Firm plans mixed-use project in Modesto, Calif.

Dec. 21--Betting that the economy can't slump forever, a relatively young Modesto development firm is forging ahead with a vision of shops, restaurants, upscale condominiums and maybe a movie theater across the street from the new Kaiser hospital.

Chopra Development Enterprises could become the first, aside from Kaiser, to create something in the expansive Kiernan Business Park conceived by Modesto officials a dozen years ago as a jobs gold mine with easy access to Highway 99.

City and county leaders still dream of big firms, plants and warehouses on the 614-acre swath north of town. But the Chopra proposal would look more like a village than an industrial park.

The development hopes to lure hundreds of Kaiser employees and patients' family members looking for a bite to eat, a book to read, a hotel room or even a town house to rent within walking distance.

A draft environmental study released Wednesday seeks public input on several changes to a previous plan, allowing a cinema complex and stores and homes on 39 acres across Dale Road from the hospital.

That block of land is near the center of a 153-acre portion called Kiernan Business Park East. The Chopra project is timed to coincide with revisions in a blueprint for the larger area, including expanding Bangs Avenue from two to four lanes and introducing new design standards.

Heading the village project is firm President Aruna Chopra, a 59-year-old family physician-turned-developer who came to the United States from India in 1974 with her husband, Sawtantra Chopra. They settled in Modesto 30 years ago and he continues his pulmonology practice.

"We wanted to do something for the city to create jobs and bring the kids back," Aruna Chopra said. "All of our friends' kids, they never came back."

Neither did their eldest son, Rajiv, a radiologist who settled in El Dorado Hills. Their youngest, Sanjiv, worked for a development firm while attending McGeorge School of Law and then achieved a master's degree in business administration from Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles.

But he came back.

"I'm passionate about development," said Sanjiv Chopra, 28. "It's something you can take from start to finish and reap the fruits as long as you work hard and keep focused."

The corporations of Chopra Development Investments and Chopra Development Enterprises were registered with the California secretary of state's office in August 2005. Public record searches show Sanjiv Chopra involved in several retail projects throughout the state.

He and his parents have invested in or developed projects in the Bay Area, Sacramento, Yuba City, Elk Grove, Merced and Fresno. They built the AutoZone store on Yosemite Boulevard in Modesto and are seeking permission to bring an Arco gas station and Jack in the Box restaurant to a corner of Whitmore Avenue and Crows Landing Road.

Sanjiv Chopra also bought the Gold's Gym in the O'Brien's center at Pelandale Avenue and Dale Road, is building another Gold's in Oakdale and hopes to construct three more by this time next year, he said.

The trick to keeping busy in a recession is preparing during good times, Sanjiv Chopra said.

"A lot is making sure you stay creative and set yourself up properly," he said. "Everything we do is to be a part of the community, not to be apart from it."

The Chopras got two dozen property owners throughout the Kiernan Business Park area on the same page long enough to advance its blue- print. Those east of the Chopra property could not annex to the city without the Chopras' work and will benefit from soon-to-come documents spelling out infra- structure financing for their property and beyond, said commercial broker Brian Velthoen, who arranged their land purchase.

"They're doing all the advance planning now when the market is languishing in hopes of when it does pick up, they'll be able to capitalize," Velthoen said. "The city of Modesto has a very poor record in business-park land. The Chopras are taking it on and actually making something happen."

Converting farmland into an urban area will significantly increase traffic and could affect air quality, according to the draft environmental impact report. People are invited to submit comments on the study until Feb. 2.

If all goes as planned, construction could start late next year, Sanjiv Chopra said.

Less clear is the future of Kiernan Business Park west of the hospital. Modesto and Stanislaus County leaders agree that it must eventually be covered with business and industry, but both agencies want to claim the booty.

"If developers were to emerge, we'd entertain an application," said Modesto Planning Manager Patrick Kelly. City Council members laid claim in 1997 when they approved the initial Kiernan Business Park concept. Also, Modesto is better able to provide crucial water and sewer services, city leaders say.

But the land remains outside city limits. And county supervisors drew it into the Salida Community Plan, a growth document that envisions that town becoming a real city once its tax base grows.

"I'm all in favor of entitlements for a business park all along the south side of Kiernan, by whoever can do it," said county Supervisor Jeff Grover, who represents the Salida area. "But I know the folks of Salida who want to incorporate feel keenly that that land is part of the Salida Community Plan."