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Downtown: Give up all hope ye who enter?

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POSTED August 15, 2013 1:04 a.m.

“Manteca today finds itself in a position which is hardly unique in California. Population is exploding, while the Downtown remains worn out and outmoded, without the qualities which will maintain it as the prime shopping center of the community.”

Sound familiar? Those words were typed by Ted Poulos, the president of the Manteca Downtown Business and Property Owners Association. It was a letter sent out to drum up support for creating a downtown design to lock property owners, merchants and the city into a unified course of action.

The letter was dated July 22, 1964.

Nearly 50 years later, getting all of the parties on the same page has proven as effective as herding cats. The number of studies, proposals and such that have been floated since 1964 have generated enough paper to defoliate a good chunk of the Amazon rain forest yet nothing has happened —  or has it?

Let’s be brutally frank. Downtown isn’t dead. Nor will it ever return to its salad days as a prime shopping district.

There’s a lot that’s right with downtown. There are business concerns that are flourishing because they offer services and goods that people want. The city has spent a good chunk of change making downtown’s public spaces appealing: The upgrade and expansion of Library Park, the transit center with its community meeting room, the Tidewater Bikeway, trees, the old-style street light features, two small plazas, parking lot upgrades, and participation in the mural project.

Downtown’s weakness is a combination of a high rate of absentee landlords as well as both downtown and civic politics.

There are and have been sincere efforts by downtown parties to put together a united front.

But those who bemoan the fact places like Target get all the business need to remember the only way downtown can compete with the Targets of the world is to level four of five city blocks and put in a shopping center with a vast parking lot. Downtown can do better than that.

It will require looking beyond the core six blocks and trying to enlist a broader central district approach.

There needs to be a unifying theme.  Consideration needs to be given to allow a 19th century development pattern thrive in the 21st century. That includes drastically reducing parking requirements for new construction, allowing tweaks to the zoning code to accommodate outdoor uses such as sidewalk dining, and coming up with a private sector mechanism to showcase downtown through community events and united business promotions.

Downtown needs to be a destination. It needs to be a part of people’s lives. It needs to showcase quaint business and dining that is outside of the box as in small, medium and big box retailers.

The biggest thing downtown needs though is a truce.

The bickering and the finger-pointing makes the Hatfields and McCoys look like rank amateurs. People need to jettison the “it’s my way or the highway” attitude. There needs to be compromise. At the same time the city needs to stop licking its wounds, perceived or otherwise. Tossing in the towel is not acceptable. Downtown is a different animal than new development. It doesn’t speak with one voice and judging by the past 50 years it probably never well. That means the city has to approach things differently since it is insanity to do the same thing over and over again and come up with the same results.

Instead of either trying to address the core or the entire area at once, maybe they can work with non-traditional downtown groups. Why not try to organize the Main Street corridor from Center to Alameda or even East Yosemite Avenue from Lincoln Avenue to  Spreckels Avenue to devise long-range strategies?  Work from the outer edges to the center.

As Manteca grows toward the 100,000 population mark there needs to be programs in place that encourage expanding commercial and service areas along key corridors such as Main, Yosemite and Center as well as making gentrification of older central neighborhoods more enticing to pursue.

Manteca needs a strong heart along with healthy extremities added by growth.

Mike Atherton — the private sector architect of Spreckels Park and Woodward Park who also played a key role in laying the groundwork for The Promenade Shops at Orchard Valley anchored by Bass Pro Shops and Del Webb at Woodbridge — has a saying he likes to repeat: “Anyone can develop farmland.”

Coming from Atherton those words may irk some downtown due to their perception that new development gets all the breaks. But his point is on the mark. Every other developer avoided the shuttered Spreckels Sugar plant like the plague.

 It would have been 10 times easier and 10 times less risky if AKF Development had tried to build a 362-acre multi-use development such as Spreckels Park on raw land. What came about wasn’t just the most successful development of its kind to date in Manteca that replaced 220 lost jobs with 2,000 plus. It was also the property tax linchpin that gave the city the ability to bankroll infrastructure that allowed the Stadium Retail Center to develop, to the building Big League Dreams, and funded a long list of other civic improvements.

The city didn’t give up on the Spreckels Sugar site. And they shouldn’t give up on downtown.



This column is the opinion of executive editor, Dennis Wyatt, and does not necessarily represent the opinion of The Bulletin or Morris Newspaper Corp. of CA.  He can be contacted at dwyatt@mantecabulletin.com or 209-249-3519.

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