Retired educator Fred Fink used to tell a story about the first time he saw Manteca in 1972.
He was living in Southern California and had applied for a Manteca Unified teaching position.
The administrator that called him for an interview — Harold Hughes who went on to become district superintendent — gave him directions using Highway 99 by taking the old Moffat Boulevard left turn exit that used a flyover bridge over the southbound lanes on Manteca’s southern flank.
Fink recalled how he and his wife passed tumbleweeds, the old Moffat feed lot, the pulp smell on the back side of Spreckels Sugar, shuttered dilapidated gas stations, few trees, shuttered businesses, crumbling pavement, a dive bar, weed-infested lots, aging trailer homes, garbage strewn about, and motels that had seen their better days.
By the time he reached Main Street, they were ready to turn around. Instead they went ahead with the interview and ended up falling in love with Manteca.
Should a potential teacher enter Moffat Boulevard today on the way to a job interview, the scenery would be a lot less jarring.
Today Moffat Boulevard has an imposing modern house of worship with a sweeping architectural canopy, smooth pavement a modern business park, distribution-style centers, what out-of-town competitors have called the nicest municipally owned BMX track in Northern California, sidewalks along with curbs and gutters, no drainage issues, a community hall serving as a veterans center, 300 maturing trees separating the railroad from the Tidewater Bikeway, and a stunning brick and glass transit station.
Almost all traces of Moffat’s rock bottom days — illegal truck parking, buildings gutted by warming fires started by the homeless, high crime associated with what was three rundown motels, and the homeless takeover of a trailer park that has since been removed — are gone.
Manteca Unified is getting ready for a major transformation of the 99 year-old Manteca High campus to re-orientate the front of the campus to Moffat Boulevard complete with a new gym.
Plans are underway to secure land to expand parking at the transit center in preparation for Altamont Corridor Express passenger service starting in 2023 that will allow you to board a train and travel to San Jose or Sacramento.
The ongoing transformation of the Moffat Boulevard corridor has more than a few lessons that Manteca’s city leaders should heed as they try to make the sixth or seventh run in the past 60 years at enhancing the downtown experience.
The Moffat corridor just like many parts of downtown had less than stellar sidewalks with similar issues with curb and gutter although the bigger issues were no sidewalks at all on the southern side of the street with long gaps on the north side.
There have been and still are a few problematic property owners along Moffat just like in downtown. The city drastically improved the situation involving the most egregious on the Moffat corridor by simply taking a zero-tolerance toward code violations. Instead of hiding behind a citizens’ complaint to start enforcement action, they acted on what they saw. Vacant building after building was eventually demolished. The problematic trailer park was cleared out. Even the owner of what was the worst motel in Manteca at one time was forced to address a wide array of property upkeep and maintenance deficiencies.
Moffat, of course, had a “master plan” developed for $100,000 plus because we know bureaucrats need the comfort of an outside consultant to state the obvious and use a boilerplate solution outlining possible land use and development and applying it to a “real” area that is akin to trying to make an elephant fly.
So how did Moffat that was on a steady downhill decline for decades start a genuine rebirth almost 15 years ago? All things considered, it was because of two council members at the time — John Harris and Vince Hernandez.
Moffat, that T-intersects into Main Street just a block from the heart of downtown and the geographical center of the city, was largely ignored by city staff. It wasn’t callous. It was more like out-of-sight out of mind along with the fact there were no squeaky wheels, so to speak, in the community pushing the city to give a rat’s behind about the corridor.
It may have helped that both Harris and Hernandez grew up in Manteca with Hernandez being raised in the Powers Tract neighborhood accessed from Moffat. Other council members shared their concerns but not quite as intensely as they did when it came to Moffat.
What happened was a focused effort on Moffat that wasn’t based at all on getting property owners aboard. What the city did was step up their game.
They decided to get their house in order first. That meant finding funds to address drainage issues, the lack of sidewalk and upgrading pavement. It meant turning code enforcement loose and not waiting for someone to ratfink on the obvious deplorable property upkeep issues.
The city reached out to the community — in this case Crossroads Community Church — to provide the manpower needed not just to plant 300 trees along the Moffat leg of the Tidewater secured from a parks grant but to also help water and maintain them for the critical first three years of growth.
When former Public Works Director Mike Brinton presented a drainage solution that involved putting in a “temporary” storm retention basin he proposed leaving in its natural state and fencing it off with cyclone to keep costs down until a larger basin could be retained south of the tracks, Hernandez asked the obvious question: What is temporary?
Brinton replied 20 years or so prompting Hernandez to say that it was then unacceptable not to plant grass and trees in the basin such as the city requires developers to do in similar storm retention basins built in parks of new neighborhoods.
When it was decided the transit station would be built, the council at the time was adamant that it be a focal point for the downtown area with pleasing architecture and an element that no other ACE station has — a large community room — so that the transit center complete with outdoor plazas could grow into a gathering place as the years go by.
It was former Mayor Willie Weatherford who pushed hard for the Moffat Community Center that serves as the VFW Hall that has a long-term lease that frees the city of maintenance and upkeep costs.
It may surprise you the consultant’s plan did not call for a transit center let alone one with a large community room. It did not envision a community center. It did not call for a BMX track to be developed in the city’s largest storm basin that is maintained by Spreckels Park property owners. Nor did it foresee the business park or the church although those two projects were a tad out of the targeted scope of his work. And he certainly didn’t make any mention of the city working with the school district to re-orientate the Manteca High campus.
While downtown is a somewhat different animal, it is clear that if the city takes care of the framework — decent streets, alleys, and public parking lots; clean and safe sidewalks; and has the courage to enforce everything from municipal property maintenance laws to going after those that trash the areas — it can encourage the private sector to step up and invest simply by cleaning up public spaces and streets.
That’s because just like along Moffat the biggest property owner between the Tidewater corridor, Library Park, the Transit Center, and parking lots not to mention streets, sidewalks alleys in downtown Manteca is the City of Manteca.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org or 209.249.3519.