Will 2019 be the year the long sought after deliverance for downtown Manteca will occur?
After all, the man who has kept downtown as a major issue in the last six municipal campaigns is now sitting in the mayor’s seat. Every council member — current, past, and wannabes — have embraced a “rival” of downtown to transform it into a version of various other successful transformations that run the gamut from Turlock and Lodi to Livermore and Pleasanton.
Mayor Ben Cantu has held downtown new and dear to his heart for 50 years and counting. He has fashioned schematics over the years of building a new city hall where the vacant parcel now sits where the Manteca Bean Co. once stood across Moffat Boulevard from the Manteca Transit Center. Cantu is firm in his belief moving city hall downtown and repurposing much of the current civic center complex for recreational program purposes is the key catalyst to transform downtown.
It is fairly clear what most people seem to want to see in downtown Manteca: Lots of unique restaurant choices with al fresco dining, entertainment venues perhaps tied into coffee shops, trendy boutiques, low-key street festival-style events, concerts in the park, and being able to browse a farmers market on a lazy Saturday morning.
There is a major problem with that scenario. It’s called reality.
First, downtown while not perfect is far from dead or even dying. It’s just not the downtown many dream about.
There are seven banks, five furniture stores, seven dining options, specialty stores, a bustling specialty market, professional and service offices and more. Most of the abovementioned have survived and thrived downtown even through the depths of the Great Recession. While there are problematic spots, downtown is far from being in its death throes as some have argued now for going on 40 plus years.
Then there are the physical limitations. The key streets are not only narrow but they include the heaviest traveled north-south corridor (Main Street) and the second heaviest east-west corridor (Yosemite Avenue) in Manteca. Outdoor dining — one of the linchpins of other downtowns that many say they want to see in Manteca — can’t be replicated along Yosemite, Main, and Center to a degree that it would be inviting and effective. It might work somewhere on Center with a house conversion that created the biggest restaurant draw in downtown Pleasanton, but other than that the founders of Manteca a century ago failed to design downtown as a leisure center opting to make it an early 20th century commerce center.
Along with the physical limitations come a handful of key property owners either unwilling or unable to invest to the degree needed to transform downtown.
Then there is the issue of the public stomach for a whole hog approach at one time that is the only way to assure that once something is started it will actually be finished. The need for an all or nothing approach to remake downtown in another image is underscored by five previous efforts over almost 60 years that were ultimately abandoned. Building a new city hall alone downtown is likely to surpass $30 million. That has to be weighed against a list of other civic wants and needs that includes recreation facilities including an expensive aquatics center, new police station, road work, and other capital items.
But the real undermining of dreams to turn Manteca into a trendy gathering/dining/entertaining/shopping place and pushing out successful commerce already in place can be found just over a mile to the southwest as a drone flies.
It’s called The Promenade Shops at Orchard Valley.
Orchard Valley is another commercial center that routinely gets slammed by the Greek chorus as a failure. Folks that contend that to be the case really need to get out more often.
It has six restaurants that are never wanting for patrons especially on Friday and Saturday nights. The AMC 16 movie theaters clearly show the El Rey Theatre, the focal point of downtime for half a century, is of a bygone era. Bass Pro Shops is wildly successful and it’s got a teeming fitness club that is part of the 21st world’s concept of social and entertainment venues. There is also viable retail such as JC Penney.
And if you haven’t noticed there is plenty of ambiance as well. The small lake with is the stepped area is a gathering place that is equal or better than Library Park without the passing trains and the ability to control issues with loitering and the homeless given it is private and not public property. The center even has a tower feature designed as homage to the beloved Manteca High tower that once graced Yosemite Avenue.
Originally rolled out as a lifestyle center, it was designed to recreate a traditional downtown feel with line store space facing each other to create an open stroll area event instead of facing the freeway. The reason this concept died is Orchard Valley opened as the recession hit. A plan several years after the line space languished to add outlet stores stopped after a few were snared due to the rise of e-commerce.
Now the new ownership — Poag has shed partner McEwen — is exploring building on that lifestyle center concept by adding hundreds of apartments in the extensively under used parking lot. The fact developers led by Mike Atherton want to build 400 apartments east of Bass Pro could ultimately generate 2,000 residents within walking distance of not just the theatre, fitness center, and restaurants but also other dining options, shops and entertainment venues that can build off the synergy that could transform Lifestyle Street into the heart of Manteca’s 21st century downtown luring even more people from throughout the city in search of that “Pleasanton” or “Livermore” experience. Think of it as a viable Northern San Joaquin Valley version of San Jose’s Santana Row.
Orchard Valley already has available space that not only isn’t problematic in its upkeep or challenged by parking issues but it can be easily molded into functional spaces. The fact Orchard Valley is on the loop bicycle path that is slowly encircling the city is a big help.
There are already signs that if Poag goes down this route that they may just succeed. The Manteca Chamber of Commerce after years is pulling the plug on Market & Music in Manteca given the rise of a farmers market at Orchard Valley. There are already a number of community events that take place at Orchard Valley that in another era would have been staged downtown.
Then there is the real key. There is only one property owner to contend with and they have the will and means to make it all happen without public funds, hiring endless consultants, or igniting never-ending fights.
This is not to say efforts to improve the downtown Manteca experience should be curtailed. It is a fairly successful commercial area that could easily enjoy success.
That said Orchard Valley, and not downtown, is most suitable for the creation of the “downtown” gathering and entertainment space that so many say they want to see in Manteca.
It would make more sense for city leaders to do what they can to encourage Poag to go down that road and work with downtown interests to strengthen the city’s core in a manner that is realistic about its limitations and attributes without pushing for a $30 million plus investment of public funds that in the end may not do anything to jump start a Pleasanton downtown-style experience although it would bring more congestion downtown by moving city hall there.
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.