TEN YEARS AGO, in November 2005, the City of Gilroy passed the Downtown Specific Plan. Its goal was to “create a unique and identifiable Downtown for Gilroy that is economically vibrant, pedestrian-oriented and a local and visitor destination.”
Obviously, that didn’t work.
Instead of colorful signage, sidewalk cafes and aesthetic trash enclosures, we have “for lease” signs, empty storefronts and construction fences surrounding projects that seem frozen in time. The dilapidated cannery buildings remain dilapidated. Music is piped in, lending a bizarre lite rock soundtrack to an eerily quiet downtown.
Last year, the city formulated an “action plan” to “develop a thriving Gilroy downtown.” As before, it was an exercise in words, not actions. It lacked a timeline and was presented without buy-in from stakeholders.
It mis-prioritized seismic safety as the No. 1 goal, above economic development and a welcoming environment. The execution was all stick, no carrot: slapping liens on buildings, fining owners and even criminally charging a 90-year-old woman.
That came on the heels of two decades of inaction downtown and the failure to learn from other cities’ experiences. While downtowns around Santa Clara County—Morgan Hill, Los Gatos, Campbell, Mountain View, Sunnyvale, San Jose, Willow Glen—upgraded their unreinforced masonry buildings, formed redevelopment agencies, invested in public improvements and paid attention to the retail mix, aesthetics and pedestrian experience, Gilroy repeated the 1960s-era mistake made by San Jose and countless other cities: building a large retail center on the outskirts while neglecting the city’s core.
So we have a downtown that’s nearly half a century out of step but bursting with potential. The city has to do more than hang flower baskets and plant a few skinny trees. There should be millions in coordinated public and private investment and a cooperative, can-do ethos at City Hall.
If the city is going to cry poor and not properly fund downtown revitalization, then the least it can do is provide some fee waiver exemptions, expedite approvals and stop arresting property owners. It should implement the aesthetic improvements it promised a decade ago. And it should stop taking a narrow view of cost recovery on investment and instead look at the general benefits a downtown offers.
Unlike a Costco or Walmart, downtown’s value cannot be measured in direct sales tax recovery. A beautiful, active downtown would raise the overall asset value of the Gilroy brand, and with it the economic future and quality of life of the entire community.