After decades of sitting vacant, one of the most conspicuous empty lots in Modesto is about to see new life.
The 45-acres of fallow land behind Vintage Faire Mall in northwest Modesto, which has been owned by the Gagos family for more than 70 years, is being developed into housing and commercial projects. Construction should begin early this summer on the plot, which has been the focus of a series of unsuccessful proposed projects in the past.
Mitch Gagos, who runs the family's commercial development business, said it felt like the right time to finally sell the land which his immigrant grandfather first started working on as a farm laborer in the 1920s and then purchased in the 1940s. Over the years the family has sold portions of its original 220-acre ranch, most notably in the mid-1970s to the developers of what became Vintage Faire Mall.
Other high-profile commercial developments were considered for the land, including a large movie cineplex and a high-end lifestyle center, but never panned out.
"It's been a significant investment of time and money and of emotions to try to work those projects through. I've learned some really tough lessons," Gagos said. "But this (project) is where the demand is for development and is consistent with the general plan as well."
The 45-acres, which are framed by Dale Road and Vintage Drive to the east and west, with homes and the mall to the north and south, is being split into four parcels. The largest back plot will be developed into a subdivision of single-family homes. A second, smaller middle parcel has been dedicated to higher density housing.
Established Central Valley builder Florsheim Homes has entered into agreements with Gagos to purchase those two parcels, totaling about 35 acres.
The Gagos family still owns the remaining 10 acres, which front Dale Road. He hopes to turn it into a commercial project like a retail center or restaurants. The land is currently for sale, but Gagos said he is open to developing it himself.
"It will largely depend as we see what the demand for the property is. It's not simply a matter of dollars and cents," he said. "We want to do what is right to complement the neighborhood and community."
Realtor Rebecca Ellis, who is handling the sale of the property along with Brian Velthoen at PMZ Commercial, said the 10 acres has been split into two parcels which are both on the market. She said she has received "serious interest" thanks to its proximity to the popular Modesto mall and busy Highway 99.
"I believe they're the most desirable parcels in all of Modesto," Ellis said. "The mall does over $700 per square foot. For a lot of chain restaurants, like California Pizza Kitchen and Cheesecake Factory, that's one of their criteria for considering an area."
For the housing side of the development, Stockton-based Florsheim Homes has taken over a proposed project started by Valley Ventures in 2015. After the former developer backed out of the plans, Florsheim President Randy Bling stepped in and last year entered in a contract to purchase its first subdivision phase.
He said his company is eager to begin building new homes near Vintage Faire, because most housing construction in recent years has been concentrated in the city's northeast corridor around Village One.
"We've had our eye on the property forever, it's a very visible property," Bling said. "We're really excited about the west-side location and walkability to all of the retail."
Earlier this month the Modesto City Council approved the final map for the single-family subdivision, which is being called The Vintage. The development will have 160 detached homes. The properties will be between 1,500 and 3,000 square feet and a mix of single- and two-story builds.
Bling said they hope to break ground this summer, in mid-to-late June. The goal is to have the pavement done by the end of the year and begin the model homes. After that it would be about a two-year process to complete the subdivision.
Florsheim also has optioned the middle parcel where Valley Ventures planned to build a multi-family apartment complex. But Bling said his company is not moving forward with the apartments and instead is considering another higher density housing option. Those plans have yet to be finalized and approved.
As part of the sale, Gagos will install a road through the property that connects Dale Road and Vintage Drive. He intends to have the throughway completed by the end of the year.
The land has sat largely unused since 1990, when the Gagos family stopped growing walnuts, almonds and grapes on the property. In 1997, Gagos had plans to build an 18-screen movie complex on the site. At the time it was one of four cineplex projects being proposed in the city. But it was dropped after the city backed what would become downtown Modesto's Brenden Theatres, which opened in 1999.
Then in 2003, Gagos began work on what he envisioned would become a luxury lifestyle center called The Promenade. The development was to include upscale stores, restaurants, a movie theater, office space and a boutique hotel. But Macerich Co., which owns Vintage Faire and 53 other malls and outlets across the country, was opposed to portions of the project fearing it would cause gridlock in the area.
Gagos abandoned plans for The Promenade altogether in 2007. After that, the recession made developing the land nearly impossible. He said it wasn't until about three years ago that development began to pick up again, as did interest in the land. The property has been owned by Gagos' mother, Dianne Gagos, and two family trusts since his father, George S. Gagos, died in a car crash in 2001.
"This has been a long time coming and the residents, particularly the residents to the north of us, have been very patient. It hasn’t been very easy," Gagos said. "Emotionally they've been through a bit of a roller coaster, too. I know me and my family have felt really blessed to have neighbors who have been as understanding as they have been over the course of these last 20 years waiting to develop."