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Supercenter on verge of permits
• City expects Mitchell & Service area to begin developing
With Mitchell Road improvements nearly complete, this area of Ceres is primed for the next commercial boom. The vacant lot at upper center is where the Mitchell Ranch Shopping Center and Walmart Supercenter will be built. The triangle-shaped lot at left is pegged for the Gateway Center. Meanwhile, the city and Caltrans are planning a new interchange for Service & Mitchell. - photo by Jeff Benziger

Design work for the new Walmart Supercenter and Mitchell Ranch Shopping Center is taking a little longer than expected but is still moving forward, city officials report.

The city is used to delays in the project. It received building plans and an application for a permit for the Walmart Supercenter in March – nearly 11 years after the project was originally proposed in 2007. The delays were caused by an opposition group which ultimately ran out the clock in their legal challenges.

Tom Westbrook, the city of Ceres’ Community Development Director, said the city is now awaiting Caltrans to approve plans for two new temporary signal lights at the Mitchell/Highway 99 interchange. When that happens Walmart is expected to pull permits and begin construction. Westbrook expects that Caltrans approval will come the beginning of October.

“They didn’t want to start construction and then not have that approval from Caltrans so they want to kind of have everything buttoned up before they start,” said Westbrook.

The temporary signals – to be installed at Walmart’s expense – would be placed where the southbound Highway 99 off-ramp meets the Mitchell Road on-ramp. Another will be placed on the freeway’s northbound off-ramp at Mitchell Road. The temporary signals will be removed once the city builds a new interchange at Service Road and modifies the Mitchell Road interchange configuration.

Westbrook said the temporary signals will likely be in place for four or five years until construction is completed on the new interchange. Construction is expected to start in 2021 or later.

The new interchange will eliminate the current way motorists exit southbound 99 at Mitchell Road. The southbound off-ramp and southbound on-ramps cross each other, so drivers coming off the freeway must stop and wait for a break in southbound Mitchell Road traffic headed toward the on-ramp. Under the diverging diamond design, the only freeway access at Mitchell Road to remain would be the southbound on-ramp and the northbound freeway on-ramp.

The city is incorporating one of the state’s first “diverging diamond” designs in the proposed Service Road interchange. Ceres city officials prefer the diverging diamond design as the best way to handle traffic volumes into 2040. That’s why triple left-hand turn lanes are being designed for the intersection of Service and Mitchell roads to move five or six times the movement potential than exists today. The diverging diamond design also takes into consideration the limitations caused by the railroad tracks that run parallel just to the west of 99.

City Manager Toby Wells said the diverging diamond design will allow full freeway access at Service Road.

The diamond design concept is explained in several videos on Normally a vehicle travelling westbound over a freeway overpass would be on the north side while eastbound motorists would be on the south side of the overpass. The diverging diamond flips that pattern, creating less traffic conflicts, better and increased traffic flows and better access to the freeway. Proper signage is a critical component in keeping motorists from becoming confused about movement, said Wells.

The Mitchell Ranch Shopping Center and anchor tenant of the Walmart Supercenter was delayed for nearly a decade because of legal challenges lodged by a group that called themselves “Citizens for Ceres.” The Ceres City Council approved the center in 2011 but the opposition group, led by Sherri Jacobson and attorney Bret Jolley, dragged a protracted fight through the environmental process and the Stanislaus County Superior Court.

Once construction starts, the Supercenter could be open within nine months to a year, Westbrook estimated. Only the Supercenter structure itself is currently proposed. It consists of 185,682 square feet. The city expects the remainder of the center to develop as companies express interest in leases. Westbrook said he has not aware of any new interest in the center but said Applebee’s had expressed interest in the past.

The infrastructure for the shopping center will include transition lanes to turn in and out of the project along the eastern and southern boundaries. A new traffic signal light will be installed midblock on Mitchell Road between Don Pedro and Service roads, to allow safer entry into the center.

Owners of adjacent empty parcels have been anxiously awaiting the development of Mitchell Ranch since it will be a magnet for development of their properties. Westbrook said he expects revival on the Gateway Center pegged for the triangle piece of ground sandwiched between Service and Mitchell roads and Highway 99. The commercial center project, as proposed by Ralph Ogden & Associates as proposed and approved in 2008, included a 162-room, three-story Hampton Inn & Suites and a tentative parcel map to split 16 acres into nine parcels for six buildings totaling 25,955 square feet. Uses were to include a restaurant, retail space and gas mart. The project went into the skids upon the heels of the recession.

“I think they’re going to change the plan a little bit but I expect probably in October or November to get a new development application,” said Westbrook. “We’ve had discussions with them. They haven’t identified anybody who’s really interested but they want to go ahead and get some buildings.”

With the change of the market, Westbrook is uncertain if hotels are a part of the concept.

“I think at one point in time the hotel guys were driving the rest of the development and now I don’t think that’s the case. I think they’re trying to get some identified tenants and kind of do a build-to-suit.”

Westbrook said that Sam Khacho, owner of 10 acres on the east side of Mitchell Road near Rhode Road have been watching for Walmart to become a reality “before they really start moving forward.”