Updated: City moves to sell cherished downtown plot

San Benito County Jail inmates Larry and Jake place garland at Santa’s Village for the annual Lights On Celebration in 2002.

Hold onto those memories from events on the open grassy plot downtown.
Hollister council members Monday voted 4-0 to approve going forward on exclusive talks to sell the city’s property in the 400 block of San Benito Street for a multi-use development.
It came after dozens of local residents shared their views on both sides of the issue.
Mayor Ignacio Velazquez did not take part in the vote because he has declared a potential financial conflict of interest, as he owns The Vault property neighboring the site, but he has openly spoke out against a development at the location next to the Briggs Building.
On Tuesday, he expressed disappointment in Monday’s result and criticized other council members.
“An exceptionally bad decision was made by the council, and we’ve lost the heart of our city to condos,” Velazquez told the Free Lance. “This could’ve been a beautiful community plaza. We don’t have people that can see that vision.”
His stinging comments reflected the tension between supporters and opponents of the project. Opposition to a development on the city’s open green space at Fourth and San Benito streets mounted days before the meeting, particularly on social media.
Rolan Resendiz and other active artists in the community responded last week when they found out the Community Foundation for San Benito County had been “lobbying”—as he put it—to have local residents connected to the organization speak out in support of the multi-use development proposal.
Resendiz said the foundation did a “blast” of emails to all nonprofits.
“They gave them talking points,” said Resendiz, a local artist and board member with the county arts council. “They told them to contact their public representatives. They went hard.”
Resendiz said his cousin Rachelle Escamilla led the effort to mount opposition to a development and support for keeping the space green. Interest almost immediately spiked on social media, with the vast majority of those communicating against a development. The Free Lance Facebook page alone had 33 comments in response to a post linking to a poll on the newspaper’s website. It didn’t appear anyone in that thread was supportive of the development proposal and readers offered up ideas like putting in a garden, amphitheater, stage, pool or gated park. Again and again, many people wrote to keep it “green.”
“It is part of our community,” wrote Sara Barron. “If they really want to do something there, they can put a garden, flower and chairs to share time with friends, family.”
She and others were against the idea from the nonprofit foundation and Del Curto Brothers construction company to buy the 400 block property—which has been a popular open space, especially for events like the downtown farmers market and biker rally—and develop it. The proposal calls for building four mixed-use buildings on the north parcel, keeping the central space as open, and building a 7,420-foot “philanthropic center” for the foundation.
On Monday, council members voted to enter into exclusive negotiations with the parties on a sale for the property neighboring the Briggs Building parking garage, signaling a commitment for development at the site. The city had the property appraised at $390,000 last fall. Since several local taxing entities would split the proceeds, the city would end up with $52,603 from a sale, according to an agenda report.
The City of Hollister has been considering what to do with the former redevelopment agency property for more than two decades in the wake of the Loma Prieta earthquake that leveled buildings previously standing there. After the disaster, the RDA purchased the site in an effort to curtail blight. Eight years ago, the city approved a Hollister Downtown Association revitalization plan that included creating a “Plaza Square” in the 400 block with office space on the upper floors and retail space on the bottom. But since the state dissolved all RDAs three years ago, the remaining RDA successor agency must eventually unload all of its remaining assets.
That brought the city to November when officials put out a request for proposals to prospective developers. Council members received just one proposal before the initial deadline of Jan. 5, from the Del Curto Group, for retail and condominium space in three stories along with a courtyard and open-air balconies. Del Curto asked for a 45-day extension, however, and city officials granted 90 days to allow time for more proposals.
The city never did, however, engage the broader community on ideas in the event officials decided to keep it open to the public. The city’s stated goal, on the other hand, has been to sell the two parcels, totaling about 18,000 square feet, to a private developer for a “keystone commercial or mixed/use development as a catalyst for economic development” downtown. Supporters of such a project have contended it could boost the local economy and local government coffers through currently absent tax revenues.
At Monday’s meeting, local businessman Phil Fortino, chairman of the Community Foundation board, led off the 30 or so speakers who took the podium. He reminded council members that they put out the request for proposals asking for a multi-use project like the one presented.
“It meets all the project goals,” Fortino said.
Other supporters pointed to prior plans for redevelopment there.
Escamilla, however, contended that plans made in the years after the earthquake are “outdated.”
“Concepts changed in cities across America,” she said. “Downtowns are encouraging community gathering.”
She criticized what she called “old ideas.”
“Let’s move forward,” she said, “and let’s move forward with green space.”
Another opposition voice came from one of the recently appointed City of Hollister youth commissioners, Angel Leal.
“As a member of the youth commission, I honestly believe the 400 block is more meant for children,” she said.
She argued there’s a local need for spaces catering to youth activities.
“At the moment, we don’t exactly have much for the youth to do,” she said.
But other speakers contended that the downtown really needs an economic boost. Tiffany Ford owner Bob Tiffany, also a Community Foundation board member, spoke in favor of the development and added that he, too, loves green space.
“We’ve been waiting almost 30 years for this project,” Tiffany said.
Council members, without the mayor, were on the side of project supporters in the end.
Councilwoman Mickie Luna referred to some opponents’ phone calls she received before the vote as “disrespectful” and mentioned a November workshop she put on—offering to update the community on the latest city happenings—in her rebuke.
“Yet, when we’ve had community meetings throughout the districts, you haven’t been there,” she said to people in the audience. “You don’t have to remind us we’re elected officials. You don’t have to remind us elections are coming up.”
Councilman Karson Klauer, who works in real estate and whose family has a local legacy with downtown development, told the audience it was the “toughest item” he’d encountered since taking office 16 months ago.
“It’s taken a lot of deliberation to kind of come back to where I am,” he said before offering support for the project.
He went on: “In my eyes, it’s not being utilized to its full potential.”
Councilman Ray Friend said he was originally against building anything on the 400 block. He said if the city denied the project, there would be no plan.
“I just listened to everything and I just think we’ve been looking at a gift horse in the mouth for 27 years, whatever it is,” Friend said.
Councilman Victor Gomez told the audience the city had done a lot to invest in open spaces, referring to about $600,000 in local parks’ upgrades over the past two years. He referred to dialogue on social media from opponents suggesting ideas such as an amphitheater and other ideas, but questioned how to pay for them.
“Where’s the money? You can have all the dreams you want,” Gomez said.
Gomez, though, made a suggestion approved in the final motion, to include an amendment asking the developer to fund a feasibility study on a new amphitheater in Hollister.

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