Six degrees of Gary Walton

Gary Walton walks through downtown Gilroy.

Mention any downtown project and it likely bears the imprint of
developer Gary Walton.

Everything he does, he does first class,

Mayor Al Pinheiro said from the council dais.
Mention any downtown project and it likely bears the imprint of developer Gary Walton. “Everything he does, he does first class,” Mayor Al Pinheiro said from the council dais.

During a March 1 City Council meeting, Pinheiro made special mention of the quality of Walton’s downtown projects, including the newly renovated interim library. Just one day later at the historic Willey House on Fifth Street, members of the Gilroy Arts Alliance announced that Walton planned to help with fundraising for the future interim arts center. And he’s juggling these projects – and more – all while running the Lizarran Tapas Selectas restaurant in Gilroy’s Old City Hall on Monterey Street and serving on the Downtown Gilroy Specific Plan task force.

Without a doubt, the developer has made his mark everywhere in downtown Gilroy.

Walton has long-term visions for the downtown: a restaurant association, a community garden that offers fresh produce for restaurateurs, and a slew of arts and entertainment options. While all of his downtown dreams may not come to fruition in his lifetime, he is working hard to make the area into a destination both now and in the years to come.

“I’m just planting the tree,” he said. “I may or may not enjoy the shade.”

Shaping downtown

Walton bought his first building in downtown Gilroy in the late 1990s, and has come to acquire 11 buildings there since that time. He renovated several older homes and oversaw construction of relatively small projects before investing in Gilroy’s downtown. He moved to Gilroy six years ago, after having previously lived in Morgan Hill since 1979.

“I kind of felt like there was an energy here in downtown Gilroy,” Walton said. “There were always people on the street.”

His collection of downtown Gilroy properties is diverse, including the newly renovated interim city library building, the neoclassical building that houses Garlic City Books at Monterey and Fifth streets, and the La Aldea apartment complex at Fourth and Eigleberry streets.

With each project, Walton said he tries to work with the unique architecture that is already there. He gives meticulous attention to detail with his renovation projects. For instance, when refurbishing the former First National Bank building that now houses Garlic City Books, he took one of the building’s remaining tin ceiling tiles and had them reproduced so that new antique-looking tiles could cover the ceiling.

Dave Peoples, owner of the Nimble Thimble and Garlic City Mercantile and a Gilroy Downtown Business Association board member, testified to how Walton’s buildings match with the downtown.

“Each one of them has its individuality, but it all fits the feeling of downtown,” he said.

A man with a vision

To understand Walton’s passion for downtown is to understand his passion for historic structures and community life. He sometimes visits cities just to look at their architecture, he said.

While eating a sandwich at Lizarran earlier this month, Walton’s blue eyes exuded sincerity – his countenance highlighted by a graying goatee as he stressed the importance that aesthetics plays in the life of a community. To make his point, he paraphrased a quote by Winston Churchill: “First we shape the buildings, then the buildings shape us.”

“If you have beautiful architecture, people feel good about it,” Walton added.

The developer may be soft-spoken, but he has no shortage of things to say regarding community development.

“I read weird things,” Walton said with a smile.

Those include books on community building, decision-making, gas prices and creativity. When a controversy broke out about the city cracking down on a couple of downtown taco and hot dog street vendors, he bought three books about street food throughout the world.

He has attempted to implement his passion for community development into his work downtown. He sought to acquire enough buildings downtown to reach “a critical mass,” in which he could influence the quality of downtown buildings. The developer said he hopes to lead by example, although he notes that can be a challenge.

“The best analogy in terms of controlling downtown is that it’s like herding cats,” he said.

Still, he has gained kudos from other downtown leaders for his efforts.

Walton is one of only a handful of developers “who is doing anything in terms of bringing life and vitality downtown,” Peoples said.

Eric Howard, president of the Gilroy Downtown Business Association, echoed this sentiment. Not enough good things can be said about Walton’s work, Howard said, noting that the developer has spent a fortune on improving downtown Gilroy.

Walton not only has the respect of city officials and downtown leaders, his tenants have only good things to say as well.

Ann Marie Guinn, who manages Garlic City Books, said Walton stops by the store on a daily basis to see how business is going.

“He really cares about whether we succeed or fail,” she said. “It’s not just because I’m his tenant. He cares about Gilroy’s downtown.”

Talking the talk, running the shop

Walton has sought to increase the diversity of downtown since getting involved, and he has taken that responsibility on himself. He never planned to get into the restaurant business, but he also could not pass up an opportunity to rent the historic Old City Hall building at Monterey and Sixth streets.

His eatery, Lizarran, is part of a Spanish-based franchise that specializes in Spanish appetizers called pintxos (pronounced “peen-chose”) or tapas. Cooks from Spain trained the Gilroy eatery in how to prepare its recipes, he said. People from as far away as Monterey and San Francisco have given it rave reviews on Yelp, an online dining and entertainment guide.

And all this because he did not want the wrong type of business to go into Old City Hall.

“It’s not that I wanted to be in the restaurant business,” Walton said.

Challenging times

Despite Walton’s optimistic support of the downtown, he has no illusions about the difficulties it faces.

The dire economy, negative perceptions and a slew of buildings that have been deemed uninhabitable because of the risk of them crumbling during an earthquake are all challenges that must be overcome, Walton said. And each hurdle will take a while time to overcome, he said.

“The perception is, ‘There’s nothing that I want down there, it’s all Hispanic and there’s a lot of crime,'” Walton said.

All three of those perceptions are not true, Walton said, noting that crimes occur all over the city.

He said there is some progress in downtown Gilroy, with new restaurants opening as well as the library and the book store. But at the same time, businesses are constantly closing as well.

“It’s always one step forward, one step back,” he said.

Looking toward the future

Walton stresses that the times are changing along with the economy, and the downtown must change as well.

Higher gas prices in the future will mean that people increasingly will be less likely to commute, he said. Locally, he has helped increase opportunities to live and work in Gilroy by building downtown apartments atop retail establishments in the La Aldea complex. So far, the gamble has paid off, Walton said. His housing projects have fewer vacancies than his commercial projects.

Those projects, as with seemingly everything Walton puts his hands on, have gained him plaudits from downtown merchants and city officials alike.

Pinheiro said of the La Aldea building: “Go over there, walk upstairs, you’ll think you’re in another world.”

But as magical as Walton’s transformations have been, he is still just one person. And that, Guinn said, is the problem. The downtown needs more people with Walton’s vision, she said.

“We need 10 Gary Waltons,” she said.

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