It’s unmistakable. The tides of commerce are shifting in Downtown Turlock, as the once-forgotten hub of the city is quickly becoming a magnet for small businesses and residents alike.
“I like the feel of it down here,” said Eric Olsen, owner of Black Sea Tattoo in Downtown Turlock.
Olsen decided to open his business during uncertain economic times in 2011, falling in love with Downtown Turlock’s “classy” feel and unique culture.
Yet Olsen’s not the only small business owner to be attracted by Downtown Turlock’s charms. Brett Tate, owner of Dust Bowl Brewing Co., also decided to open his first restaurant on West Main Street in 2011.
“We believed in downtown, and felt that a tap room and restaurant would help draw people back to an area that once was the heartbeat of Turlock,” Tate said, highlighting the historical beauty of downtown in his decision to locate there. “The old architecture was a perfect fit for our decor and branding.”
Tate points to the district's brick sidewalks and flower pots as setting the stage for customers’ experiences. Those exterior aesthetics are a “definite draw for patrons,” he says.
Throughout the nation, cities are seeking to establish a cultural center for their residents by revitalizing their downtowns. That effort sometimes leads to re-urbanization of the entire downtown community, including residential areas.
An Adjacent Residential Community
Downtowns were once the central business districts of all cities.
Residents could go shopping, find a place to work, or just walk the streets and meet up with friends.
But with mass ownership of automobiles and the advent of the highway system, businesses and people found it more affordable to locate outside of the central business district. Without the nearby residents downtowns relied on to thrive, the districts became isolated and deteriorated.
At the turn of the century, cities began looking to revitalize downtown neighborhoods and bring back the cultural “heart” of their cities.
Many cities in California used redevelopment agencies (RDAs), which allowed them to borrow against future property tax revenues to turn decaying neighborhoods and businesses around, leading to increased property values and tax revenues. It was the use of RDA money that initially funded revitalization efforts for Downtown Turlock, the rebuilding of the Carnegie Arts Facility, and the new Turlock Public Safety Center currently under construction.
But with state budget cuts, redevelopment agencies were soon gone.
Gerard Wellman, Assistant Professor of Politics and Public Administration at California State University, Stanislaus, says the loss of RDA funds is a big blow to revitalization efforts.
“While certainly not perfect, these agencies represented the best chance of helping make the playing field more fair between established parts of town and new developments,” Wellman said.
Wellman is passionate about maintaining strong, vibrant downtowns. He believes cities need to stop subsidizing urban sprawl, which takes away essential resources from other areas, instead revitalizing older, historical neighborhoods that can bring new life to a city.
Downtown business owners agree: revitalizing historical downtown residential areas would only speed the recovery of downtown, and Turlock as a whole.
“The older residential areas definitely add to the charm of Turlock,” Tate said
Tate sees downtown neighborhoods as an “extension of downtown” adding, “It would be nice to see some incentive to invest in these areas. It would be great to see families walking from their homes to enjoy downtown services.”
An Urban Renewal?
Though RDAs are gone, Turlock has continued to support the redevelopment of Historic Downtown Turlock through its Business Incentive Program. The program looks to entice industry to downtown – and ensure its success – by offering a $1,000 check to new businesses.
So far, the program has been a success.
“Vacancy is down under 10 percent in downtown,” said Maryn Pitt, Assistant to the City Manager and Turlock Housing and Economic Development Manager.
As Turlock's attractive downtown atmosphere brings in new and exciting businesses, the incentives increase to reduce blight in historic neighborhoods and fill vacant lots near downtown.
According to Wellman, the development can result in increased economic output for the entire city. Cities can recoup anywhere from three-to-five times as much property and sales taxes per acre from downtown areas versus urban sprawl.
“Land downtown is used more intensively, and this yields more property and sales tax (helping keep overall tax rates lower) and is a better use of land,” Wellman said.
Alan Burkett, realtor for Turlock's Reed Realty, sees the infusion of new and diverse businesses into Downtown Turlock as a signal of better things to come.
“I think building up a bustling downtown would have a great impact on the culture of the town,” Burkett said.
Downtown business owners can feel the change as the district returns to its former prominence. There may be no better place to realize the change than to look to the corner of West Main Street and Broadway.
The Red Brick Experiment
Stephen Backus, co-owner of Red Brick, is moving his bar and restaurant down the street to take advantage of West Main Street’s prime location.
What makes the move so important to Downtown Turlock’s success is the fact that Backus and building owner Phil Rheinschild are teaming up to retrofit an entire vacant – and very old – two-story building.
“Nothing like this has happened in Turlock,” said Eric Picciano, Principal Civil Engineer and Chief Building Official in the City of Turlock.
Businesses have consistently shied away from the cost and extensive red ink of retrofitting both floors of historic buildings on Main Street, many of which were built in the late 1800s. Instead, businesses have focused their attention solely on the first floors, avoiding costly earthquake retrofits.
This has led to vacant top floors of buildings and under-utilization of space which could be used for downtown residences.
“If we get this done, then other people have the opportunity to do the same,” Backus said. “It’s exciting to see this happen.”
The process of retrofitting is essentially like tying the floor to the roof in order to stabilize the building against earthquakes.
In those old, 1800s era buildings, “the brick buildings are basically all stacked with no physical connections between the walls and floors,” Picciano explains. Through retrofitting, anything that might come loose from the building is connected together through a plethora of enormous steel belts in and around the building.
Both Backus and Rheinschild point out that without the support of the city, the Red Brick project wouldn’t have been possible.
“A few years ago, it would’ve been cheaper to tear it down and rebuild it,” Rheinschild said, mentioning the city's willingness to overcome past barriers in keeping the cost down and bureaucracy unobtrusive.
It is a point emphasized by Jim Shaw of Yoshino/Shaw & Associates, architect for the building upgrade and remodeling.
“It seems that since Roy Wasden has taken over as City Manager, there has been a stronger and newer approach towards helping new businesses get through the planning and permitting process a little faster and easier,” Shaw said.
Shaw believes the building will be a “catalyst” that both the city and business owners can use in getting all historic downtown buildings retrofitted and fully utilized in providing, “the vibrant downtown that many people have wanted for decades,” Shaw said.
Some downtown business owners are seeing that vibrant downtown come to life already.
“We are beginning to see those buildings coming back to life,” Tate said. “I believe downtown will continue to be a draw for independent businesses.”
Under the current General Plan for the City of Turlock, which governs all growth and development, the city is set to preserve the historic character of Downtown Turlock by working with local businesses and residential owners through an advisory role.
Labeling specific neighborhoods as “historic” has been discussed in the past, which would help preserve the old-world charm and provide tax benefits for restoring historical buildings, but was consequently dropped due to restrictions that would have been imposed on property owners. The city now provides “Design Guidelines,” allowing for new buildings while maintaining the district's architectural style.
The city also hopes to alleviate obstacles to building higher profile buildings in the downtown area. According to Debbie Whitmore, City of Turlock’s Planning Manager, the city expects to soon ease the development process, allowing for buildings five-to-six stories high.
Currently, developers have to go through lengthy public hearings to win approval for such projects. After the revision, the city will allow tall buildings to be built without public hearings in designated areas, such as senior housing or condominiums, that would increase foot traffic in the Downtown area.
In addition, Shaw, having helped Rheinschild and Backus with their building, is working closely with the city in adopting a new “change-of-use” process that would essentially provide a framework for upgrading or retrofitting old historic buildings in Downtown Turlock, creating much larger assembly types such as restaurants, theaters, retail, and office spaces.
Going forward, the City of Turlock hopes to continue its efforts, both advisory and through other business incentives, to help strengthen Downtown Turlock.
Though buildings may grow taller and tenants may change, Downtown Turlock will continue to offer something that ubiquitous strip malls and shopping centers can not, Wellman said. There's a “local flavor” that encapsulates what a city really is, that can be found only in a strong downtown.
“If you want to know what makes any city unique, stroll through its downtown,” Wellman said.
Inderjit Pahal is a contributing writer to TurlockCityNews.com, who primarily reports on business issues. He formerly served as student body president and editor of the student newspaper at California State University, Stanislaus, where he is currently pursuing a Masters in Business Administration.
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Introducing New Contributor Inderjit Pahal