City to view long-planned Tivoli project

Having neutralized much of the opposition, developers of Modesto's next large growth proposal hope to win over planning commissioners Monday.

The 454-acre Tivoli project is Modesto's first opportunity for big-box stores on the city's east side. Concept papers also show an estimated 9,000 people living in as many as 3,193 new homes replacing mostly vacant fields northeast of Sylvan Avenue and Oakdale Road.

Supporters have spent the past decade running market and environmental studies, discussing possible sites for a new school, soothing fears of neighbors who know their treasured country living would never be the same and trying to pull on board the area's single largest landowner.

Documents: check.

School: check, though no one's certain it will end up where it's shown on a concept map.

Neighbors: check on one group; still negotiating with another that just lawyered up.

Largest landowner: check, sort of. He's not fighting Tivoli and even kept the dream going with cash for consultants, but clearly has a mind of his own.

For a large project, that's decent positioning. Good enough, proponents think, to take a run Monday at the Modesto Planning Commission, followed by the City Council a few weeks after that and an annexation request in late spring or early summer.

And then, a waiting game -- at least for new homes.

"Can you tell me what the housing market will be like?" asked Dave Romano, a civil engineer and Tivoli frontman even before Modesto voters gave the project a nod at the ballot box in November 2001.

Mable Avenue conditions

Romano and five investment groups hope Tivoli will be construction-ready by the time the slumping home market rebounds. Tivoli's retail component, including a home improvement store southeast of Mable Avenue and Oakdale Road, likely would be developed before then, Romano said.

That western swath of Tivoli, stretching north along Oakdale to the future extension of Claratina Avenue, has provided the most visible controversy so far. Peace-and-quiet-loving owners of eight ranchettes in the middle, on Mable, could not fathom being surrounded by the constant noise, lights and bustle of megastores, and two years ago they hired a lawyer.

PMZ Real Estate's Mike Zagaris, another name linked to Tivoli from the start, and his lawyer, former city attorney Michael Milich, took on negotiations. They eventually agreed with the demands of the "Mabelites," as some call themselves, to:

Block off Mable at Oakdale. Residents would drive home from the east on future Tivoli roads.

Buffer the ranchettes with a layer of new ones between the old ones and the stores.

"We want to keep the atmosphere of the neighborhood," said Rebecca Speer, a Mabelite for 20 years whose neighbors have llamas and goats. "When those (new ranchette owners) purchase, they'll know there is going to be a shopping center. They'll know it going in."

Not grade into ranchettes' front yards when crews improve Mable.

"We're feeling comfortable with the concessions," Speer said. "We thought you can't fight city hall, but if you get a good attorney and stick together as a group, it's a lot easier to get results. I'm proud of our neighborhood."

City codes don't permit "discount superstores" there, such as a Super Wal-Mart, Super Target or Kmart Super Center. Discount clubs, though -- also large, such as Costco or Sam's Club -- are OK. So are stores such as Best Buy, Michael's and Bed, Bath and Beyond or a regular-sized Kmart.

Romano declined to say which retailers are angling for the spot. He downplayed competition with Riverbank's Crossroads shopping center just up the road, which has a Home Depot, Target and Kohl's, noting that Modesto's commercial district along Highway 99 appears to thrive despite many rivals nearby.

Owners in the Tivoli area's other neighborhood, on McReynolds Avenue, recently hired the same Stockton attorney representing the Mabelites. City policy calls for McReynolds, a dead-end street, to punch through near its north end to connect with future Tivoli roads, helping traffic flow smoothly, senior planner Paul Liu said.

But neighbors worry that their quiet street would suffer from increased traffic, Cheryl Brown said.

Romano said neighbors should tell their concerns to planning commissioners Monday.

The future school poses another kind of hurdle. Officials with the city and Sylvan Union School District have been wrangling over fees needed to build it.

"In a polite way, we've agreed to disagree," said Ron Lebs, the district's business manager. "Whether or not we ever come to an agreement, we're all moving ahead with the project. Sometimes you have to put aside your differences to move forward."

The "where" is proving as tricky as the "how." Romano's map shows a 14-acre spot reserved in Tivoli's northeast quadrant -- right in the middle of land owned by Tom Trombetta, an independent cuss with a claim to more property than anyone else in the Tivoli area. He hasn't agreed to sell that land.

"I don't care what any of them do," Trombetta said. "I know what my rights are and the city is not going to horse me. If I don't get what I want, I'll sit here and let them build around me."

Trombetta sat comfortably on the sidelines for years, content to watch Romano et al. develop the Tivoli vision. Trombetta, who runs an electrical distributing business on Roselle Avenue, on the project's east end, at one point rescued the project by kicking in $500,000 to complete required studies when the others said they had run out of money.

But he still prefers to watch progress from afar. He dug a pond on his land and plans to hook catfish for years to come.

"I'm not protesting," Trombetta said, "but I'm not going to be part of what's going on."

Landowner looks to go green

His biggest gripe is the part in Tivoli's financing plan that calls for bonds to pay for streets and sewer and water lines before homes go up. Romano and city planners have vowed to avoid a near catastrophe such as the one down the road: east Modesto's Village I, whose pay-as-you-go financing delayed such land improvements and was ditched after a public relations fiasco.

Trombetta wants to chart a third, rarely seen course: paying for improvements on his own terms, to avoid debt. And he's got big ideas for a green subdivision minimizing water use and maximizing solar energy.

And he wants a nice grocery store at the northwest corner of Roselle and the future extension of Claratina, an idea that appears to match Romano's map.

"I don't like people to tell me what to do with my property," Trombetta said, chuckling. "Most people understand that. Some don't. You know I never run from a fight."

Romano said, "It's his property. He'll decide the timing."

The other investors signed off on architectural standards drawing from Modesto's established College and Graceada neighborhoods. Romano's architects picked the best features of California ranch, European cottage, Spanish colonial and Monterey styles, among others, which would be mixed throughout Tivoli, he said.

Compared with Modesto's cookie-cutter subdivisions of the past few decades, "nothing has looked like this," Romano said. "This is really trying to take it up a notch."

His design team worked in other neotraditional features such as paseos, or paths winding through neighborhoods with 10-foot landscaped areas on each side. All would be scrutinized in formal proposals after city officials seek annexation from the Local Agency Formation Commission of Stanislaus County.

On the Net: ci.modesto.ca.us/ced/projects/tivoli.asp

Bee staff writer Garth Stapley can be reached at gstapley@modbee.com or 578-2390.