As the last building on Monterey Street wraps up its seismic retrofitting, downtown property owners are turning their attention to the oft-neglected alley that runs parallel to the road, which they view as an important part of the city’s economic recovery.
The Gilroy City Council on Jan. 11 got its first look at plans to turn Gourmet Alley into a destination with restaurants and entertainment venues to draw residents and tourists to the historic downtown.
Gourmet Alley, which runs from Fourth to Seventh streets, is currently filled with dumpsters for Monterey Street businesses as well as a cut-through for downtown traffic, with one block mostly a construction zone for crews wrapping up retrofit work on the buildings.
In a presentation to the council, Gary Walton, John Taft and Jose Montes of the Gilroy Downtown Business Association outlined plans to improve the alley. Those include undergrounding utility lines, adding lighting and landscaping, decorative paving, common trash enclosures and more, which would allow room for outdoor patios for diners, among other things.
At the south end of the alley, near the corner of Monterey and Seventh streets, a plaza is envisioned where the current grassy field sits between the Gilroy Center for the Arts and the former Porcella’s Music.
Across Monterey Street, a sunken plaza at Hornlein Court could be used as a performance venue for downtown’s summer concert series and other events, Walton said. Such additions will further the need for a new parking lot currently in the design phase at the corner of Seventh and Eigleberry streets, he added.
A boutique hotel on the second floor of the BookBuyers building could cap the northern end of the alley, the presentation showed.
Walton said one of the priorities of the revitalization effort is to create an atmosphere that feels safe, something he noted is not there currently.
“We have a lot of work to turn that reputation around and create a place where people want to hang out,” he said.
Gourmet Alley has long been eyed by property owners and city officials as an economic driver. Efforts to revitalize the alley have mostly been at the mercy of California’s Unreinforced Masonry Building Law. That law, enacted in 1986, required cities located on an historically active faultline to inventory their masonry buildings—those that are not braced by reinforcing beams and pose a safety hazard in an earthquake—and work on getting the buildings up to code.
In 2006, the Gilroy City Council adopted an ordinance identifying 25 buildings constructed with unreinforced masonry, requiring the building owners to make the necessary retrofits within three years and imposing a series of fines if such improvements were not made. It later allowed for simpler, less expensive retrofits.
As a result, many buildings in downtown Gilroy were vacated as the owners began the process of bringing them up to code.
Downtown has a perception issue, Taft said, stemmed from the fact that buildings are empty due to the URM law.
“The best way to change perception is to change the reality,” he said. “Gourmet Alley will be just that.”
The Gilroy Downtown Business Association estimated that the 160,000 square feet identified as URM buildings cost $24 million in total to renovate. During the past 14 years where the buildings have remained empty, nearly $700 million in rent revenue has been lost downtown, the GDBA estimates.
The last building along Monterey Street on the city’s unreinforced masonry building list will soon be expunged from the record as crews are making the necessary repairs.
That building, located at 7515 Monterey St., will eventually house Settle Down Beer, where two longtime brewers will share their suds with the public.
Councilmember Fred Tovar said he was supportive of the plans, but stressed the need for a clear set of responsibilities for business owners and tenants to keep the alley clean once complete.
“It would do us no good if we moved forward on Gourmet Alley, and once it’s all said and done, two months later there’s garbage everywhere,” he said.
Walton responded that because property owners have invested heavily into the buildings, “they have a vested interest to make downtown the most attractive place possible so they get a return on their investment.”
The presentation drew a handful of comments from the public, including former Mayor Al Pinheiro and retired downtown business owner Dave Peoples, who were all in support of the plans.
Councilmember Dion Bracco said the city needs to come up with its next steps to move forward with the plans, such as looking at forming a Gourmet Alley Assessment District to start funding some of the projects.
“We’ve been talking about this for 30, 40 years,” he said. “We can talk about it some more, but I don’t want to be a part of that. Let’s do something. Even if it’s something small, let’s do something.”
To view the presentation, visit tinyurl.com/y3kj7hv3.