Rethinking our downtown

The communities of Morgan Hill, Gilroy and Hollister have
detailed plans in place for revitalizing their downtowns and are at
various stages of executing those plans.
In Morgan Hill, Downtown Association executive director Dan
Craig describes the downtown revitalization plan as specific in
some areas and broad in others.
The communities of Morgan Hill, Gilroy and Hollister have detailed plans in place for revitalizing their downtowns and are at various stages of executing those plans.

In Morgan Hill, Downtown Association executive director Dan Craig describes the downtown revitalization plan as specific in some areas and broad in others. It provides direction on traffic circulation, land use, zoning and building design. Like its southern neighbors, Morgan Hill is looking at high-density residential and mixed-use development in its downtown, typically commercial retail on ground floors and residential on upper floors.

But sculpting a downtown revitalization is complicated on its best days, adversarial on its worst. A large lot off Third Street in Morgan Hill dubbed the Sunsweet site is included in the plan for street-level commercial and high-density housing above, Craig said. But the owners want to develop lower-density, suburban-type townhomes and negotiations continue.

Other highlights include a $48 million courthouse annex that is a joint project between Morgan Hill and Santa Clara County and a renovation of the Granada Theater in the heart of the downtown.

In Gilroy, Mayor Al Pinheiro is optimistic that the task force creating the Gilroy Downtown Specific Plan, which is chaired by downtown developer Gary Walton, will be wrapped up by October.

“We’ve identified types of uses for downtown, and have made some recommendations to the city Council,” Walton said. “We don’t have a redevelopment agency, so it has to be done with the private sector, but it can’t be done without the city being involved.”

One of the recommendations that the council has acted on is the waiving of fees for developers who build in downtown Gilroy. Revenue lost to the city from the waiving of fees can be made up from sales tax revenue generated by the businesses that move into those buildings, Pinheiro said.

Gilroy also has received a grant for streetscape work along Monterey Street, which includes redesigning the thoroughfare to get rid of parking areas that serve to confuse drivers. Two blocks have been completed and the next phase is scheduled to begin in January 2006.

The work requires the two blocks from Fourth through Sixth streets to be shut down during the construction, which has many business owners worried. Pinheiro said the task force is already at work addressing those concerns, including ways to access the businesses through back alleys.

Plans also call for commercial-retail uses and housing at the site of the old cannery on Lewis Street now owned by South County Housing, a mixed-use project combining housing and ground-level commercial on a vacant lot at Lewis and Monterey streets, and a project by Custom One Inc., Walton’s company, in the former Bank of America building at Fourth and Monterey.

“We believe businesses will see the opportunity to draw from people living downtown,” Pinheiro said. “We’ve already learned from San Jose, which is struggling to draw residents to its downtown. We are already doing that, and we are going to populate the downtown.”

The city recently contracted with Hexagon Transportation Consultants in Gilroy to conduct a parking study to determine the most efficient and viable parking plan for the downtown, and is commissioning an economic marketing study as well.

In Hollister, the city is moving forward with a Highway 25 bypass. The state highway, as it runs through central Hollister, is called San Benito Street. The bypass project has been lingering in Hollister’s general plan in one form or another since 1959.

Liz Sparling, the executive director of the Hollister Downtown Association, said businesses are champing at the bit for the bypass to get under way.

By routing the state highway around the downtown, businesses hope San Benito Street will become more pedestrian friendly.

“Merchants really want it to happen,” Sparling said. “Cars move very fast and it can be difficult and dangerous at times for pedestrians to cross the street.”

Of course, all of these plans are dependent upon myriad business and property owners in the business districts. One of the advantages of malls is that businesses contribute to joint maintenance and other services that keep them attractive to shoppers. But with fragmented ownership of downtown buildings, developing a uniform consensus can be a challenging endeavor.

“We need to get the owners to the table who are not doing anything with their buildings to make small investments – even a simple coat of paint will go a long way in attracting people downtown,” Pinheiro said.

And as more big-box retailers come on line in Hollister, Morgan Hill and Gilroy, time is of the essence.

“We need to do what we need to do as fast as we can and as soon as we can,” Craig said.

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