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Downtown Ceres needs lots of help
Downtown Ceres shows obvious signs of neglect as evidenced in this photo taken on Lawrence Street toward Fourth Street. The white building and tower have not been painted in years. - photo by JEFF BENZIGER/Courier photo

There's an old saying that "beauty is in the eye of the beholder."

I'll have to agree with that one.

In a recent conversation with my son, the topic of Marilyn Monroe came up. I suggested that Marilyn was perhaps the most beautiful actress ever to come out of Hollywood. My son disagreed, labeling her looks "average." My jaw dropped; I was stunned and left scratching my head.

Perhaps some at the Sept. 22 Ceres City Council were as equally puzzled at the remarks of Leonard Shepherd, a 21-year resident of Ceres who stood up in praise of downtown Ceres while formally dismissing the fresh improvements of the small shopping center at the northwest corner of Mitchell and Fowler roads.

"I love downtown Ceres," Shepherd told the city council. "It has charm. Then I go out on Mitchell Road and I see Service and Mitchell - there's Livermore, Santa Cruz, Pleasanton, Dublin, just all the same colors, the same style of buildings and it has no charm."

I get what he's saying about cities clamoring for a sense of distinctiveness while most ending up adopting the same looking architectural features and serving as a carbon copy of what everybody else has. It does seem like the staple of larger Valley cities include its Walmart, Kohl's, Target, Dick's Sporting Goods, McDonalds, Taco Bell, Best Buy, Dollar General, well you get the picture. However, I do not share the viewpoint that downtown Ceres is the quaint, picturesque shopping district that it could be.

Downtown Ceres needs help - a lot of help - perhaps even millions of dollars of help if it's ever going to become a destination location. Unfortunately that kind of help may not come in any significant way in our lifetime.

No downtown on Highway 99 is as visible as downtown Ceres yet it is perhaps the most neglected and lackluster. There is really nothing to draw traffic off of the freeway like the Chew N Chat of the 1960s. The paradox exists that downtown is trapped as an economic prisoner. Thus tax dollars go chasing off to other cities that planned for growth long ago.

If you could transport yourself back in time to the days of JFK or LBJ, downtown Ceres would not appear much different than today. Some buildings date back to the 1910s and most were built by the early 1960s. Take a postcard of Ceres Drug store from 1965 and hold it up to the building itself and you'll see no change. Is that good or bad? I'll let you be the judge, but it is very dated looking, just as the Wells Fargo Bank next door.

Instead of housing antiques or a brew house, the old prominent Bank of Ceres building of circa 1920 is used to store mattresses from nearby Delhart's Home Furnishings.

The row of buildings to the south is tragically neglected.

The Steps Dance Studio building, built in the late 1920s, hasn't been painted since I started working for the Courier in 1987.

The Valero station lacks the store stock that one typically finds in a 99 pull-off stop.

And please forgive me for I know the 1961 amateurish murals on the IOOF Hall are sacred cows to some but I have to agree with old-time resident Donna Reynders that they are ugly and need to go. I think a 53-year presence in downtown has served their purpose. The murals may have suited 1961 townsfolk but it doesn't work in 2014.

Even the city has neglected its property in downtown: the water tower. It was once suggested the tower would be the icon for marketing purposes. Not in its deplorable state. The rusting tower screams for attention. A Lions Club project?

Jack's Automotive is an example of a fine business that is in the wrong place for a vibrant downtown. It was built as a gas station/garage in the 1950s when the highway was at ground level. Last week I counted no less than 23 cars that were in a state of disrepair, one of which was parked on the sidewalk. Jack's is a virtual impound yard that has great highway visibility. It would be better suited in an industrial park.

Steve Hallam, the city's economic development manager, does not share my pessimistic assessment of downtown. While I agree with him that downtown Ceres has great potential, I'm also a realist in noting that it will take obscene gobs of private money and perhaps a dispatch of wrecking balls. Everyone may think the recent TID building is great - and it is - but do they know that it was a $1 million project?

The city has invested hundreds of thousands of dollars of taxpayer dollars into downtown planning and yet it has hardly seen much improvement at all. I recall when Mayor Chris Vierra presided over the commission of a Downtown Specific Plan in 2011 that cost in excess of $350,000 and expressed hopes that it just didn't sit on a shelf.

So far that's all the plan has done - sit on a shelf. The planning document awaits private money since the state went on a money raid and dissolved all redevelopment agencies to balance its own books because it didn't have the political will to scale back on spending. That robbed Ceres of millions it could have spent on downtown.

The City Council approved the Downtown Specific Plan in early 2011 after commissioning the Berkeley firm of Design, Community & Environment (DC&E) to develop a 20-year vision and implementation strategy to make downtown what it presently is not. The plan -- now part of zoning ordinance -- projects downtown Ceres as a destination location with a movie theater, professional offices and retail spaces on ground floors and residential units on second floors, eateries to offer a nightlife atmosphere, more parking, an expanded civic center and expanded streetscapes. One ingredient of the plan is to infuse 495 more residential units and 1,678 corresponding downtown dwellers in the downtown area. But before they can "build it and they will come," the city must upgrade water and sewer infrastructure in downtown. The infrastructure will come but nothing significant can be done without private investment.

The improvements that have been seen in downtown include the Community Center (built by the city) and the Turlock Irrigation District on Third Street. Aside from that, downtown looks tired and worn. There may be character in downtown Ceres but facades are screaming for some tender loving care.

If you want to see a vibrant and charming downtown, check out downtown Turlock or Ripon. Those are shining examples for Ceres to follow, but then again Ceres does not have nearly the number of old buildings as either.

A word about Shepherd's comments on the renovations of the strip commercial center at Fowler and Mitchell. He said "it is the ugliest coloring. It looks like something that ... somebody's dog or cat threw up." He labeled it dark and dingy looking. He chastised planners for setting a color and architectural standard as part of the Mitchell Road Corridor Specific Plan.

The improvements done to the center are vastly better than what was there before. But I agree that the colors are unattractive. I think Mr. Shepherd got it wrong when he suggested the new colors are part of what is seen along Mitchell Road. They are not; the colors are dark and clash.

Everything is relative. I've seen bright pink houses, midnight blue and purple homes, and John Deere green and nasty egg yolk yellow used for gas stations in the county. The colors at Fowler and Mitchell are not as bad as vomit but they do leave me asking where the owners derived their sense of color.

It wouldn't take a high-paid consultant to fix the paint scheme. Just head down to Sherwin Williams and ask them for complimentary paint schemes.

Nor would it take much to at least paint or alter facades in downtown that so sorely need it.

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