Modesto planners OK Tivoli project

A vision for east Modesto's first big-box stores combined with a huge housing development narrowly squeaked by planning commissioners late Monday.

The 4-3 vote sends the Tivoli project to City Council members Feb. 26. They will decide whether to seek annexation for 454 acres northeast of Sylvan Avenue and Oakdale Road.

Tivoli's key feature is 67 acres of megastores, which are expected to draw shoppers from around the region. Plans include as many as 3,193 new homes ranging in size from apartments and condominiums to regular houses and ranchette-sized estates.

Concept papers also show a 14-acre elementary school, with an adjacent park of comparable size doubling as a rainwater basin.

Favoring the project were commissioners Kent Newswander, Ted Brandvold, Patricia Gillum and Chris Tyler. Commissioners Tom Berglund, John Sanders and Carolina Bernal voted "no," mostly because the plans eventually could transform quiet, rural McReynolds Avenue into a busy street.

Tom O'Brien, who lives west of the area in the proposal, accused developers of pulling a "bait and switch" by changing the plan sold to Modestans in 2001. Voters at that time indicated support for 2,448 homes -- 793 fewer than the current estimated maximum of 3,241. Also, the 2001 concept showed only a few acres of small stores -- nothing like the 67 acres of big-box shopping on the current concept plan.

Proponents have said the changes reflect the wishes of city officials concerned about a dearth of shopping for east Modesto residents, and market preference toward homes on smaller lots.

Russell Harrison, a civil engineer whose home also is west of Tivoli, agreed with O'Brien.

"No wonder people are frustrated and don't vote for taxes on roads, because they don't believe it's going to happen," Harrison said, referring to the 2006 failure of a sales tax hike that would have provided millions of dollars for road projects. "People voted on a plan, and the plan was changed. You're doing it again. Please have a little more respect for the voters of Modesto."

Harrison and O'Brien said Tivoli's huge commercial component would make more sense to the north, close to Riverbank's Crossroads shopping center.

"I would only assume that somebody in Modesto said, 'We're going to lose sales tax dollars,' " Harrison said. "It didn't have anything to do with good planning; it had to do with dollars."

Jim Hurst, who has lived on a small street within the Tivoli area for 32 years, said he worries that people coming and going could affect his privacy.

"There will be all sorts of activities that are not compatible with the lifestyle we have," he said.

Tivoli developers calmed many of the fears of Mable Avenue residents, whose ranchettes eventually would be surrounded by the huge stores, by promising a buffer layer of estate-sized lots between the old ones and the stores. Perhaps more important, developers agreed to block off Mable at Oakdale, keeping shoppers from overrunning the quiet street.

Patty Lundy, of the League of Women Voters of Stanislaus County, said the league supports Tivoli because its stores would employ residents, and because the plans call for 924 housing units priced to be affordable for low and very-low-income families.

Al Gonzales, who farms nearby, said Tivoli's land is cursed with hardpan and would not support high-yield crops or orchards.

"This land is perfect for houses," he said. "It couldn't grow anything except grass for cows."

Monday's four-hour-plus hearing largely ignored the fact that the single largest landowner within the Tivoli area does not intend to develop anytime soon.

Tom Trombetta, who owns the area's northeast quadrant, has said he will go it alone when he's ready, though he won't fight the plan to build up the rest.

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

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