Changing the face of downtown

James Suner with the motorcycle he took to Alaska.

– Patience is a virtue James Suner is still learning.
In the last five years, the building contractor-turned-developer
has projected himself into the heart of debate surrounding the
city’s growth strategies, helping to craft some of the policies
credited for injecting new life into downtown Gilroy. In government
years, the turnaround has taken place at warp speed
Gilroy – Patience is a virtue James Suner is still learning.

In the last five years, the building contractor-turned-developer has projected himself into the heart of debate surrounding the city’s growth strategies, helping to craft some of the policies credited for injecting new life into downtown Gilroy. In government years, the turnaround has taken place at warp speed. But as Suner awaits approval for building projects that exemplify the type of smart growth city officials have set as a goal, he bemoans the slow grind of bureaucracy.

“Sometimes I’m too stubborn for my own good. Sometimes I push too hard,” Suner, 41, admits. “As I’ve matured, I’ve become more patient.”

As a developer, first and foremost, he pushes for fewer restrictions in the regulatory process.

“He does have an interest that’s different than mine,” said Mayor Al Pinheiro, who has set downtown revitalization as a top priority of his administration. “When he makes a decision, while he might be looking to cut certain costs from a developer’s side, there might be times we disagree on items of cost, density, aesthetics, about how much a developer will have to fork out. But then other times he brings innovative ideas.”

Some of the ideas Suner has backed, such as eliminating development impact fees for downtown construction and the loosening of parking restrictions, have already taken place. Other suggestions, such as freeing the downtown area completely from the city’s competition for housing permits (part of the city’s growth control measure), have yet to win strong support from city council members.

“I would characterize Jim as a mover and shaker,” said City Planning Manager Bill Faus. “He likes to move quickly. He likes to go with ideas. He is always looking for change.”

After decades of talk about downtown revitalization, the city is finally seeing some of its own change, thanks in part to the efforts of Suner and other members of the Downtown Specific Plan Task Force. The group was the driving force behind the policy changes credited for spurring the downtown building boom now under way. In the next five years, the area will see more than 20 new projects crop up along Monterey Street, including several by Suner.

His own office is on Monterey Street, a yellow storefront with a Monopoly board hanging outside. The window displays the sarcophagus head of an Egyptian pharaoh. Since he was a kid, Suner has been fascinated by pharaohs and Egyptian architecture.

“My daughter says I was King Tut in a past life,” said Suner, who considered making the pharaoh head the logo of The James Group, a collection of architects, engineers, lawyers, investors and others who partner on his various projects.

The developer currently has two projects in the works at the southern gateway to the city’s historic downtown. One already under construction will create 12 homes, each paired with smaller dwellings on the same lot known as “granny units.”

The design is not accidental, according to Suner, who sees the project as a counterbalance to development trends that he says are tugging apart American families.

“For 10,000 years, cities were planned for people to work and live in the same community,” he said. “Only in the 20th century, unique to America, have we devised sprawl that was facilitated by the automobile.”

He predicts that his own daughter and son will find it hard to afford a home in the city where he and his wife Carolyn are raising them.

“Gilroy is just crying out for a different kind of product,” he said. “All we’re building now are $700,000 single family detached (homes). There’s a whole segment of the community we’re not serving.”

Suner’s recent projects address those needs by mixing residential and business uses. His biggest project to date, a 100-plus unit housing and commercial project just south of the Platinum Theaters, will combine town homes and live-work lofts, as well as commercial space fronting on Monterey Road. Suner designs all his own projects and shepherds them through the city’s regulatory process before selling the lots to builders. He said the 11th Street Lofts, as it will be known, are designed to help young entrepreneurs afford living expenses while growing their businesses.

“You can combine office rent with home rent, a mortgage payment with a lease,” Suner said of the live-work lofts, which he expects to fall below $500,000. “Once they outgrow that, they can move into the larger (commercial) space out front.”

In addition to the Gilroy projects, the James Group is designing mixed-use developments in Merced, Turlock, Las Vegas and Austin, Texas. Yet the ideas he brings to cities across the country germinated in his native Santa Cruz, where he first witnessed the transformative power of mixed-use development as a construction company owner.

“They built multi-story mixed use, and that’s what drove the rebirth of downtown,” he said. “You go from retail-only to specialty retail, restaurants, entertainment and residential. You mix those together and you get synergy – you provide customers downtown. It makes it a place where people want to be.”

But it wasn’t until he moved to Gilroy that Suner began working on development issues.

Simple chance led Suner to the city five years ago.

“I woke up on a Saturday morning, had nothing to do and hopped onto the motorcycle and ended up in Eagle Ridge,” he recalled.

The gated community was holding a lottery for the first few homes constructed on the city’s western edge. Suner pulled a ticket and sure enough, ended up getting his number called. In a few hours, he found himself explaining to Carolyn why they should move to Gilroy.

Shortly after moving to the city, the couple relocated to a home north of Hecker Pass. The move gave him his first taste of the challenges of land use planning, as part of a task force made up of landowners. Earlier this year, after five years of work, the group issued the city’s first specific plan, a set of regulations to guide development in a particular region of the city.

As Suner’s business and children grow, he is just now finding the time to pursue his other passions. This week he left for an 8,000-mile motorcycle trek to the Arctic circle, in northern Alaska. In coming years, he plans on doing a trek in the reverse direction to Patagonia, at the southern-most tip of South America.

Suner credits his wife with “being understanding,” joking that “she knew I was crazy when she met me.”

When Suner returns he plans to continue pushing new ideas to spur development, such as instituting a fee structure for construction based on a project’s distance from basic city services. The plan could involve concentric circles, with downtown fees remaining downtown and money spent on the outskirts of Gilroy used for those areas. It remains unclear if council members and staff will support such a major policy shift, but it’s clear they appreciate Suner’s approach.

“He wants to do something now. Not tomorrow, but now,” said Faus, who has worked closely with Suner on projects and on the downtown task force. “I’m not sure that is a criticism. It illustrates his enthusiasm and that’s a good thing. He has a high deal of energy. … That’s what drives a community. The spirited individuals who try to make things work.”

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