Editorial: Council turned back on public with 400 block

Hollister Mayor Ignacio Velazquez addresses the crowd in his high heels before the Walk a Mile in Her Shoes event in 2015 at the grassy plot. File photo by Nick Lovejoy

How does it feel to have something special ripped away so a developer can reap profits at the expense of the community? How does it feel to know insider politics and cronyism live on?
It’s excruciating to fathom how four Hollister council members—Ray Friend, Victor Gomez, Karson Klauer and Mickie Luna—so blatantly dismissed the general public regarding the city-owned 400 block of San Benito Street to provide yet another favor to local nobility.
With the mayor unable to take part in the decision because he owns The Vault next to the half-acre property in question, the council May 2 voted 4-0 to enter into exclusive sale negotiations. The talks are with the Del Curto Brothers Group and Community Foundation for San Benito County—which has veered away from a focus on socially responsible programs to indulge in media dalliances like BenitoLink and extravagance shown in the 400 block concept.
Del Curto wants to build four buildings with a total of 16 condominiums and the foundation’s new headquarters, funded by a $900,000 donation from developer Randy Wolf. The new buildings would range from one to four stories.
Proponents’ aggressive push to take advantage of an inexplicably low appraisal on the cornerstone lot—of $390,000 with an estimate of just $52,000 going back to the city after divvying out proceeds—ran up against an unprecedented swell of local opposition in the days before the vote. Thousands of people on social media became engaged, with the overwhelming majority in support of keeping the 400 block as a public space.
They were everyday people—artists, stay-at-home moms, teachers, students, commuters—who rarely have enough energy to get involved in an often exhaustive political environment but decided the 400 block was important enough to take a personal stand. What was their reward for proud civic involvement, for doing what’s right? It was affirmation that in a small town like Hollister, their opinions still mean less than those of the well connected.
On the flip side, the Community Foundation’s brass organized a seemingly smaller base of influential business and nonprofit leaders.
They pointed to the proposal’s inclusion of open space on the lot. Developer plans, however, say the future community space is designed for the current Briggs Alley. That’s right: In return for giving away a prized central gathering space, an iconic corner where local families have created lifelong memories, the public would receive an alleyway.
Proponents also contended the project would create new tax revenue. They must have meant pennies on the dollar Hollister gets back from the state in property taxes—in this case from just 16 condos. The condos bring no guarantee for a net revenue gain, either. Demand exists for rental housing in Hollister, but 16 condos won’t do much if anything to help that situation.
They certainly couldn’t have meant potential tax revenue from assumed retail sales. There is no certainty—or even a good likelihood—of a net gain for the downtown commercial economy. Vacancies in prominent places like the former Pendergrass Restaurant, She’s clothing shop, Muenzer’s sporting goods shop and Union Bank symbolize an imbalanced supply-and-demand curve for downtown in total. Adding more retail space without much more housing would further widen that gap, and potentially add more vacancies and unproductive tenants to the mix, too.
Supporters went further, pleading how local nonprofits could desperately use the extra space in the Community Foundation’s proposed Philanthropic Center. Council members should’ve recognized most of those supporters had ties to the foundation or other nonprofits that would directly benefit from the development. And since when is it taxpayers’ responsibility to provide space for local nonprofits? This same city, meanwhile, just gave away $90,000 of taxpayers’ money to many of the same groups. Just because.
Most poignantly in proponents’ playbook, supporters underscored how plans on the city books since the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake—which destroyed shops previously there—call for putting in new mixed-use structures. So in 2016, this community’s visionaries are looking back to viewpoints documented 27 years ago for direction on downtown’s future? It’s typically backward.
Despite what locals envisioned nearly three decades ago, the public has come to cherish the 400 block and wants to keep it moving forward. Locals want to play a role in the gathering spot’s future, and politicians should embrace—not shun—them.
Alarmingly, council members ignored a huge swath of this city’s electorate representing a relatively disenchanted majority. The breadth of the opposition’s significance was reflected on social media websites like Facebook where thousands joined in the discussion, mostly expressing opposition to development.
That kind of surge in views on one side should have been enough for any moderately savvy council member to understand the issue’s importance to everyday residents. At the least, it should have been enough for any level-headed decision-maker to pause and step back.
Supporters of keeping the 400 block as a public space, after all, had a stream of worthy ideas to explore that could increase foot traffic and do exponentially more to boost the downtown economy than 16 condos and a larger glut in retail space.
They shared thoughts such as putting in a stage; amphitheater; arts center; public art; a place for dance; a garden; or a pocket park. Those were just the iceberg’s tip, though, because in 27 years Hollister officials never bothered to ask the wider public for concepts or hold organized workshops seeking out ideas for a permanent public space.
Other concepts for the lot, which already includes a statue of the late Eric Tognazzini, could include sculptures or monument signs in honor of local biker, rodeo or farmworker cultures. The city or partners, such as corporate sponsors, could add stylish features like a recycled water fountain, gazebo, benches or tables.
Locals working together could get creative, which is also what city officials should do on the plot’s required disposal. Local officials should right their wrong and explore ways to sell or transfer the property to back to the city. If the state is stubborn about money, the city would need to explore options such as buying the property, finding a purchase partner like the county or a land conservancy, working with a nonprofit partner, or collecting donations for an acquisition. If any problems would arise, this type of issue is right in Assemblyman Luis Alejo’s wheelhouse and he would undoubtedly get something done.
Or for once, the city could stand up for itself. Look, the city manager has managed to keep all of the former RDA employees on the payroll more than three years after the agency stopped existing. It’s hard to believe city leaders couldn’t find a way to keep a beloved, beautiful, signature, half-acre plot with them.
Council members chose to support their friends in allowing the exclusive negotiation deal, but the fight isn’t over. Velazquez has encouraged taking a referendum to the ballot asking voters how to proceed and he has every free-speech right to do so. Knowing what occurred with the grassroots Measure J anti-fracking initiative in 2014, the argument in favor of keeping it open to the public would squash the condo argument and potentially end local political careers for all four of the council members who supported a development.
Because symbolically, this issue reflects something much bigger than an isolated controversy, or a land deal, or even whether buildings suit this community better than public green space. It represents a divide that somehow still exists here between the haves and have-nots. In some eyes, those few local people accepted into an exclusive club of business and nonprofit leaders are more important than the rest of the residents. If someone is connected to the Community Foundation or has had family here for multiple generations, his or her opinion matters more than others’ do.
That’s downright insulting and wrong. Every vote and every resident’s view counts the same. Most elected officials here fail to grasp the concept, though, and continue falling back on this county’s old ways.
So let’s fight on—respectfully, civilly, tirelessly. Call, write, or tweet your council member. Share your views on Facebook. Speak at the next council meeting. Tell your neighbors and family members to do the same. In short, make the elected officials listen to the people who elect them. If they don’t, take it to the ballot.
When a community has something uniquely beautiful where people still come together, something loved, something memorable, it doesn’t just give it away.
This editorial represents the opinion of the editorial management and ownership of the Hollister Free Lance.
If you are interested in sharing your view on this issue, reach council members at these numbers:
Ray Friend: (831) 313-3099
Victor Gomez: (831) 245-6446
Karson Klauer: (831) 801-0858
Mickie Luna: (831) 637-1342
Mayor Ignacio Velazquez (831) 905-3720

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