Downtown players ponder Modesto's next phase

Empty buildings border the Gallo Center for the Arts on its 10th Street side two weeks before it makes its long-awaited debut.

They could represent opportunities for a booming downtown, or they could signal that the neighborhood's redevelopment will continue in fits and starts.

"As an immediate jolt in the arm, that won't happen," said Peter Zeff, a broker at PMZ Real Estate who is looking for long-term tenants to fill former restaurants on 10th Street across from the arts center.

The arts center's opening gives downtown one more highlight to cement its presence as a regional entertainment draw with a mix of restaurants, clubs, art galleries and two movie theaters.

That's a far cry from the downtown of the 1980s, which mostly shut down after 5:30 p.m, said Brad Hawn, a city councilman and organizer of the annual Art and Wine Festival.

Hawn doubts retail shops will return to downtown in the manner they were before Vintage Faire Mall opened in 1977, but he said that isn't the gauge for success. He sees a downtown in transition with a booming night life scene combining with a growing arts community anchoring this phase of its rebirth.

That presents opportunities and challenges for him and other city leaders who are out to craft a downtown management plan that could lead to restrictions on entertainment venues.

"Instead of looking at right now, we as a community need to look at 20 years from now," said Chris Ricci, a concert promoter who started drawing thousands of music fans downtown to the annual Xclamation Festival, which started in 2000.

Ricci, Hawn, Zeff and others who have a stake in downtown's success said it needs one more significant feature to create the kind of livable environment that can lure new types of commerce -- housing.

"It's just time to have some housing downtown so people can have that option to live, work and play all within a few blocks of each other and not to have to get their cars out and drive all over the place," said attorney Bart Barringer.

Barringer and his partner, Jim Mayol, want to develop an eight-story office and condominium tower at 14th and J streets. The city Planning Commission is scheduled to consider their plans Monday.

Their proposal is one of two that could yield market-rate condominiums in the city center, while a third project aims to create affordable housing just outside the downtown on Ninth Street.

"The type of housing that is being provided is the type that will benefit downtown and it will beautify one of the corridors to downtown," said Ryan Swehla, a Modesto liaison for EAH, the San Rafael affordable housing developer behind the Ninth Street project.

Swehla, 28, grew up in Modesto but can't remember visiting downtown often in his youth. He and his wife, Kim, frequently spend time there now at restaurants and coffee shops.

"Obviously, with the Gallo center, it's going to create all the more reasons to go downtown," he said.

But housing isn't the only change people soon could see downtown.

Sandra Veneman moved her Chartreuse Muse art gallery from H Street to 10th Street near the Gallo center.

She and her partner chose the new building, which once housed Roger's Jewelers, to take advantage of extra space, but they'll make a few adjustments to attract the arts center's audience, such as staying open a little later Fridays and Saturdays.

"The Gallo center is going to bring exactly the kind of clientele that's going to want to come into our gallery," she said.

Changes for eateries

A few restaurants are shuffling spaces, too.

Dewz is moving from its location diagonal from the arts center at 11th and I streets because of a sharp hike in its rent. Firkin & Fox, a pub, is in line to open soon near the current Dewz location on I Street.

Gregory Reed, a Modesto concrete contractor, is seeking tenants or buyers for six downtown properties he owns, including one on 11th Street next to Dewz, where he would like to have a restaurant.

"This is an exciting time that we should all embrace knowing our downtown is something that isn't like anything found in the Central Valley," said Reed, whose wife, Kristen, is a member of the Gallo center board of trustees.

Reed's Web site offers selling prices for his buildings. The asking price for the one at 912 11th Street, which has room for six tenants, is $2.7 million.

Gary Gervasoni, a Ninth Street restaurateur who owns other properties downtown, said the arts center has pushed up the value of his land.

"I'm happy it's there and I hope it goes good," said Gerva- soni, who opened his restaurant in 1975 but didn't suffer from downtown's lean years. "It's definitely going to help business. It sure as hell isn't going to hurt it."

Fred Silva, chairman of the arts center's board of directors, said the different plans for the next phase of downtown's development feed off the promise of a new entertainment venue.

"Nobody wants to live in an area that doesn't have life to it," Silva said. "That's what the arts center provides, additional life to downtown Modesto."

It also gives the city a new marketing tool to attract visitors, said Jennifer Mullen, executive director of the Modesto Convention & Visitors Bureau.

"I can say to groups thinking about a tour, 'You can stay in Modesto, here's what's going on that night at the center,' " she said.

Mullen's pitch describes the original plan for downtown's redevelopment when it first appeared in the 1980s. It combined proposals for a high-rise hotel, a community center and an arts center, all of which stand downtown today.

"We have created an entertainment venue, a destination downtown, choices for young people who want to go the movies and have a smoothie to people who want to have dinner with beautiful wine," said former Mayor Carol Whiteside.

"It's a very different world than it was in the mid-'80s when we had vacant storefronts, burned buildings," she said. "People were pretty discouraged."

Bee staff writer Adam Ashton can be reached at aashton@modbee.com or 578-2366. Bee staff writer Ben van der Meer can be reached at bvandermeer@modbee.com or 578-2331.

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