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Downtown Modesto is buzzing with life every day of the week. With restaurants, banks, theaters, clubs, and shops of all kinds, it’s no wonder the area is so busy. This wasn’t always the case, however, and what we see now when we walk downtown is an outstanding recovery of our city’s core.

Modesto is one of California’s oldest cities and began with the hub, which would become the downtown area and was built along the rail lines in the 1870s. As trains brought goods in and out of town, the city thrived. In the early part of the 20th century, downtown Modesto was the place to be, one of the largest cities in the Central Valley. Unfortunately, by the middle of the century, Americans were moving out of city centers all across the country and Modesto was no exception.

Attempts were made in the latter half of the 20th century to revitalize downtown centers like Modesto’s, with limited success. In the last couple of decades, however, a major shift has been happening as Americans, once again found a desire for urban living. This shift has been a windfall for Modesto’s downtown, which has come back to life with the help of such organizations as the Downtown Modesto Partnership and the Downtown Improvement District, which are focused on making downtown Modesto a flourishing attraction throughout the Central Valley once again.

The Downtown Modesto Partnership was put together through a grassroots initiative that involved many business and property owners and concerned citizens, as well as community groups such as the Modesto Chamber of Commerce, Opportunity Stanislaus, the Convention and Visitor’s Bureau, and the Downtown Improvement District as a way to ensure that the revitalization of Modesto’s downtown could be given the attention it deserves. In recent years, a healthy downtown has become more important than ever. Josh Bridegroom, CEO of the Downtown Modesto Partnership, is optimistic about Downtown’s future among the shifting trends.

“Downtown Modesto is well-positioned to succeed as the nation’s preferences once again shift to urban lifestyles,” said Bridegroom. “It’s the only real urban center in this region, with other cities having main streets more than urban downtowns.”

What does it take for a downtown hub to truly stand out and to take full advantage of the resurgence in American interest in urban living? According to Bridegroom, it starts with a coordinated plan which balances the needs of property owners, business owners, and developers, and improves infrastructure to make Downtown an attractive place for the public. This includes transit options, sidewalks, and better parking solutions. What might seem like background details can be vital to a thriving downtown environment.

“For example,” Bridegroom explained, “sidewalks are the primary conduit for social exchange and commerce downtown. Yet many of our sidewalks provide lack of shade, are obstacle courses for pedestrians to navigate, and have no color or character. We can do better. We must do better.”

With this in mind, the Downtown Modesto Partnership has been enthusiastic in finding ways to position Modesto as a city which will be attractive to businesses and prospective residents. Part of their work involves raising money to improve Downtown, and applying for grants to secure additional funding. The Downtown Modesto Partnership is an active advocate to area businesses and the public about the benefits of improved transit and parking in the downtown area, as well as working with business interests to make Downtown an attractive place for commercial endeavors.

One potential way of increasing interest in downtown is by providing rail transit to the heart of Modesto. Passenger rail, such as the ACE train which runs through the Altamont, connecting cities between Stockton and San Jose, is slated to expand to downtown by 2020 and will provide Modesto citizens with the opportunity to easily travel to larger cities for work or leisure while, at the same time, allowing those in other cities to travel into Modesto for the same. With connectivity between city centers quickly becoming one of the most important things a city can do to entice younger cohorts to work and start businesses in a city, a transit plan is a vital part of Downtown’s future.

“I think it makes it much more palatable and appealing to build office space in Modesto when you’ve got that connection to the Bay Area,” said Dave Gianelli, former president of the Downtown Modesto Partnership. “It’s not a lot of fun for people to drive over the Altamont these days for work.”

Aside from transit and infrastructure, another important area that Downtown is always trying to improve is the availability of attractions which will draw public interest. One of these points of interest is the Tuolumne River Regional Park Gateway Parcel, which is undergoing some work to make it an attractive destination.

“I think it is very likely that Tuolumne River Regional Park Gateway Parcel at the south end of 10th Street will be developed as our version of Central Park in New York, Balboa Park in San Diego or Golden Gate Park in San Francisco—with live music festivals, interpretive trails, kayaking and boating opportunities, and cultural learning centers, such as museums, an aquarium and possibly even a zoo,” said Bridegroom.

By Ashley Stinson