Kosmicki: Create new public square on San Benito

Artists drew on a chalkboard outside The Vault building next to the 400 block of San Benito Street grassy plot encouraging people to support the cause to prevent development there.

Still depressed about the Hollister council’s decision to sell the city’s most prized public square for another condo development and a rooftop for sipping wine? There’s a way to get over it.
Now before you instinctively grab the Breyers or Tillamook tub, this isn’t about gorging. The following is an idea that maybe, just maybe, might make you feel a little better about the public’s loss of the 400 block for the price of a granny unit.
First off, forget what I said about the Breyers. New step one: Go to the freezer and get ice cream. Step two: Put two to four large scoops in a big bowl so you can get extra enjoyment out of the idea you’re about to read. Step three: return to reading this column.
OK, here we go: My solution for the lack of a downtown public square is to create a new one right in the middle of San Benito Street. And I don’t mean we should try to replicate the 400 block in a C-minus kind of way. Like, say, throwing something together in the only open lot left on main street, on the less-spacious spot across from the Veterans Memorial Building where the old State Theater stood.
Aching for a jolt of any kind, this community could do something bold, something that stands out and gets other towns talking. That something idea, for me, will probably make you initially chuckle or scoff before a possible reconsideration (I can only hope, and this is where the ice cream mood enticement may help my cause) and realization that potential benefits could far outweigh any costs.
It’s time to explore a concept to permanently block off vehicle traffic at the center of downtown on San Benito Street and create a public square that encourages shopping and community gatherings, and here’s why:
It would become an outdoor shopping mall environment, exactly what merchants need, and provide ample opportunities for the community to get creative in the landscaping design process.
An outdoor mall of one to four blocks between Fourth and South streets would provide a convenient forum for public art displays, picnic tables, trees, flowers, native plants, a recycled water fountain or two, a statue of Col. Hollister shooting a ground squirrel, or other ideas worked out through local dialogue.
At the same time, a pedestrian-only public square in the middle of downtown would do what the district’s business owners have wanted for decades: Halt traffic.
After all, there’s no better way to make drivers stop than to actually make drivers stop. Motorists would face the decision of whether to get out and walk around or veer around the vibrant, inviting public square. At least one entrance to the public square could include one of those arcing signs—as recommended in a downtown strategy plan approved by the city in 2008—welcoming visitors.
It’s certainly better than the current atmosphere where vehicles swoosh by at 40 mph on their way to the next intersection race or Target. That’s unless they have an appointment for a tattoo, massage, hair do or pipe sale.
The great thing is that Hollister wouldn’t have to reinvent a thing because there are plenty other good examples of public squares in cities of all sizes such as San Francisco or, a bit farther to the north, in Healdsburg.
Of course, dissenters may think it’s altogether wacky and will likely gripe about a loss of parking and customers not wanting to walk farther than 10 feet to reach their stores.
Those are minor problems to address, though. First, the side streets wouldn’t go away, so people could park on those near their destinations. To make up for some of the parking loss, though, the city or downtown businesses could buy or lease the old State Theater lot, or somewhere else, for more parking.
Or we could all just truly embrace the whole walking part of a pedestrian-friendly downtown and strut, God forbid, a block or two. It’s a bit ridiculous and embarrassing that the city has a police attendant giving out tickets downtown simply because a few businesses complained customers couldn’t handle parking a few doors away.
Such an active, energetic tone in the downtown’s core, on the other hand, could spread to other areas of the district, too. If people are out perusing the public square, there’s no reason to believe they wouldn’t explore other stores and restaurants nearby, so all of downtown would benefit.
And maybe those good fortunes could spread to other areas of town nearby. An outdoor shopping square might go well with Mayor Ignacio Velazquez’s idea for a recreation center—which could include ample green space and an amphitheater—at the former Leatherback Industries site on the outskirts of downtown.

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