City won’t let Latino community agency have a ground floor storefront downtown

STILL VACANT Former Mango Street Kids store in Gilroy's downtown historic district on Monterey Street.

A Latino advocacy group that puts on the annual Tamale festival in downtown Gilroy was left out in the cold Monday, as the City Council in a 3-2 vote, refused to give them the okay to occupy the ground floor of a building in Gilroy’s downtown historic district.
CARAS (Community Agency for Resources, Advocacy and Services) was already in negotiations with a real estate broker to move into the former Mango Street Kids store at 7581 Monterey Road, when organizers learned they would need to seek special permission by the City Council to do so.
According to the downtown specific plan adopted by City Council in 2005, properties on both sides of Monterey Road between Third and Eighth streets are part of the Downtown Historic District and cannot, by right, have offices on the ground floor.
However, in response to high vacancy rates in the downtown, the City Council on two occasions, once in 2011 and again in 2014, allowed ground floor office uses for a period of three years.
The final extension expired last month on May 21, just before CARAS could sign a new lease on a new downtown location. The nonprofit had to move from its former location on Monterey Road because its building was in disrepair.
“We were already in negotiations before it expired on the 21st,“ said Art Barron, member of the CARAS board of directors. “We weren’t notified and had no idea of this. It was only after we began negotiating with the broker that we found out about it.”
Barron, who spoke up at the council meeting with longtime community organizer, Sally Armendariz, said the agency’s intentions are good and they are strong supporters of the downtown – organizing the Tamale Festival in the Fall, working with the Gilroy Art Alliance on Dia De Los Muertos festivities, and filling a niche service to the city’s Latino families.
“City staff work with us and we have a great relationship with them – it’s the people on the Council who have the disconnection,” said Barron, who told council they would even consider selling T-shirts and other merchandise to help accommodate the city’s use restrictions.
In the staff report presented to council, community development staff report they have been fielding many enquiries for new eateries, brewpubs, commercial retail and wine tasting facilities and not many for office uses in the last six to nine months.
An improving economy, noticeable improvements in getting unreinforced masonry (URM) buildings downtown retrofitted and available for tenants, and a previous council action to open up downtown to micro-brewery and wine-tasting venues has helped spur new business interest downtown.
The Golden State Brewery at the former Net Fitness anticipates opening later this year, the Lonely Oak Brewery has submitted a request for another downtown brewpub, and the Azteca Bar is being renovated for a new bar/pub called Bartender’s Union.
During council discussions, councilmembers Peter Leroe-Muñoz and Fred Tovar spoke up for allowing CARAS to stay in the downtown historic district, the only part of the city with such restrictions.
“I think the CARAS office should be allowed downtown,” said Leroe-Muñoz. “It’s a nonprofit, centrally located and easily accessible to the people they serve. Additionally, when we look at downtown, we want a diversity of uses, not just one type of business or industry. And there still exists a high vacancy rate.”
Tovar agreed about the district’s vacancy rate and said, “Until I see it, I don’t believe it,” in regards to the alleged increase of interest by businesses to locate downtown.
“It’s a mistake to hinder an organization to locate downtown when they are already there,” he said.
Notably, the Gilroy Chamber of Commerce, Gilroy Economic Development Corporation, Leadership Gilroy and Gilroy Garlic Festival all have their offices on the ground floor in the downtown historic district, but are located in a Chamber-owned building and have little risk of being evicted or turned out. There is also the Gardner South City Health Center and Gilroy Youth Academy at Third and Monterey streets.
While Tovar and Leroe-Muñoz offered a motion to support CARAS in remaining in the historic district, it did not have the votes to carry the day. Councilmembers, Dion Bracco and Paul Kloecker, and Mayor Roland Velasco were not in support.
“Every time [the extension] came before us, I’ve voted against it,” said Bracco. “Some past practices of the council have caused problems for downtown. In the specific plan we have a vision for downtown and then we approve all kinds of different uses when someone comes and asks for it. We see that there is progress downtown, it is moving slowly, but it’s moving. We have a vision for retail and restaurants and I think we need to stick to it.”
Barron said he is disappointed CARAS may not be able to stay in Gilroy and are in talks with Morgan Hill to perhaps relocate their office, and the annual Tamale festival, to that south county city.