What should Modesto’s downtown look like? City hires consultant to create plan

Watch city official explain why Modesto hired downtown consultant

Jaylen French, Modesto Community & Economic Development Director, talks about why the city hired a consultant for $210,000 to create a downtown master plant.
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Jaylen French, Modesto Community & Economic Development Director, talks about why the city hired a consultant for $210,000 to create a downtown master plant.

Modesto wants to build off the momentum it sees in downtown by working with a consultant to create a master plan that would serve as the city center’s blueprint over a couple of decades.

The City Council on Tuesday unanimously approved hiring Berkeley-based Opticos Design at a cost of $210,000 to create a downtown master plan. (Councilwoman Kristi Ah You was not at the meeting.)

The plan will consider such issues as how to improve parking, create attractive public spaces, such as tiny parks and plazas, the opportunities for housing, how people get around downtown, whether by car, on foot or other modes, as well as the other elements of a successful downtown.

Modesto Community & Economic Development Director Jaylen French said the time is right for a long-term vision because of the private investment in downtown in recent years as well as the ACE commuter train service and the new courthouse that are expected to open around 2023.

Altamont Corridor Express service will bring more people downtown, but French said it also strengthens the economic connection between Modesto and the Bay Area. And the new courthouse, besides spurring other development, allows for the redevelopment of the site of the old courthouse.

French said half of the site is owned by the state and half by Stanislaus County. He said the city and county are working together on how to redevelop the site after the new courthouse opens. “The possibilities are endless,” he said.

Downtown advocates have dreamed about new housing being built for many years. While declining to provide details, French said a couple of “developers, landowners are very interested” in downtown housing.

“I really do think it’s a matter of time,” he said. “The goal really is to become a 24-hour vibrant downtown with housing. The more hours people are here, the more money that is spent, with more retail, entertainment and dining options.”

Modesto is using part of its Measure L funding, the half-cent transportation tax voters countywide approved in 2016, to pay for the master plan. French said the consultant will start work this month, and he expects it will take seven months to a year to complete the plan.

French said the plan is not something that will sit on the shelf but will include steps for how Modesto can carry out the plan.

But some of the issues it will tackle have been vexing. For instance, a 2014 study commissioned by the Downtown Modesto Partnership said the city’s parking incentives are backward, with prime street parking not costing anything while motorists pay to park in city garages. Those incentives have remained the same.

Opticos Design will work with several other consultants on such issues as street design and parking, but the $210,000 covers the cost for all consultants. There will be several meetings for the public to weigh in as the master plan is being developed, and city officials said they will publicize those meetings.

The city is defining downtown as roughly Needham Street to the north, Burney Street and Morton Boulevard to the west, Morton and Sierra Drive to the south and Washington Street to the west.

The impetus for the master plan came from last year’s controversial discussions about redesigning J Street, a major downtown thoroughfare, into a pedestrian-friendly street with angled parking and fewer lanes for traffic. City officials decided it made better sense to create a vision for all of downtown.