Bad news, Modesto. We lost the coveted title of "jewel of the valley" in January, when Mayor John Lazar did a piece for The Bee titled "Turlock, the jewel of valley, will keep sparkling."
With a list of major improvements in his town, Lazar wrote, "Over the years I have talked about Turlock being the jewel of the Central Valley, and I still believe that to be true."
I can't disagree with Lazar. Since 2001, what Turlock has done to beautify and energize its city core is outstanding.
Meanwhile, Modesto indeed has a fine city-county governmental center and plaza, plus the most excellent Gallo Center for the Arts, but we have seen restaurants and stores come and go. Our downtown streets and sidewalks are not pedestrian-inviting, and in fact quite the opposite. Without redevelopment funds or strong political vision, the revitalization of Modesto's downtown stagnated years ago.
Back in February 2001, in a long column for The Bee, I proposed a hypothetical "jewel of the valley" award for Modesto based on an array of potential downtown improvements. One was growth being turned inward and upward with high-rise condos because of a new urban limit line that reduced sprawl.
My aspirational city had landscaped walkways and streets with attractive illumination and controlled traffic. The article saw a daily farmers market and cafe district and a trolley-car run to the new Tuolumne River Regional Park and its amphitheater. I even predicted J Street being redesigned into two lanes with new stores, restaurants and nightclubs springing up.
An "American Graffiti" promenade was suggested, which recently has edged a bit toward reality in the form of the Historic Graffiti Cruise Route. The idea of a regular downtown cruise of classic cars was in part picked up the next year when the North Modesto Kiwanis Club launched its hugely successful parade during Graffiti Summer.
Although Wikipedia declares, "As of the 2000s, downtown Modesto has been thoroughly modernized," in reality the deep recession essentially blocked redevelopment. But somehow Turlock and those great urban centers of Riverbank and Waterford have been able to make improvements.
In 2004, the stagnant Modesto downtown restoration led a group of citizens to work for three months to produce a 40-page Downtown Renaissance Report that offered a treasure trove of creative ideas. Yet, even with front-page Bee coverage, it did not persuade downtown interests to pull together and make something happen, Surely we can do more than painting nice classic-car murals and removing chewing gum from some of the sidewalks.
There is a way to get back in the game. Modesto is conducting a variety of new planning efforts. Recently the public was invited to submit a wish list of actions for the Modesto Strategic Plan, which is reissued every three years. Perhaps it will provide guidance to other documents in development, which include an update of the general plan, revisions to the 2007 redevelopment plan, the Stanislaus Council of Governments Senate Bill 325 regional plan and a downtown hospitality project, which should produce an action plan for public review.
These documents must clarify our hopes for our city's future. The previous Modesto Strategic Plan promised to enhance Modesto's image by partnering with local organizations, agencies and community groups to "brand and promote Modesto with one cohesive message and identity." Other than a regrettable new logo, that has not happened.
In 2001, The Bee put a headline on my article that read: "If we had the vision and the will."
Maybe the current planning vehicles will be influenced by a better informed public and set up a chance for Modesto to finally become the "jewel of the valley."
Until then, Turlock, show us how.
Jones often writes about and participates in planning issues regarding downtown. Send questions or comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.