A historic shift has happened in how Modesto plans housing for its current and future residents.
The City Council voted Tuesday night for a mass rezoning along four commercial roadways. It could lead to apartment buildings up to three stories tall on underused parking lots.
The action affects almost all of McHenry Avenue and Sisk Road, about a mile of Oakdale Road and half a mile of Yosemite Boulevard.
No developer has announced a specific project. The rezoning does not keep owners from continuing the current uses, including retail, dining and services.
The Modesto Bee has followed the process as part of its effort to address the housing shortage. It invites online readers to weigh in on the commercial-strip idea via the survey at the end of this story on modbee.com.
The council hopes for dwellings that cost less than the single-family houses that dominate the market today. Most of those were built at low density on annexed farmland, but that practice is waning.
The rezoning “provides more housing types for a challenging market that we currently have,” Councilwoman Rosa Escutia-Braaton said.
She was joined in the 4-0 vote by members Eric Alvarez, Nick Bavaro and Chris Ricci. Three others recused themselves because they own property in or near the affected areas: Mayor Sue Zwahlen and members Jeremiah Williams and David Wright.
Ideally, the apartments and townhouses would be within an easy walk of existing grocery stores and other businesses.
“Not everyone wants to have to drive everywhere,” said Mitali Ganguly, an associate with Opticos Design Inc. of Berkeley, which helped craft Modesto’s housing plan. “... You may still own a car. You may use it a few times a week. But increasingly, we’re finding that people want to have the option that if they want, they can walk somewhere, they can bike somewhere.”
She spoke at the Stanislaus County Housing Summit, held Nov. 4 at Modesto Junior College.
Details on new housing areas
The City Council created a “mixed use” zoning category and applied it to 348 parcels of varying size on these stretches:
McHenry from Needham Street to about a quarter-mile south of Pelandale Avenue.
Sisk from just south of Briggsmore Avenue to just south of Pelandale.
The portion of Oakdale between Scenic Drive and Briggsmore Avenue.
Yosemite between Riverside Drive and Lincoln Avenue.
McHenry was Modesto’s first commercial strip in the 1950s, diverting business from downtown as car ownership boomed. McHenry Village and the complex housing the Walmart Supercenter are among the destinations today.
Sisk emerged in the 1970s, first with Vintage Faire Mall and later with big-box stores. The rezoning extends as far south as the FoodMaxx store and includes Plaza Parkway and the southernmost part of Prescott Road.
Oakdale Road also became a business corridor about a half-century ago, including Century Center and smaller complexes.
Yosemite Boulevard has a mix of commercial and industrial sites dating to the early 1900s. The rezoned parcels are mostly bare ground.
City aims for 11,248 new homes
Modesto has a goal of 11,248 new units by 2031 under a California law aimed at spreading the burden around. It is detailed in the latest housing element, awaiting state approval.
A small portion of the new homes will be in single-family subdivisions created under older plans, mainly in the northeast part of town.
The rest of the housing would rise mostly on the newly rezoned parcels. Most would be market-rate rather than subsidized.
Advocates said the new plan would conserve farmland vital to the area’s food and beverage industries. Reduced driving could help against climate change.
Parking lots dominate streetscapes
The four rezoned streets have one thing in common: large parking lots in front of business facades, such as the former Orchard Supply Hardware and Toys R Us buildings on Sisk south of Standiford Avenue. The housing plan suggests filling such spaces around the city with two or three-story buildings right up to the sidewalk. Some could have ground-floor businesses and apartments on upper stories.
Residents and visitors could park in small carports under the upper floors. A street grid could be created on especially large blocks, which would add curbside parking.
At the housing summit, Ganguly described one possible project, on the west side of McHenry just north of Bowen Avenue. Today, it has a dollar store and a few smaller businesses fronted by plenty of parking. A rendering imagines three-story buildings along the sidewalk.
Opticos estimated that up to 99 housing units could be built on this site. The total is 359 if the redevelopment extends north to Leveland Lane.
Ganguly said many retail centers were built with enough parking for the peak day of Christmas shopping. Online commerce has made that rule of thumb obsolete.
Southwest Modesto has similar plan
Stanislaus County has arrived late to the national trend of turning old strip malls into mixed-use neighborhoods. Modesto’s approach is detailed in a report to the council from Jessica Hill, director of community and economic development.
“This transformation will unlock new and exciting opportunities to locate housing, jobs, shopping and entertainment close to each other and to revitalize vacant and underused commercial areas in the process,” she said.
The city has a similar plan in the works for southwest Modesto, which Hill said could go before the council in December. It will include possible housing on the commercial portions of Maze Boulevard, Paradise Road and Crows Landing Road.