Monterey trials downtown revamp, with street seating in place of parking spots.

Downtown Envy: Property owner Mike Marotta hopes street seating will give Monterey more buzz. “I just got back from five days in San Diego’s Gaslamp Quarter. I was drooling, thinking, ‘Why can’t Monterey be like this?’”

Henry Ruhnke imagines a stroll through downtown Monterey, past cafes with outdoor patios. He looks wistfully at photos of the quaint dirt roads that once formed Alvarado Street and Calle Principal, though those were paved over before he was born. 

His vision for transforming Alvarado into a two-way street that runs all the way to Fisherman’s Wharf, though, is indeed a return to an older era. “A lot of the things we’re doing are bringing downtown back to how it was,” he says. 

Ruhnke’s Monterey architecture firm, Wald, Ruhnke & Dost, is partnering with the city of Monterey to design structural changes to streets and sidewalks. City planners expect public hearings on the proposal to begin this fall. 

Some property owners aren’t waiting for formalities to approve that vision, and are moving forward with features they hope will improve business, draw foot traffic and boost property values. 

Mike Marotta of Marotta Properties owns the recently remodeled Alvarado Street building that houses Caffe Trieste, and plans to spend upwards of $50,000 to transform two parking spots into a gated outdoor patio. 

Monterey’s Architectural Review Committee signed off on the proposal in April, and pending legal approval from the city, Marotta will create space for about 20 seats. 

“Somebody’s got to get this project going,” he says. “It’s going to be good for the street, it’s going to be good for the tenant, and we’re hoping that several other [property owners] will apply.” 

The city is also looking for private sources to fund a major renovation of the 35-year-old, city-owned-and-operated Monterey Conference Center. City Manager Fred Meurer, who plans to retire next year, expects the $30 million project to be the last major mark he leaves on the city. 

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“We can do little things, but the conference center has to come first,” he says. “That and the [Monterey Bay] Aquarium are the city’s main economic engines.” 

Meurer hopes hotel owners agree to tax themselves to fund the conference center remodel, which is expected to attract more hotel guests. Hospitality-generated city revenue is down to $14 million a year, 25 percent of the budget compared to 32 percent at its pre-recession peak. The City Council will consider financing options sometime this summer. 

It’s harder to quantify the anticipated economic impact of streetscape changes. “We call it ‘activating the downtown,’” Ruhnke says. “It creates some energy.”

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