Developers: pick up pace downtown

Gilroy
– When local developers and city officials talk about the future
of downtown Gilroy, they often end up describing plans for a modern
piazza, a place where people chat near a fountain, walk from their
home to an art show or read at a local café.
Gilroy – When local developers and city officials talk about the future of downtown Gilroy, they often end up describing plans for a modern piazza, a place where people chat near a fountain, walk from their home to an art show or read at a local café. Despite a shared vision for the downtown, some developers feel that the city’s growth-cap policy is holding back the area’s full potential.

Rob Oneto, a consultant who has worked with local developers on a number of projects, said at a recent Chamber of Commerce meeting that a push will be made to convince city officials to exempt the downtown area entirely from the city’s Residential Development Ordinance. The city’s RDO, as it is known, requires developers to compete annually for a limited number of construction permits. City officials have exempted certain types of projects such as affordable and senior housing that meet certain social or development goals. In recent months, officials eager to maintain the pace of downtown revitalization exempted 100 units in the area from the RDO competition.

While praising those exemptions, developer James Suner believes more must be done to speed up the pace of housing construction.

“What housing does is provide customers for the downtown,” he said. “It fuels a synergy between the mixed uses.”

He sees an inherent conflict between the city’s stated goals and the restrictions imposed by the RDO competition, and would like to see the entire downtown area freed from the competition.

“That’s a decision the council’s going to have to make because without the housing exemptions,” he said, “the plan will fail.”

If downtown revitalization is to continue at its current pace, City Council members may once again find themselves exempting more housing units in a few months. Of the 100 additional downtown exemptions recently approved, more than a third have already been eaten up by three projects, according to City Planning Manager Bill Faus. He said another 22 or 23 projects are “in the hopper,” although a number of those could qualify for affordable housing or other exemptions. For instance, half of the 200 units planned for a housing/retail project at the old Cannery Site, off Lewis Street, will fall under a special exemption category.

“I think that’s probably an unfair characterization,” Faus said, referring to Suner’s charge that development goals stated in the General Plan conflict with the growth cap. Instead, he pointed to broader concerns about the city’s growth rate that remain unresolved.

“How many of these exempt categories can we add to our RDO without skirting the underpinnings of our growth-control ordinance?” he asked.

Several councilmen have said the city’s 10-year construction cap – set at 3,450 new homes between 2004 and 2013 – is a misleading representation of actual growth, given all the exemptions. Some, like Councilman Roland Velasco, have insisted the exemptions should come out of permits set aside for market-rate homes.

Opponents of his position have said the 3,450 figure is random and not grounded in scientific analysis.

City Council has postponed that debate until the next round of RDO competitions in 2006.

In the meantime, Mayor Al Pinheiro defended the city’s incremental steps to spur downtown revitalization. He said he would “entertain” the notion of more downtown exemptions, but is initially opposed to exempting the area completely from the city’s growth requirements.

“We want downtown done right,” Pinheiro said. “We don’t want to just open the flood gates.”

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