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New downtown on drawing board
Concept has entry landmark, palm trees down Fourth Street
An artist rendering of how it might look next year coming into downtown Ceres on southbound Fourth Street. Palm trees and an entry landmark are among the ideas offered. - photo by Contributed to the Courier

City leaders cast a vision Monday evening of Fourth Street being transformed into a palm tree lined destination with wider sidewalks for outdoor café seating, better bike access and attractive streetscapes. The concept, which will be refined with input from downtown business people, the Chamber and residents, is intended to show what Ceres could achieve in a sluggish downtown, not necessarily what it will look like.

"Our goal is to collaborate and investigate new features to enhance the entry and amenities of our local downtown yet maintain our downtown atmosphere that we have now," said City Engineer Daryl Jordan at the Ceres Planning Commission meeting.

The preliminary design concept for the $2 million infrastructure and streetscape project for two blocks of Fourth Street from El Camino Avenue to North Street, was created by O'Dell Engineering and landscape architects.

The concept ideas include:

• Moving street trees out into the street for wider pedestrian walkways;

• Creating midblock crosswalks for better pedestrian access;
• Modifying parking;

• Adding permeable pavement to allow storm water to percolate for trees rather than collect for storm drainage;

• Adding public Wi-Fi access;

• Adding architectural landscape features;

• Entry features such as lighted archways;

• A roundabout at the intersection of El Camino and Fourth Street.

City Manager Toby Wells told commissioners that he has focused much of his career on rejuvenating downtowns, particularly Turlock and Livermore, before coming to Ceres.

"This is one that I have the same level of enthusiasm about," said Wells. "It's something that's very exciting, the opportunity we have here."

He said the city wants to create a "very unique and special environment that's different" for downtown, adding that palm trees are unique from any other downtown in the area.

William Bilson, owner of the building at the southeast corner of Fourth and North streets, asked if the city's plans would take into account the already narrow roundabout outside. He said trucks have hit his building's awning. Wells said the city will be looking at detailed changes.

Businesses, said Wells, will help the city make some "critical decisions" such as construction timeline to minimize impact.

Moving trees into the parking area would allow for a full 10-foot-wide sidewalk, which could accommodate for outdoor seating at possible downtown cafes such as is seen in downtown Turlock Wells said.

The city hopes to be 50 percent complete in the design phase by September and have the entire design completed by January. Construction would start the day after the 2017 Street Faire. The goal is to have everything finished by the end of 2017.

The concept calls for Fourth Street to be striped so that bikes and cars share the same thoroughfare, similar to what one sees in beach communities, Wells said. Expect Fourth Street to become narrower to slow traffic.

Planning Commission Chairman Bob Kachel said he was recently excited to see firsthand the life in downtown Livermore and to know Wells had a hand in it.

"It's exciting to think we could have something in that same ballpark," said Kachel.

While public investment would be made in the infrastructure, the key to the transformation of downtown is private investment, noted Wells. "This is really setting the stage for private investment," said Wells.

The $2 million to $2.5 million the city expects to spend on the project will come from proceeds of the bonds sold by the now defunct Ceres Redevelopment Agency in addition to other pots of money set aside for infrastructure.

Unhappy about the pending project is Leonard Shepherd who decried any improvements to the quaint downtown.

"This is a town where working people don't go sitting around at night sipping lattes," said Shepherd. "They go home and go to bed because they're tired because they're workers. I guess if this happens I got to try to find a place that's simple and small and isn't trying to be envious of their big neighbors."

He doesn't disagree that downtown buildings need a makeover but also condemned taking away more parking by installing palm trees.

Lisa Moore issued a sharp rebuke of Shepherd's way of thinking.

"I don't have hayseed in my teeth and I don't have cows at my house so I don't that I need to avoid my downtown because I'm too tired to come out at night," said Moore. She said as a committee member overseeing the Clinton Whitmore Mansion operation a block away she "would love more opportunities in my downtown to spend more money and time here."

Downtown building owner Shane Parson said the plan seemed wonderful and dovetails into his plans to bring a steakhouse and antique store to downtown.

"Maybe I won't sip lattes ... but I still wouldn't mind going down and having a nice meal," said Parson.

Sheila Brandt said she didn't see why historical buildings couldn't be incorporated into a more modern looking downtown.

"I don't think we're going to go and just wipe out the whole downtown area and start anew," said Brandt. "I'm sure we're going to look at the history. There's certain buildings we'll keep but... unless we start doing something downtown to bring businesses in ... there's no way we're going to build any kind of face for our city. I love this plan - it looks great."

Chamber leader Renee Ledbetter said she would love to sit down at a downtown bistro or restaurant. The plan would help people spend more money in Ceres and help build the tax base for police and fire.

Commissioner Couper Condit suggested that conceptually he prefers to see downtown reflect Ceres' agricultural heritage.

"We were the peach capital of the world at one time," said Condit. "We need to remember that. We need to remember who we are and ... we need to show that off in our downtown somehow."

He also suggested a more "agriculture friendly tree" other than a palm tree and later suggested redwoods. Commissioner Luis Molina suggested almond trees, something which Wells said would not work nor would redwoods. He said a number of trees other than a palm may work.