As an architect, Reid Lerner has traveled around the country designing everything from military bases and missile launch sites to a large golf course development outside Fort Collins, Colorado.
In downtown Gilroy, where he has an office, Lerner worked on the Heritage Bank Building at the corner of Lewis and Monterey streets and the Vacuum Center Building which houses the Garlic City Cafe.
Now Lerner, who designed four buildings at his alma mater, UC-Berkeley, the most of any living architect, wants to help design Gilroy’s future and is running for City Council.
“Simply, I want to make Gilroy a better place,” said Lerner, in response to the first question every person seeking political office receives from a journalist: “Why are you running?”
A founder of Gilroy’s Compassion Center and Gilroy Arts Alliance, Lerner is not just a technical whiz who reads master plans for fun, but a candidate with solid ideas on what Gilroy needs to be “better.”
First, he said, he would focus on a few key areas.
“Downtown is a really good place to start,” he said. A former president of the Downtown Business Association, Lerner said he wants to increase foot traffic downtown and bring back successful initiatives, like the city’s fee waiver program for developers who want to build in the district and seek out more private investment.
“We don’t have to invent new ways of doing things,” he said, noting how cities like San Francisco have contracted with private companies who sell advertising to pay for public bathrooms and bus stop shelters.
A similar arrangement, he said, could help fund a new arts center in downtown Gilroy.
A new multi-million dollar arts center has been in the city’s sights for over a decade, but while Gilroy owns the land where the current arts center and demonstration garden are located, the budget for the project is out of date. In 2004, the estimate was $12.3 million; now it’s around $20 million.
Lerner believes an arts center, with classes during the day and performances at night, would be a major draw for the district and could be done with private investment.
“It’s time to build the arts center downtown,” he said, adding that unlike others he views the arts as a business. “The city says they don’t have the money, but again, we can get a private developer interested in doing it. We’ll lease you the land, you build us the arts center.”
What also worked to help revitalize downtown, he said, was the city’s fee waiver program.
“About 10 years ago the city decided to reduce the fees that developers pay to build downtown—and lo and behold, dozens of buildings got built. Then they stopped the fee waiver program and the building stopped.”
As an architect, Lerner has seen first-hand how city processes can be a deterrent to getting things done.
“I would like to see it made easier for existing businesses to expand,” he said, adding that a couple of his clients are looking to Morgan Hill or Salinas where the process is not so difficult. Other ideas for downtown include more signage to let visitors know where parking is located (hint: it’s behind the buildings), and a shuttle for shoppers.
Lerner is not a supporter of Measure H, the urban growth boundary initiative before Gilroy voters in November. He also opposed the 721-acre development that sparked the movement to put the UGB on the ballot.
“I didn’t have a problem with annexation or growing, but they only looked at one development proposal which was mostly housing with a couple schools and shopping centers. But I know from my experience creating master plans for cities that we [reviewed] at least three different plans to come up with the best one. Frankly, Americans likes choices,” he said, adding, “I am sure that what was studied was most beneficial to the people that owned the property and planned to develop it, I’m not sure it was the most beneficial to the community.”
A supporter of smart growth, he said the city should look beyond short-term development opportunities.
“[You] can’t just say, house building is looking good this year, let’s build a bunch of houses. [Then] next year shopping centers are doing well, let’s build a bunch of shopping centers. That’s what the marketplace does, but that is not what government is supposed to do.”
With his technical skills, he said he’s able to do what may be the most important job a council member has: review development proposals.
“A lot of things get approved on faith rather than facts, and I can make decisions based on facts.” The same could be said for understanding the city budget, he added, as he has experience working on construction projects with budgets of $100 million.
“I’m a good team player and know how to put people together to get things done,” he said.
City Council candidate Reid Lerner will participate in an election forum hosted by the Gilroy Branch of the American Association of University Women on Saturday, Oct. 1 at 2 p.m. at the Gilroy Library, 350 W Sixth St, in the Community Room upstairs. The audience will be able to submit questions in writing.