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Tear down fire gutted buildings in downtown
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It’s time to take back downtown Manteca from slumlords.
That’s right, slumlords.
What else can you call people who let burned out buildings sit for years, allow unmaintained storefronts to sit and rot downtown, and operate fire traps as defined by the Manteca Fire Department when they discovered an illegal use of a space for a boutique gym after the side effects of a decomposing body in an upstairs apartment prompted a call to 9-1-1.
No offense to the fledging Downtown Business Alliance, the Manteca Chamber of Commerce effort, or even the City of Manteca that has pumped millions into the heart of the city over the past 13 years upgrading and expanding Library Park, enhancing the streetscape, building the transit center, and dealing with the homeless. None of what anyone is doing is going to work to get downtown to where they want it to be for a city of 76,000 on the cusp of having 125,000 residents until you remove the cancer.
You don’t need a plan. All you need to do is enforce health and safety standards as well as make the city’s ordinances dealing with fire damaged buildings and vacant structures that have lapsed into disrepair more muscular.
Downtown Manteca, so far, boasts of just two burned out buildings courtesy of — you name them — the homeless, vagrants, or fire bugs. It doesn’t really matter who did the deed. What matters is the organization created almost 100 years ago to deal with situations like this that community residents can’t handle as individuals needs to step up.
Let’s talk about the burned out buildings for now — the two-story Sycamore Arms that from time-to-time serves as a Club Med for meth heads or a flophouse for the homeless at Sycamore and Yosemite as well as the small house that served as an office for a used car lot at Lincoln and Yosemite.
When you think about it, downtown is doing fairly well despite these two magnets for mayhem that don’t exactly enhance the ambiance the city has created by spending $13 million at Library Park, streetscape, two mini-plazas, assisting the Manteca Mural Society, and the transit center on top of the private sector investment.
The city needs to make condemning these two buildings and having them torn down a priority. And that effort needs to start now because it won’t happen overnight. Neither property owner is in the position to do anything since they both lacked fire insurance. No private sector investor is going to step up when there are other options for retail and office space in Manteca. And at the same time the two burned out buildings — especially Sycamore Arms — will prevent significant investment in nearby properties for obvious reasons.
The first step is to get the city’s ordinances in order to make sure Manteca has the legal teeth needed to go all the way on forcing the correction of serious health and safety issues.
Next, send in the dogs — every agency from building inspection, code enforcement, police and fire, and health — to inspect the structures. This seems a bit overkill given the conditions of the buildings, but it might serve as a way to sharpen an inter-department and inter-agency response to address other problematic structures throughout Manteca.
After that, issue the property owners legal ultimatums with timetables. If corrections aren’t made by a set time, start the condemnation process.
Then tear down the building and slap a lien against the property that has to be paid within five years or the property goes to auction.
If the excuse is “we don’t have the money,” there’s a logical “new” source for funds.  The city has been spending the $40 million that was left over in redevelopment agency bond receipts after the state disbanded RDAs to spur economic development as well as fund a yet-to-be-started affordable senior housing project on Cottage Avenue near the Highway 99 overcrossing. They can take their share of the proceeds from the pending sale of three RDA properties — the former Qualex building on Industrial Park Drive, the valuable vacant parcel across from Big League Dreams, and the parcel north of Funsten Co. on South Main Street — to fight blight created by burned out or vacant structures not kept in repair.
The city’s share of the sale could go into a revolving fund for paying to have blighted structures that have been condemned torn down.
When the city recoups its cost at an auction, the money can be put back into the revolving fund to go after the next problematic building.
Even if the city ends up having to take ownership of the property, they will have gotten rid of a blighted structure and will have a vacant lot they can market. If needed, they could devise incentives to get someone to invest in building a new structure that may include waiving parking requirements to deals similar to those that brought Bass Pro Shops and Costco to Manteca.
The process takes time. But as long as everyone keeps talking and nothing happens, the buildings will stay standing.
This is not something that requires the fifth or sixth downtown master plan in 50 years destined to collect dust in the bowels of the Civic Center.
All it takes is a commitment to enforce basic health and safety standards.