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Are conditions right to change downtown?
Traffic backs up on Yosemite Avenue in downtown Manteca. - photo by Bulletin file photos

The sixth time might be a charm in getting a plan in place and then executing it to make downtown Manteca a destination that sets it apart from strip centers and places like The Promenade Shops at Orchard Valley.
But before another run can be made to trying to form a united front of business owners, involved landlords, and the city to overcome roadblocks created by absentee property owners the City Council has said they need to be convinced it is worth investing $102,950 to get things rolling on what City Manager Karen McLaughlin has characterized as a “holistic approach.”
The approach — which involves a series of steps designed to lead to a downtown specific plan requiring the development of specific building and business codes needed to make whatever vision is crafted and adopted work — could require ultimately spending as much as $700,000 for the final template before any significant outward upgrade occurs. That is what caused the council during a meeting in February to pause when the request to spend $102,950 with Optic Designs to do the initial work was presented for approval. Council members wanted additional time to sit down with key business leaders as well as the Manteca Chamber of Commerce to see how much thought and commitment has gone into the latest try at setting the stage for a downtown makeover using strategies similar to what Livermore and Lodi employed.
The contract is being brought back before the council tonight for possible approval when they meet at 7 p.m. at the Civic Center, 1001 W. Center St.
The city since 1965 has paid for downtown plans five times that mostly ended up being shelved. The effort in 1998 was the most effective as it led to the streetscape changes downtown that included the Tidewater-style lighting fixtures, the Library Park expansion and upgrade, the landscape bulb-outs, the building of the transit center with its community meeting space, as well as the city assisting with the mural project. It also included matching funds for façade improvements and the relaxing of parking rules that prevented for years investments such as converting the old Manteca Mortuary into a beauty spa because it triggered a need for off-street parking under rules the city applies to commercial areas citywide.
Applying parking rules designed for new development to someone investing in downtown is exactly the type of issue that McLaughlin said a holistic approach will address. A previous effort last decade ran into roadblocks when some individuals interested in opening downtown restaurants with outdoor dining were told basically they couldn’t do so under existing city rules due to a variety of reasons including city liability concerns. Another couldn’t convert a vacant building into a restaurant because that wasn’t what the space had been historically used for and would trigger the need for additional off-street parking under city rules.
The political stakes are also high. Improving downtown has been a battle cry of virtually every candidate that has run for mayor or council in the past 30 years including the current incumbents. The three declared challengers —David Cushman, Gary Singh, and Jeff Zellner — have all said making downtown more viable is a big issue.
Councilwoman Debby Moorhead — the only incumbent seeking one of the two seats in the Nov. 8 election as Vince Hernandez is opting not to run — served as the Manteca Chamber of Commerce executive director for years. That organization’s board has made making downtown healthier a top priority for decades.
 That said the council made it clear in February they had little stomach for spending $102,950 if they couldn’t get a read from talking with key players whether most of them were on board with the general concept.
Community Development Director Frederic Clark, in speaking to Manteca Rotarians two months ago, summed up what most longtime downtown merchants, involved landlords, and city leaders believe is the biggest roadblock to downtown success when he said, “If people who own (property) in downtown Manteca don’t invest in downtown, we could gold-plate the streets and nothing will happen in downtown.”