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Ceres rife in projects approved but not constructed
City officials are not holding their breath when it comes to counting on any approved project being built, such as the Dhillon Center on Mitchell Road. Financing is often hard to come by. - photo by JEFF BENZIGER/Courier photo

It's become commonplace for projects to be approved by the City Council only to become shelved and forgotten, creating a cynicism that just because a project has been approved doesn't necessarily mean it will be built.

It's been a frustrating experience for city officials eager to bolster Ceres' economy and job market.

"While we enjoy the processing of applications we, too, wish that they'd get built soon after the approvals," said Tom Westbrook, director of the city of Ceres' Community Development Department.

In most cases, a developer has 18 to 24 months in which to obtain building permits once a project has been approved through the planning process. Building permits themselves are good for two years.

While most projects, which have been approved or been issued building permits, undergo construction fairly quickly, there are others that must either secure tenants, financing, materials or contractors, which sometimes cause delays in the ultimate construction.

"Unfortunately, after a building permit has been issued the city has little control over when a project will be completed," said Westbrook.

One such project was the Leer Building which came in 2014 with promises of sparking revitalization in downtown Ceres. Earlier this year the city granted a time extension of 18 months on the approved project. Bill Leer of Modesto's Leer Corporation went before city decision makers in 2014 to win approval for a Site Plan Approval for the project to be constructed on a 14,375 square foot parcel at the northwest corner of Park and Sixth streets. Leer, who has constructed projects in Modesto and Turlock, expected construction to start that spring. It didn't happen. He didn't even show up for the February hearing for an extension.

"Of course we would love to see it happen," said Ceres City Manager Toby Wells, "but will it happen? It's hard to say."

Wells doesn't think Ceres has a higher share of projects that don't become a reality than other cities.

"It's more a reflection, for most of these projects, a matter of financing," said Wells. "And that's a fallout of the downturn of the economy. Getting financing for most of these projects and making them pencil out is really what it comes down to."

In some cases grand plans come crashing down, he said, because the loans don't come through.

"It would be easy to say that it's just a Ceres thing and it's really not. Does our local economy have an impact? Of course it does. Socioeconomic and all these other ... these are all factors of whether a project would be successful but the preliminary design and the pretty stuff to get a project approved is cheap in the grand scheme of things. So you can normally get financing for creating your plan and having some skin in the game but where it really comes down to it is the construction financing. That's where the real money is."

There has been no action taken on a recently approved retail center for Mitchell Road. On May 2, the Ceres Planning Commission approved the Dhillion Center on the east side of Mitchell Road just south of Colleen Way. Seven buildings, in a U-shaped configuration, consist of a total of 102,500 square feet for commercial space. Since the application was approved, however, there has been little discussion between the property owner and city regarding development. There is a sign up on the property site in an obvious marketing attempt.

A list of approved but not-yet-built projects is as follows:

• In August 2009 the Ceres Planning Commission and Ceres City Council approved a commercial shopping that promised to bring Las Casuelas restaurant chain to the southwest corner of Mitchell and Roeding roads. The development included a gas station, two commercial shell buildings and a 6,140 square foot Las Casuelas Mexican Restaurant & Bar. The two commercial buildings were 5,200 and 9,997 square feet in size. Navdeep Bail of Modesto applied for the Conditional Use Permit. City of Ceres Senior Planner Tom Westbrook confirmed the project died when developer Nick Bali didn't act on it and ignored city notices to get an extension before the approval to a conditional use permit expired.

• Next door, a five-acre commercial project proposed in 2009 also dropped into an abyss. American USA Homes of Stockton won approval for a general plan amendment to change the property use from residential to commercial for the building of six buildings totaling 59,400 square feet of retail/office use. Westbrook said about two months after receiving approval the developer lost the property, taken back from the bank.

• There has been no development of a 14,010-square-foot office building on Mitchell Road office building on Mitchell Road approved in August 2015. Harry and Karen Bhatti of Ceres sought approval of the project and won approval of a variance to excuse them of a required 10-foot distance between the building and the rear of the property line.

• Dr. Meetinder Rai failed to build a 175-bed Hatch Road rehabilitation and nursing facility after its approval in September 2009. Dr. Rai proposed a 47,348 square foot single-story facility on a four-acre parcel south of Hatch Road between Stonum Road and Central Avenue.

Wells said that Ralph Ogden is moving forward on marketing a retail center approved in May 2008 for the the southwest corner of Mitchell and Service roads, commonly known as the Ceres Southern Gateway. The approval included six commercial buildings totaling 25,955 square feet for restaurants, retailers and a gas mart; as well as a three-story, 162-room Hampton Inn & Suites.

"It's going to be built because a tenant wants to go there," said Wells. "They considered selling the whole project and they've kind of come back full circle to they're going to develop."

Wells predicted that the eventual construction of the Mitchell Ranch Shopping Center with its Walmart Supercenter anchor tenant will create excitement for the Ogden project.

"From a marketing standpoint it becomes very, very viable," Wells said of the Ogden project. "When a Walmart makes a decision to move forward, that catches a lot of people's attention. It gets the ball rolling because here's the leader building and without saying it, our market analysis is good."