State

Modesto famed downtown 'Tower' to tumble

The water tower that gave Modesto's Tower Park its name is scheduled to come down later this month as plans move forward to build affordable housing at 17th and G streets.

The city redevelopment agency recently selected two Bay Area developers -- Satellite Housing and American Baptist Homes of the West -- to oversee the project.

The project could mean an end to a four-year effort to develop the site, which has drawn complaints from nearby churches about homeless people abusing the park and surrounding private property.

If all goes as planned, construction could start as soon as next October, said administrative analyst Scott Humphries of the city's redevelopment agency.

The park dates to at least the 1930s. It once held playground equipment for children. Now charity groups serve free food for the homeless there.

The details and design of the project haven't been worked out. But the redevelopment agency wants to build 45 to 80 units of rental housing, preferably for low- and moderate-income sen-iors. The project could include businesses that would cater to residents, Humphries said.

Agency officials will sit down with the developers later this month to define the project's scope. Representatives from Modesto Central Seventh-day Adventist Church next to the park also will attend the meeting. The church once considered buying the park with the goal of building on the site.

Modesto Central Pastor James Scarborough said he looks forward to the property being developed. Homeless people congregating in the park have led to problems, such as car burglaries, vandalism and people using the park as a bathroom, Scarborough said.

However, the property is small and he said he worries about how it can be efficiently developed. Providing enough parking and play areas for children could be a challenge, Scarborough said.

The redevelopment agency works with a $5.8 million annual budget to revitalize blighted areas. Twenty percent is set aside to provide affordable housing. The agency bought the 0.8-acre park from the city in 2006 for $770,000. Since then, the agency has spent $100 a month to mow and water the park, Humphries said.

Skepticism voiced

Technically, the land hasn't been a park since 2005, when the city declared it surplus property and put it up for sale. On a sunny morning last week, a group of five homeless men sat at a picnic table enjoying the weather.

Leon Carracio said he was skeptical about building apartments. "You're going to rip down a park to make affordable housing when you've got abandoned housing?" said Carracio. "Here's a prime example," he said, pointing to an empty office building with a "for lease" sign.

Some redevelopment agencies have focused on buying existing houses instead of building new ones. Ripon's redevelopment agency recently bought two houses whose owners were upside down in their mortgages. The agency paid off the loans, spruced up the houses, then sold them at below-market prices to low- and moderate-income families.

Some elements in the park will be preserved. The city will keep a well there, the first that was dug in Modesto. It's still used today.

The redevelopment agency hopes to save the park's taller trees. One is known as the Clara Barton tree. It's a 70-foot deodara cedar that Civil War veterans planted in 1923 to honor the founder of the American Red Cross.

Awkward split

The 90-year-old water tower has no storied history, so it's being demolished. The redevelopment agency has budgeted $100,000 to take down the 153-foot tower. Crews will fence the area, then use a crane to take apart the tower, Humphries said. Removing the tower makes the land easier to develop, because the tower splits the property into awkwardly shaped pieces.

Developing the park will mean one less place downtown for homeless people to hang out. But Barbara Deatherage of the Modesto Gospel Mission said she welcomes the development.

"I'm sure that the people who go there are sad at losing a place to go, but having affordable housing is a good thing, too," said Deatherage, whose mission serves the homeless.

Bee staff writer Leslie Albrecht can be reached at lalbrecht@modbee.com or 578-2378. Follow her at Twitter.com/BeeReporter.

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