RIVERBANK -- Santa Fe and Third streets trembled earlier this month at the sound of a jack-hammer. Loud and clear, it signified the dawning of a new era for Riverbank's downtown. But only about 50 people were there to hear it.
If business owners' perception is true, the startling noise and the work that followed it will not be enough to realize city officials' dreams for downtown's future. The downtown revitalization is split into two main phases: renovation and beautification. From there, downtown's success depends on local business people, artists and residents.
Last week, planners from IWR Urban Design asked business owners, residents and others who have a stake in the area's future what they think will draw people to a downtown tucked between railroad tracks and a quiet neighborhood, 1½ miles east of the city's busiest intersections and three miles from Crossroads, the city's shopping mecca.
Business owners said one of the biggest obstacles ahead is informing people where downtown is and that there are things to do. Downtown's location doesn't make it easy, said Ian Wolfe Ross of IWR Urban Design. Highway 108 drivers breeze past Third Street, the main entryway, and hardly notice downtown, business owners said.
Downtown Modesto was in a similar situation more than a decade ago when the mall was the place to be, said Bob Quintella, who's on the downtown Modesto entertainment committee.
"The vision Modesto had was to start adding things to attract people back: the Gallo Center, the movie theater, Tenth Street Plaza," he said. "You have to offer enough amenities for all of the community."
A vibrant downtown has great places to live, shop, eat, work and walk, Wolfe Ross said. People should be able to get to and through a downtown easily and safely.
Revitalization projects also need patience, said Carol Whiteside of the Great Valley Center.
"None of these things happen overnight," she said. "Downtowns go through evolutions. You can't snap your fingers and have it all at once," she said. "The best thing Riverbank can do is think long term and don't start trading away things that will help reach the design goal."
With $6 million to work with, those weighing in on the downtown revitalization are forced to consider what can be cut from a plan that includes wide shaded sidewalks, landscaped roundabouts and cheery lighting. So far, a few benches have been nixed, Chamber of Commerce board member Carla Strong said. Every cut irks the team as it works toward creating a place for residents to linger, meet each other and support local commerce.
"If we don't have the aesthetics, people won't stay," she said.
In addition to changing downtown's aesthetic, the city is trying to entice people with special events. Such events as art exhibits and trick-or-treating have attracted people who might not normally go downtown. Once there, residents learn about the project and can discover local businesses.
"A lot of people don't know what's in their own back yard," said Jennifer Mullen of the Modesto Convention & Visitors Bureau.
It's important to have a mix of large and small events, Mullen said. Modesto's downtown has gotten a boost from events that range from 15,000 people at X-Fest to about 200 at the monthly art walk.
Modesto's downtown success has been a long time coming and the work isn't over, said Mitch Maisetti, who serves on Modesto's Downtown Improvement District and co-owns Tresetti's World Caffe, which has been downtown for 13 years.
"It was a wasteland before. I can remember I was getting ready to open and was sandblasting the floor. I heard this strange noise. I opened the door and saw two people shooting at each other like it was the Wild West. The success we do have is due to the fact that we have a large amount of small-business people downtown who formed alliances early on with representatives and police. If we complain about something, someone will actually be there to listen," he said. "Now, we have a lot of restaurants and night life. But we lack that little extra push more retail will give us."
Bee staff writer Eve Hightower can be reached at 578-2382 or email@example.com.