Walk through downtown Modesto highlights its successes, potential

Modesto and its consultant kicked off the city’s effort to create a downtown master plan Monday morning with a walking tour of that very downtown.

About 75 people, including city officials as well as members of the public, embarked on the nearly 2-hour trek that started and ended at the McHenry Museum. It included stops at such well-known spots at the Gallo Center for the Arts and the vacant block where the new Stanislaus Superior Courthouse will be built.

Later, the city and its consultant — Berkeley-based Opticos Design — were expected to hold focus group meetings at the museum with downtown business and property owners, homeless service providers and others before holding a public meeting in the evening that officials called a “visioning workshop.”

It’s all part of what is expected to take roughly a year to create a 20-year vision for downtown that will look at such issues as how to improve parking, create attractive public spaces, opportunities for housing, how people get around downtown — whether by car, on foot or other modes — and to better connect downtown with the rest of the city.

Opticos Design principal and vice president Stefan Pellegrini said in an interview that the goal is to produce a plan Modesto actually can implement. That includes not only one that is broken into clear, understandable steps but one that is economically feasible and is based on the input and consensus of policy makers and the community.

Pellegrini asked the people on the walking tour to tell others about the master plan and to encourage them to get involved. He said part of the community input will include what is called a design charrette held over five days in September. It will be a chance for the members of the public to look at the preliminary concepts and designs and give feedback.

The goal is to build off the successes downtown has had in recent years in dining and entertainment as well as new development. Those developments include extending ACE commuter train service to Modesto as soon as 2021, providing a critical link with the Bay Area, and the new courthouse.

Modesto Community and Economic Development Director Jaylen French told those on the tour that the courthouse, which will be built along H Street between Ninth and 10th streets, is ahead of schedule and ground should be broken in December. He said construction is expected to take three years.

French said the city and county are talking about how to reuse the site of the existing courthouse at 11th and I streets. He said the county and state each own half of the site, and the city and county could send the state a resolution expressing the importance of redeveloping the site.

French also said a city block near the new courthouse has new owners and they have expressed a preliminary interest in redeveloping the site, including building housing. The approximately 2.75-acre block is bordered by Ninth and 10th streets and E and F streets and its businesses include the El Sol restaurant.

The tour did not address some of the challenges downtown faces, including concerns some businesses and property owners have with some homeless people and vagrancy.

But Miguel Jimenez with Catholic Charities and Edgar Garibay with the Tuolumne River Trust raised the issue of gentrification and that poor people will be forced from their homes in downtown and surrounding neighborhoods as the city center becomes more prosperous.

Pellegrini said that is an issue communities across California are grappling with. He said it’s important the issue be addressed now and strategies looked at so Modesto does not find itself having to react to problems in 10 or 15 years.

Jimenez and Garibay said their organizations will stay involved in the development of the master plan to ensure the issue is addressed.

But the focus during Monday’s tour was on downtown’s successes in recent years, which has spurred more private investment, including new restaurants.

For instance, Gallo Center CEO Lynn Dickerson talked about how the performing arts venue has changed downtown for the better since opening in fall 2007.

Dickerson, who took part in the tour, said the center is more than a cultural and entertainment hub, drawing 200,000 patrons to its 150 to 180 shows each year.

She said 80 percent of the patrons buy a glass of wine, a meal or engage in other spending when they come downtown, creating a $14 million annual economic impact. The center is a “very robust economic engine,” she said. “It does a lot of good for our region.”

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.

The City Council in May approved hiring Opticos Design at a cost of $210,000 to create the plan.

Kevin Valine covers local government, homelessness and general assignment for The Modesto Bee. He is a graduate of San Jose State University and grew up in San Jose.