Going downtown

Going downtown

Gary Walton sees downtown as a window into the community. Al
Pinheiro sees it as the historical gathering place for friends and
family. Liz Sparling views downtowns as portraying the character of
a town. And Dan Craig believes downtowns speak to our
heritages.
Gary Walton sees downtown as a window into the community. Al Pinheiro sees it as the historical gathering place for friends and family. Liz Sparling views downtowns as portraying the character of a town. And Dan Craig believes downtowns speak to our heritages.

In truth, downtowns are all those things, and when you look at the main streets of Morgan Hill, Gilroy and Hollister, and talk to the people involved in efforts to revitalize the core districts, you quickly realize the three communities share more in common with their struggles and successes than anywhere else in the Santa Clara Valley or San Benito County.

Pinheiro, the mayor of Gilroy; Walton, a downtown developer in Morgan Hill and Gilroy; Sparling, the executive director of the Hollister Downtown Association; and Craig, the executive director of the Morgan Hill Downtown Association, all talk about their downtowns with a mix of nostalgia and enthusiasm.

Downtowns are under siege, and have been since the 1950s when rapidly expanding highway systems and better, faster cars fostered the rise of suburbs and subsequently malls.

Shopping has become tactical in the modern era, and the three downtowns have suf-

fered greatly from the exodus of consumer dollars toward sprawling big-box retail centers.

One recent afternoon, Gilroy retiree Art Sweeny relaxed with a second cup of coffee outside Garlic City Coffee & Tea on Monterey Street, Gilroy’s main thoroughfare. Wearing a pair of well-worn jeans and a sweatshirt, and sporting day’s growth of silver beard, he squinted through the bright sunshine at numerous boarded-up shops. He was asked what Gilroy’s downtown would need for it to thrive again.

“Bulldoze the Outlets,” he said without a hint of sarcasm.

Like most California agricultural towns, Morgan Hill, Gilroy and Hollister’s downtowns were built in the 1800s as the central business districts, geographically situated in the middle of hundreds of square miles of orchards, farmland and ranches. They were the places farmers and ranchers would congregate to buy seed, bobbed wire, pruning shears and, of course, chew the fat about the knuckleheads in Sacramento or Washington. Women would buy cloth, staples and swap stories about their children.

And many older baby-boomers recall in the 1950s and 1960s when the downtowns still served as a social gathering places and still supplied local residents with most of their shopping needs.

The first and most compelling commonality is the passion of the individuals who, in many cases, have dedicated their lives toward making downtown the centerpiece of the community.

Gary Walton is a believer in downtowns, not only as places that provide the identity of the community, but also as economically viable places to do business. He’s put his money where his mouth is by restoring a two-story building next to Gilroy downtown’s grand dame — the Old City Hall. He’s also working on a project that will provide a mix of retail and residential units at Fourth and Monterey streets.

As a downtown developer in both Morgan Hill and Gilroy, and as a board member of the Morgan Hill Downtown Association and as the chairman of the Gilroy Downtown Specific Plan Task Force, he has a unique perspective on what works, and what doesn’t work, in the two South Valley communities.

“Downtowns help the communities because it keeps tax dollars and profits here, instead of shipping them out to a headquarters in another state,” Walton said. “For the small mom-and-pop stores, the rents (downtown) are cheaper that the shopping malls. And the existing infrastructure is already here — it’s smart growth to invest in your downtown.”

Boarded-up downtowns will drive down property values throughout the city, Walton notes. After all, property values are partially derived from the desirability of the community, and a dilapidated downtown paints a similar picture of the broader town. One of the starkest criticisms of Gilroy’s downtown is lack of streetscape, as well as property owners who, for whatever reason, ignore basic upkeep of buildings.

“We need to make downtown Gilroy look better,” Walton said. “By visiting a downtown you can tell a lot about the community.”

Pinheiro, Gilroy’s mayor, echoes that sentiment. Downtowns forge the personality of a city, as contrasted by shopping malls that “all look the same,” he said. “People don’t move here for outlet shopping; they move here for the small-town charm.”

Walton, Pinheiro, Craig and Sparling are passionate about maintaining the architectural sense of the respective downtowns. That’s not to say every building needs to be restored, or even saved. Instead, the refurbishment or new construction should mimic the historic architecture.

“We don’t need to look like Los Gatos,” Pinheiro said. “We need to look like Gilroy.”

When Walton builds new structures or refurbishes existing buildings, he is pragmatic about how much you can do and still operate a profitable development business.

“We should mimic old buildings,” he said, “but we need to be creative. The buildings should talk to each other, like good neighbors do. There are ways to do that architecturally with similar cornices, the shapes of the windows, the materials used …”

Walton dismisses critics who say downtowns can’t compete with the surrounding malls, but the revitalization effort needs to understand the function of modern, small-town cores. To compete, they need to be multifunctional.

“You have to have at least three different uses,” Walton explained. “If all you have are government offices, then at 5 o’clock everyone goes home and downtown is dead. But if you have a wider range that include cultural centers, government offices, tourist attractions, restaurants, retail and residential, then you have people downtown all the time.”

Morgan Hill’s Craig and Hollister’s Sparling note that in both their respective cities a mixed-use approach to revitalizing their downtowns are supported by elected officials, and certainly in Gilroy commercial-residential uses have caught the eye of the mayor.

“But you don’t survive or die on any one of those ingredients,” Craig said. “Housing alone won’t save a downtown; you need a combination of all of them.”

Morgan Hill and Hollister downtowns have had their own challenges with burgeoning retail in other locations siphoning away consumer dollars. In Hollister, the 1980s brought the first Kmart on the south side of the city, followed by an explosion of chain retail stores feeding off each other. The downtown was hurt.

“When my predecessor learned the Kmart was coming, he formed a focus group of downtown businesses to map out a strategy,” Sparling said. “Businesses began emphasizing good customer service, a homey feel to them and the ability to provide unique offerings, such as special order items.”

Sparling’s predecessor is Morgan Hill’s Craig. He worked with the city of Hollister to adopt a redevelopment agency that has funded much of the downtown’s revitalization efforts, including a $4.2 million beautification project recently completed in downtown Hollister.

“Our hope, and this has proven to be the case in other downtowns, the investment will translate into more pedestrians and a more appealing place for businesses to locate,” Sparling said.

In Morgan Hill, the same phenomenon that moved shoppers from downtown Gilroy out to the big-box retailers extracted its pound of flesh from downtown Morgan Hill. But instead of dealing with one or two sets of outlying malls, Morgan Hill must compete against the Gilroy retail centers as well as nearby malls in south San Jose.

And if those challenges weren’t enough, Morgan Hill is on track to see a new 600,000-square-foot retail center go in on Cochrane Road.

All the downtown supporters understand that cash-strapped cities must pursue sales tax revenue, regardless whether it is in downtown or not, and in most cases, it is not.

“Morgan Hill sees a lot of sales tax dollars leaking out to Gilroy and San Jose,” Craig said. “So they see a 600,000-square-foot project as a revenue source, and we understand that.”

While Morgan Hill and Hollister both have redevelopment agencies funding various downtown revitalization projects,

Gilroy does not, and consequently must rely entirely upon the private sector. One solution that both Walton and Pinheiro talked about is a concept being adopted in many cities throughout California — business improvement districts.

Business owners in a designated district, or property owners, depending on how it is structured, tax themselves. The revenue is funneled back to the business district so collectively the businesses can afford a full-time downtown association director, maintenance of buildings, and other services to which a redevelopment agency typically will contribute.

“The one constant is the city,” Walton said. “The city has to be an integral part of a successful downtown.”

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