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Atherton: We got it done
Planners may extend agreement Tuesday
A rendering of the 286,072-square-foot spec building breaking ground in Spreckels Park.

Mike Atherton recalls what everyone was saying about him and his partners Bill Filios and Bing Kirk 20 years ago this month.

“Everybody thought we were crazy,” Atherton said.

They had just imploded the four 15-story concrete silos at Spreckels Sugar a number of months earlier. While they were still cleaning up the 362-acre site — 99 percent of it was recycled from crushed concrete being used for the base of widening Highway 99 to six lanes between Manteca and Ripon to 75 years accumulation of lime worked back into the spoil — they were hammering out a development agreement with the City of Manteca.

The trio’s vision was a bit breathtaking considering the daunting task they tackled — converting a shuttered sugar beet processing factory into a retail center, business park, and homes. Banks and other money lenders initially wanted nothing to do with the Spreckels Park project given what they thought were the unknowns of toxic issues and simply trying to clear the factory and prepare the land for development. 

Anyone, as Atherton was known to say back then, can develop vacant land.

“We’re the only ones ever to demolish a sugar beet factory in California,” Atherton noted Sunday.

Now 20 years later the final parcels are moving toward development. Scannell Development is breaking ground on a 286,072-square-foot spec building at the end of DuPont Court nestled against the transition ramp from southbound Highway 99 to the 120 Bypass. DCT Industrial — a national player with roughly 400 industrial buildings with a combined 73.3 million square feet in 20 key markets including Tracy — is buying the last unsold parcel in Spreckels. The firm plans to build a 304,110-square-foot warehouse distribution facility on 14.83 acres fronting Spreckels Avenue between J&M Equipment and American Modular Systems.

That leaves just two parcels to be developed. One was sold to a developer on Commerce Court directly behind the Home Depot store for a small business park project that was sidetracked when the recession hit. A decade ago the city approved plans for two long and relatively narrow business park buildings designed as condos for the parcel. It is to the north of the Social Security office.

The other is a parcel behind the Chevron station just off Spreckels Avenue. The partners currently plan to develop an endeavor themselves on the site. It may include a revamp or removal of the $200,000 historical plaza they created on their own as a salute to Spreckels Sugar that they had to fence off after it became a haven for the homeless and vandals.

On Tuesday, the Manteca Planning Commission is considering extending the 20-year Spreckels Park development agreement that expires on Nov. 3 for another three years.

It’s been 21 years since the Spreckels Sugar plant was shuttered as a victim of tightening air quality rules in the San Joaquin Valley, cheap federal subsidized sugar, and soda firms and other companies switching to fructose and other non-traditional sugar sources.

Back in 1997, consultants advised the city that it would take 30 plus years to develop the project.  When the first ground broke on a new project in the Spreckels Park development in 1999, Atherton predicted it would take 20 years to completely build out the project. Within seven years, 95 percent of the former sugar plan and adjoining orchards and cattle feed lot had been redeveloped.

As things stand now, Atherton could still be right if the last parcel is developed by 2019.

“We got it done,” Atherton said. “If it hadn’t been for the recession it’d be all built out now. “

The Spreckels Park project turned the loss of 120 permanent sugar refinery jobs into more than 2,000 jobs. It also significantly expanded the city’s property tax and retail sales tax base. By doing so it generated the Redevelopment Agency funds needed to put $10 million of infrastructure improvements in to allow the development of the Stadium Retail Center by the private sector plus helped fund the Big League Dreams sports complex from a $28 million RDA investment.

The state pulled the plug on redevelopment agencies up and down the state a few years back to bridge state budget deficits instead of cutting state jobs.

Atherton with various partners has built nearly 3,000 housing units in Manteca including single family homes and two apartment complexes — Park Place and Paseo Villas. He is involved in the 157-unit Tesoro Apartments now being built at Van Ryn Avenue and Atherton Drive.