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Salinas Growth Spurt Bypasses Downtown, But Plans Persist

Salinas is the blue-collar workhorse of Monterey County and the center of a wealthy agricultural region. But unlike its sister cities on the nearby Monterey Peninsula, Salinas has a downtown that is devoid of upscale restaurants and boutique hotels.

Although it is home to the National Steinbeck Center, a museum honoring the Nobel laureate and Salinas resident John Steinbeck, downtown Salinas has never taken off. Instead, the community has sprawled out on the fertile farmland that surrounds it.
   
Over the last 20 years, Salinas grew by approximately 45,000 residents to today's population of about 153,000, with that growth reflected in new subdivisions and power centers close to Highway 101.

Although downtown keeps missing its turn, developers continue to show interest in the area sometimes called Old Town. The latest suitor attempting to revive downtown, Salinas Renaissance Partners, recently tried to put together a deal to redevelop 21 parcels owned by the city or its redevelopment agency into 100,00 square feet of office space, 800 units of housing and a 145-room hotel with a conference center. However, city officials backed out of negotiations after a year because of doubts over whether such a large project could be completed. In addition, public buildings are located on some of the real estate and plans to replace those buildings are delayed for fiscal reasons. The two sides are now attempting to reach a deal on development for four of the 21 lots before an April deadline.
   
It's the latest in a long string of development proposals for downtown since the 1970s. Few have made it.        

"We've placed a lot of emphasis on the 100 Main (Street) block across from Steinbeck Center," said Mayor Dennis Donohue. "We need a broader vision."
   
Salinas is not a wealthy community. In 2004, it considered closing its three libraries due to budget shortfalls. A nationwide fundraising campaign and approval of a new sales tax rescued the libraries, but the city's fiscal problems persist. The city had to plug a $12 million deficit over two years and is now looking at a $9 million deficit in the next fiscal year, Donohue said. Last year, voters declined to approve a general one-cent sales tax that could have funded additional police officers and a new police station, even though the city's murder rate is among the highest in the state.

The redevelopment agency would suffer if the state's shift of tax increment goes through (see CP&DR, August 1, 2009). The redevelopment agency will lose $2.2 million this fiscal year and another $500,000 next year, according to Community Development Director Alan Stumpf

"We frankly do not have redevelopment money to be aggressive," Donohue said.
   
The city is pinning its hopes on private developers and federal stimulus money, as well as projects that are being planned by other entities, such as one by a transit agency to improve its downtown railroad station with more train service.

The Transportation Agency for Monterey County is the lead agency on a proposal to bring commuter trains to Salinas from Amtrak's Capitol Corridor line, which runs from Sacramento to San Jose, Stumpf said. The city's Amtrak station is located a few blocks north of the Steinbeck Center. Commuter trains could be running by 2012, said Stumpf.  Plans call for a new parking garage and additional facilities for servicing trains.  Earlier plans to bringing Caltrain, which links Santa Clara County to San Francisco, fell by the wayside when Caltrain began focusing on electrifying its main line from San Francisco to San Jose, Stumpf said.
   
Another major hope for reviving Salinas's center is called Alisal Marketplace, proposed for 52 acres in a rundown industrial area adjacent to downtown. The city hopes the southern end of the district will include a new $45 million police station. Donohue and Stumpf said the station may be financed largely by federal stimulus money.

As its name indicates, Alisal Marketplace would be anchored by a marketplace with a Latin feel. The developer is Cooley Development of Walnut Creek. Stumpf said the city is trying to acquire some of the property in the area from Monterey County (which owns 5 vacant acres) and from the Salinas Valley Solid Waste Authority. City officials would like the authority to relocate its trash transfer station to a more appropriate industrial location south of downtown, according to Stumpf. A portion of the Alisal Marketplace area is located in a separate redevelopment project area for East Salinas.

Despite problems in developing downtown, Donohue says the area is already a destination.

"Downtown is a place people go. There is a steady beat to downtown," he said, noting "artwalks" on Friday evenings, a farmers' market on weekends, and entertainment venues such as movie theatres. 

But Robert Leidig, owner of Salinas Renaissance Partners, says the city has much more potential. He says residents spend more than half of their entertainment dollars out of the city, with many of Salinas's Latino residents driving one hour to San Jose for entertainment they cannot find in Salinas. He envisions entertaining them closer to home with such attractions as a downtown tequila bar and nightclub. Leidig also says 15,000 students who attend nearby Hartnell College are another group who could be enticed to come downtown if there were businesses to interest them.
   
Leidig said the city needs to do more to make downtown appealing to developers, doing such things as changing zoning and extending redevelopment time limits.

"They need to set the table they have to make the sites ready for development," Leidig said.

Many of the current parcels in the downtown area are parking lots owned by the city, he said. Some of those parcels could be developed, but the city is adamant about not losing parking spaces.
   
Stumpf said the size of the downtown redevelopment area should be expanded and time frames for the project areas extended another 20 years. "We have to consider extending and expanding our project area," he said.
   
Much of the commercial growth in Salinas during recent years has been in the form of big-box stores north of downtown. An ordinance to make it harder for big-box stores to open in the city was approved by the city council in 2009 but was repealed under threat of a lawsuit, according to Amy White, director of LandWatch Monterey County, an open space and smart growth advocacy group. The council is set to consider an ordinance this month that would require any new stores over 75,000 square feet to be subject to additional environmental review.
   
White described Salinas as "an island, surrounded by the richest farmland in California." That farmland is unincorporated. White said an updated county general plan with new restrictions on subdividing prime agricultural land, could be adopted by the county's Board of Supervisors later this year.

Contacts:
Salinas Mayor Dennis Donohue, (831) 758-7201.
Alan Stumpf, City of Salinas Community Development director, (831) 758-7387.
Robert Leidig, Salinas Renaissance Partner, (831)915-5389
Amy White, LandWatch Monterey County executive director, (831)422-9390.
Salinas Renaissance Partners: www.salinasrenaissance.com.