The barren lot in downtown Merced may not look like much now, but UC Merced and city leaders expect it soon will blossom into a vibrant center that will improve ties and give a boost to local businesses.
UC Merced and city leaders came together Wednesday afternoon in the lot across from City Hall to mark the start of the Downtown Center. By fall 2017, the lot is set to hold a 67,400-square-foot building capable of housing about 370 employees.
The gathering Wednesday was part groundbreaking ceremony and part block party as cupcakes, kettle corn and skee-ball dotted the mostly paved lot at N and 18th streets.
After the three-story, $45 million Downtown Center is completed, it is expected to inject downtown restaurants, shops and service providers with an infusion of spending from university workers. Some block party-goers said they hope those benefits spread beyond businesses.
Getting more people to set eyes on downtown could go a long way, said Joe Hypes, special projects manager for Playhouse Merced. “The biggest part of downtown is just getting people here,” he said.
Hypes said he envisions more opportunities for Playhouse to collaborate with UC Merced, which could be enriching for each side.
The biggest part of downtown is just getting people here.
Joe Hypes, special projects manager for Playhouse Merced
University leaders said the building is designed with space for collaborations with the community. It also offers classrooms for continuing education.
Colton Dennis, the director of the Merced Multicultural Arts Center, said he’s begun to speak with university faculty and others to spur collaboration. The university has the ability to draw international artists, he said, and the center has a large gallery to exhibit their work.
“Because of the UC, we get those kind of connections,” he said. “Everybody gets a benefit from that.”
Beyond that, he said, the arts center is looking into offering classes, holding film festivals and organizing other combined efforts with the university.
UC Merced acquired the lot for the new building at auction for $630,000 in 2014. The 0.85-acre site previously was an abandoned parking lot.
Generating activity in and around Main Street would be good for the residential area, too, according to Jill McLeod, 50, who lives on 21st Street. A member of the Downtown Neighborhood Association, a coalition of neighbors in the area, she said the group generally supports UC Merced’s growth downtown.
It’s emblematic of a sense of renewal. Makes us feel like the town is worth our investment.
Jill McLeod, 50, who lives on 21st St. in Merced
The regular foot traffic of employees could make the area more appealing and give it a sense of security at night, she said. UC Merced’s investment in the area is also reassuring. “It’s emblematic of a sense of renewal,” she said. “Makes us feel like the town is worth our investment.”
The building would be the university’s latest of several in Merced’s downtown. The Venture Lab, a business incubator, opened last fall at 1735 N. M St. and has been operating around the clock.
And about 300 UC Merced employees already work in rented spaces in downtown facilities.
This new building will give UC Merced a physical presence in the heart of town, according to Chancellor Dorothy Leland. She said she envisioned a downtown presence ever since she came to town in 2011.
“Over time, we were able to make that dream of a significant presence in downtown Merced a reality,” she said.