Big dreams born from debris?

Leave it to the Gilroy Arts Alliance to see beauty in a string of unoccupied, uninhabitable buildings near the heart of the city’s downtown.

The allure lies not in the structures themselves and their maligned “unreinforced masonry” status, mind you, but in the plot of land underneath waiting to be unveiled.

It’s a blank canvas, and Gilroy’s arts backers have their brushes at the ready. With a City of Gilroy project to demolish three Monterey Road “eyesores” commencing later this month, they won’t have to wait very much longer.

“It’s a work in progress, but the result will create a beautiful spot downtown,” Gilroy Arts Alliance President Kevin Heath said of plans to turn what will temporarily be dusty, debris-laden land into a glistening arts oasis, coinciding with an in-progress revival of the Interim Center for the Arts, located at 7341 Monterey St. in between Seventh and Sixth streets.

Heath says the plans are “just a concept,” adding that nothing is official or has been approved by the city, which will eventually give a thumbs or thumbs down on whether to allow the arts center to expand on the roughly 50-foot-by-50-foot space outlined in the early drawings.

That hasn’t stopped Heath and the Arts Alliance from dreaming big, however, including thoughts of lush walkways and cozy performance areas alongside fresh, green, city laid sod where the adjacent buildings once stood.

City officials beamed the efforts could be another way to boost a downtown comeback.

“The Arts Alliance is really big on really trying to make the arts center an epicenter for an arts district in the downtown area,” City Councilman Peter Leroe-Muñoz said. “Everyone recognizes that having a strong arts community gives people a reason to come downtown.”

And a reason to spend money after taking in a show or perusing a gallery, he said.

“The idea is, people are going to stick around downtown and patronize downtown restaurants and other downtown businesses,” Leroe-Muñoz said. “It’s not just, ‘Hey, we want an arts center.’ It’s part of an overall downtown revitalization.”

Under the Arts Alliance’s proposal – drawn up in September – curved walkways will line each side of the new grass area, which would lead visitors toward the Demonstration Garden, neighboring the arts center property along Eigleberry Street. The plans don’t stop there, as additional trees and plants would be plotted around the center – and any new structures – to add color and depth, Heath said.

After the city plops down the new grass, the rest of the project going forward will solely be the responsibility of the nonprofit Arts Alliance, which must raise the funds needed to create the dream turnaround, Heath said. The Arts Alliance relies on funds from the Gilroy Foundation, community donations, membership fees and ticket sales.

The plans call for a small performance area on the north side of the center, in addition to the Arts Alliance’s goal of creating an outdoor theater at the corner of Seventh and Eigleberry streets, a project which Heath said “is still a priority.”

Heath envisions outdoor movie nights, where families could congregate with chairs and blankets to watch movies projected on a large wall.

As the years creep on, the center also may add sculptures and various outdoor art to line the walking paths, Heath said. In all, he described the Arts Alliance’s vision as “simple, but beautiful.”

“We also hope to raise funds to redesign the front of the center to coordinate with the new area,” he said.

The design concepts will also require city approval, he said. Heath said he’s met with city officials regarding the project’s potential, adding, “things are moving along.”

When asked about the plans to demolish the trio of buildings to make room for a possible arts center expansion, Councilman Bob Dillon said, “The sooner, the better.”

“I think it’s a great idea. They’re eyesores, no doubt about it,” Dillon said. “I’d rather see grass there for the time being than the buildings themselves.”

The buildings, located at 7347, 7353 and 7355 Monterey Road, stand behind a recently erected chain-link fence next to Porcella’s Music store. The buildings are three of 28 properties in the downtown area identified this year by the city as “unreinforced masonry,” or “URMs”, meaning they cannot be occupied because they lack modern seismic retrofitting.

Demolition will begin within the next few weeks, likely finishing up by the end of November, City Engineer Rick Smelser said.

The entire demolition project includes removal of potentially hazardous materials from the buildings prior to destruction and site clean-up once the structures are reduced to rubble, Smelser said.

He said the land would be completely cleared by early January.

As to what might be constructed in place of the URMs, Smelser wrote in an email, “That is still being discussed. The city will leave the site with a new irrigated grass sod area where the buildings now stand; however, this may be modified at a later date.”

Things have been looking up for the 40-year-old Arts Alliance and its interim center as of late. On Sept. 29, the center unveiled $135,000 worth of renovations, made possible by donations from community stalwarts Don and Karen Christopher.

Those dollars netted: new flooring and paint, a storage room, a disabilities-compliant restroom, new light fixtures, a quaint coffee bar and a dishwasher and sink with added space for receptions. The once-dirt field on the center’s south end has been transformed into a paved parking lot.

Though, previous plans for a sparkling, new $25 million permanent arts center are on hold for now, Councilman Dillon said the city should strongly consider making the growing arts area a priority in the coming months.

“I guess when we get the library done next spring, the next thing to focus on will be our arts and culture center,” Dillon said.

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