft plan reads.
The document tells how business in recent decades drifted west on the Highway 108 commercial strip and south to Crossroads, a bustling home to several chain stores and other attractions with room to expand.
"As a result," the plan says, "downtown's streets are all but deserted in the early evening, with many shop owners closing their doors before the sun has fully set."
Pettit, who has owned the Riverbank Black Belt Academy on Santa Fe Street since 2004, said hundreds of new homes nearby likely would help downtown.
But he and other business people said they are doing things now to make a difference things such as offering self-defense classes in the evening to fit customers' schedules.
"What draws people to any business is the product, the quality of service and the pricing," Pettit said.
Landon's Men's Wear, founded downtown in 1947, has survived thanks to customer service and competitive pricing, owner Stuart Landon said.
"The big-box stores won't do everything," he said. "There are plenty of niches around."
Landon's niches include formal wear, high school letterman jackets and an impressive selection of Levi's jeans.
"We give them one-on-one service sit them down and talk to them," employee Carrie Wohlgemuth said.
Despite these efforts, downtown as a whole has plenty of vacancies, some in handsome buildings with deep histories such as the Del Rio Theater. In 2007, the city's redevelopment agency spent $1.7 million to buy the theater in hopes of transforming it into a performing arts center.
It was part of $15.4 million in redevelopment bonds sold to remove blight and build sidewalks, storms drains, landscaping and other features downtown.
But the redevelopment agency's finances nose-dived in the real estate crash. It couldn't meet its annual bond payments and walked away from the debt in 2012, when the state abolished redevelopment agencies across California. The Del Rio Theater since has been condemned.
And downtown is still a quiet place.
Evelyn Halbert, a 45-year resident, said downtown could use a bank and other services within walking distance. But she is concerned about traffic and other impacts from increasing density and feels that the city has not given residents proper notice.
The proposed downtown plan calls for the densest development at and near Third and Santa Fe streets. The area now has city offices and several businesses.
Density also could increase on the portions of Highway 108 along downtown's edge, now dominated by parking lots, and to a lesser degree on residential blocks.
The cannery property is tricky because it is cut off from downtown by the busy railroad track. The plan calls for a couple of street underpasses to connect with it.
Hightower said the plan would help Riverbank grow in population while reducing pressure on the farmland around it. He noted a 2011 report from the National Association of Realtors that found increasing interest in compact development.
That report's language is cautious, finding that "ideally, most Americans would like to live in walkable communities where shops, restaurants and local businesses are within an easy stroll from their homes and their jobs are a short commute away; as long as those communities can also provide privacy from neighbors and detached, single-family homes."
This partial embrace of compact development is evident in other parts of the Northern San Joaquin Valley. Modesto has revived its downtown with entertainment, restaurants and offices, but people mostly live and shop elsewhere. Oakdale has antique shops, restaurants and other destinations downtown, but the bulk of the business is on the commercial strip to the east.
Riverbank is not a county seat, like Modesto, nor a convenient stop on the way to the Sierra Nevada, like Oakdale. Still, there's hope its downtown has a brighter future.
"Revitalizing everything would be wonderful," Wohlgemuth said. "People come here and don't even know we have a downtown."
The City Council will meet at 6 p.m. Monday at Riverbank City Hall, 6707 Third St.
Bee staff writer John Holland can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (209) 578-2385.