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New housing in downtown Modesto? We’ve heard it before, but this feels different

A vacant lot on the corner of Seventh and J streets in Modesto, Calif. is pictured on September 20, 2019.
A vacant lot on the corner of Seventh and J streets in Modesto, Calif. is pictured on September 20, 2019. jlee@modbee.com

Downtown Modesto is poised for new housing based on natural evolution, experts say. Renaissances often begin with new entertainment projects — such as Brenden Theatres at Tenth Street Place — and lead to business rebirth seen in a plethora of restaurants and offices in the past few years.

Homes come next. They are last because they are expensive, and because it is more difficult to pencil out ...

I wrote that as a Modesto Bee reporter 17 years ago, in 2002, when people were starting to get excited about signs pointing to new market-rate housing in downtown Modesto for the first time since Ralston Tower went up in 1974. But nothing happened.

An end to downtown Modesto’s 31-year drought in housing development could be drawing near, in a big way ...

That, I wrote 14 years ago, in 2005, in the middle of a huge economic and building boom, still hopeful that we were on the brink of new housing downtown. Three legitimate, intriguing plans had been pitched to City Hall, all featuring multiple stories of apartments or condominiums above ground-level shops and restaurants, some with parking garage components. A fourth would come soon after, and we salivated.

But none materialized. The recession dashed those dreams. And here we sit, 45 years since Ralston Tower first welcomed low-income seniors, and the only addition to downtown housing has been Tower Park, which brought more low-income housing for seniors in 2016.

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I have nothing against low-income senior housing. We need lots more, plus affordable housing for all ages.

But the vigorous, dynamic downtown that everyone has been hoping for won’t become reality without a serious infusion of market-rate units aimed at luring downsizing empty-nesters with cash to burn, and upwardly mobile millennials who might walk to the nearby depot and catch a train to work. Downtown Sacramento, brimming with restaurants, shops, entertainment and nightlife, might be the closest example.

“Housing adds an element of vibrancy and life to a downtown, rather than it emptying out at the end of the day when everyone goes home from work,” said Lynn Dickerson, executive director at the Gallo Arts Center.

Now that the economy is on solid footing again, when can we expect some real new housing downtown?

Fairly soon, it turns out.

Two small but apparently bona fide plans featuring a total of 32 new units are being processed right now at the city’s planning department, neither more than two stories high. One would be behind the Salvation Army’s I Street soup kitchen; the other is near the DMV office, several blocks from Modesto’s traditional heartbeat but technically still considered downtown.

This represents baby steps in the right direction. I know; it’s not the fancy high-rise we’ve waited ages for. But after decades of nothing, it’s something.

And those fancy high-rises could be just around the corner.

Jaylen French, Modesto’s community and economic development director, says two more legitimate, multistory downtown projects are in the works, but aren’t far along enough to announce. And two additional development teams with similar dreams are poking around, asking the right questions, French says.

I want to believe him. Really, I do.

It’s just that we’ve heard this story before, multiple times, with nothing to show for it but heartache. Once bitten, you know. Who can say the economy won’t tank, killing these visions as well? Some experts are predicting a downturn any time now.

All we can do is cross our fingers.

Wait — that’s not true. There is something all of us can do.

All next week — Sept. 30 through Oct. 4, to be precise — people designing a new downtown vision invite us to become a part of it.

At 6 p.m. that Monday, Sept. 30, Opticos — the Berkeley firm creating a new downtown master plan — will present an overview for anyone who cares about downtown’s potential. The next three days, Tuesday through Thursday, they invite all of us to visit with them, sharing our visions and watching them as they do actual design work. These charrettes, as they’re called, end with a closing presentation at 4:30 p.m. Friday, Oct. 4. All of this will happen at Greens on Tenth, 953 Tenth St.

What does Opticos want from us? Our thoughts on housing, of course!

They’re also looking for ideas on trolleys, taxi stops, tiny parks and plazas. No doubt the always-controversial topics of parking and traffic flow will come up, as will the homeless. Maybe you have thoughts about overnight lodging, planters or public art.

Modesto’s last downtown master plan was done in 2006 — when we thought we were on the cusp of high-rise housing. Who’s to say we won’t get fooled again?

There is no guarantee. But optimists recognize a certain energy brewing.

ACE trains should be carrying passengers from a revamped station — just a block from one of the small projects I mentioned earlier — to the Bay Area in three years. A fancy new courthouse is on the way, opening opportunities where the old one sits. We now have 45 restaurants, some with food rivaling quality seen in any downtown, anywhere.

New leadership has taken over or is coming to key groups, including the Modesto Chamber of Commerce, the Downtown Improvement District, the Modesto Convention and Visitors Bureau and the downtown library. Energetic leadership already is in place at the Gallo center, Downtown Modesto Partnership, Opportunity Stanislaus, Downtown Streets Team and the Stanislaus Community Foundation.

“Now is the time to capitalize on some of that momentum and push it to the next level,” French said.

Also, during and since the recession, the City Council removed some of the barriers that had discouraged builders, reducing some fees and relaxing parking requirements.

It’s easy to be cynical. It’s more fun to be hopeful.

Garth Stapley is The Modesto Bee’s Opinions page editor. Before this assignment, he worked 25 years as a Bee reporter, covering local government agencies and the high-profile murder case of Scott and Laci Peterson.
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