Empty Modesto auto lots to be reincarnated

They've been vacant eyesores on Modesto's premier business boulevard, but two big land sales will bring new life to empty parcels on McHenry Avenue's east side.

The two-acre sites once were bustling auto dealerships -- one sold Saturn vehicles, the other Mitsubishi. Then the recession hit, and both of them closed.

They were just two of many businesses to go dark along one of Modesto's busiest commercial stretches, from small shops to chain stores like Mervyn's.

But in a sign that the area's economy may be improving, or at least its outlook is, out-of-town investors have purchased the former auto-dealership sites, with plans to renovate both facilities and generate new business.

The former Saturn of Modesto site at 4360 McHenry Ave. sold last month for $2.3 million to Ted Stevens of Los Gatos. Stevens also owns Modesto Subaru and Modesto European, which sells Mercedes-Benz and Volvo.

The Subaru dealership opened in October in a leased facility on the cul-de-sac behind the Saturn lot. Subaru will move to the McHenry site as soon as it's renovated.

"It has great visibility and a great layout," said Kelly Robinson, general manager for Modesto Subaru and Mo- desto European. He said the property, including the 17,242-square-foot structure built in 1989, will be renovated into "a factory image store" with an aluminum finish and slate tower. Woodhams Construction of Fresno will do the work.

The improved location on McHenry is expected to generate about one extra Subaru sale per day compared with the dealership's current spot, Robinson said. He anticipates selling about 780 cars a year.

Modesto Subaru employs about 20 people, but Robinson said he hopes to hire more when the move is made late this summer.

"A couple dozen employees at a minimum" will be hired by American Tire Depot, which paid $1.2 million to buy the empty car lot at 3120 McHenry Ave. in March. That one-time Mitsubishi dealership will be renovated into a "tire superstore," according to Jim Campanis, the company's director of marketing.

"We have 35 stores in California, and we're all excited about our growth," Campanis said. American Tire Depot is owned by the Ara Tchaghlassian family of Cerritos in Los Angeles County.

Campanis said his company plans to open a smaller Modesto store on Prescott Avenue in June, and it expects the big McHenry store will open by the end of summer.

"The renovation is going to take a piece of work," Campanis said. The current facility has about 15,060 square feet, built in 1966.

American Tire Depot has started taking employment applications via its Web site,, and by e-mail,

Bee staff writer J.N. Sbranti can be reached at or 578-2196.