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A high speed future possible for downtown

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POSTED January 28, 2010 2:39 a.m.
Downtown Manteca’s future is looking up – literally.

If you doubt this go talk to Susan Dell’Osso who is the project manager for what is arguably the most visionary development in the entire Central Valley – River Islands at Lathrop. Cambay Group, the project developer, has over $150 million invested in the 11,800-home planned community that will offer unparalleled river access and views. They have the wherewithal to wait until the economy is right before building the first home.

At the heart of River islands is a planned town center complete with a gathering place – a grassy commons that leads to the river. The town center is envisioned for multiple story buildings with retail and restaurants on the ground floor and residential above. You will see similar strategies in the “flatter” areas of downtown San Jose near the library and HP Pavilion.

There is proven two-prong strategy for successful downtowns that thrive day and night. It is to make downtown the place where people work, live, shop, and enjoy leisure activities such as dining and entertainment or/and develop a concentration of day-time office workers.

Living and working downtown isn’t a new strategy. There were more than a few stores built in the early part of the 20th century along the 100 and 200 blocks of West Yosemite that had residential living on the second floor and retail on the bottom.
Either path – pursuing more people at the center of the city or trying to make Manteca a place where regional offices eager to serve the Modesto-Stockton-Tracy triangle with 1.1 million consumers may want to locate for efficiency – requires a departure from current zoning rules.

The emergence of downtown Manteca as an office center for the region probably sounds as ludicrous as someone telling you 10 years ago that Manteca would be drawing 2.5 million visitors from within a 100-mile radius to shop for outdoor gear or to play softball and would be able to open the only visitors center between Merced and Sacramento.

Not only is Manteca at the heart of the Northern San Joaquin Valley  region as well as the three-legged San Jose-San Francisco-Sacramento axis, but it is blessed with an incredible gift in the form of the Altamont Commuter Express teaming up with the California High Speed Rail project. The state high speed rail won’t stop here but it is allowing ACE to start moving toward high speed rail that would include extending service through Manteca to Modesto. The odds are strong a Manteca stop will come into play for ACE at Moffat and Main. That means you will be able to travel between San Jose and Manteca in less than 55 minutes.

Imagine the possibilities of a San Jose-based firm developing a business presence in the Northern San Joaquin Valley that has long been identified as the state’s high growth area for the next 25 years. Manteca is at the heart of it all.

The nice thing about the reverse commute is companies can extend into this area and not risk losing key, top level employees who prefer the Bay Area lifestyle. They simply travel 55 carefree minutes to oversee Northern San Joaquin Valley operations in offices in central Manteca. Sounds far-fetched.? So did having a business plopped down in Manteca that attracts 2 million people a year who spend money like it is going out of style.

It means a larger swath of central Manteca- perhaps as far north as Alameda and as far east as Powers – has to be identified as “downtown” so new rules aimed at encouraging investment in the area can move forward.

Among the zoning changes can be eliminating or severely reducing setbacks, lifting building limits that harkens back to the day Manteca firefighters could only reach a second or third story adequately, allowing residential above retail, and increasing residential density.

Manteca arguably has one of the most incredible opportunities for downtown transformation ever handed to a city of 67,000. Not only is its location to the region unmatchable or its location to actual growth in Manteca but the added caveats of being just over a mile from both the Highway 120 Bypass and Highway 99, being 15 minutes from Stockton Metro Airport, and in line for a potential high speed rail station to San Jose provide realistic potential that could exceed even nearby larger cities by leaps and bounds.

Nothing will happen overnight. And nothing will happen unless the rules and policies that would allow such a transformation are put in place now.

The real question for Manteca’s leadership – as well as the community – is whether it is willing to do what it takes to get aboard the potential that the high speed train and Manteca’s location has to bring white collar jobs to the heart  of our community.
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