Planners OK first steps for ‘the 400 Block’

For nearly 30 years “the 400 block” in Hollister has sat vacant, part of a long-term plan to develop the site in the center of city, the last reminder of the 1989 Loma Prieta Earthquake. Since 2016, plans for a mixed-use commercial/residential/office structure at the corner of San Benito and Fourth streets have been a point of controversy within the City Council.

A Hollister Planning Commission vote Sept. 27 set the stalled revised plans back in motion.

The commission unanimously approved the site and architectural application for a “philanthropic building” and mixed-use space at the site.

The City Council may finally be voting on these plans for the space as early as January 2019.

The Community Foundation for San Benito County and the Del Curto Brothers Group were approved for a joint development of the site in 2017. The community foundation intends to build a philanthropic building for a new headquarters and for offices of county non-profit organizations. The Del Curto Brothers Group is set to build a three-story commercial and mixed-use structure next door.

Following the Planning Commission vote, the developers say they are set to bring back a tentative map for approval by the commission. After the tentative map is approved, the developers have two years to produce a final map that will be reviewed by the city’s engineering department prior to City Council consideration.

With the two-year time limit, this could take place any time from 2019 to 2021.

That means the plans would come to a vote in front of a new City Council, which leaves the fate of the development potentially unsettled. Mayor Ignacio Velazquez had previously recused himself from all 400 block votes because of a conflict of interest. Velazquez owns the Vault banquet hall, which is adjacent to the site.

The property was previously owned by the city and through the city’s former Redevelopment Agency. The city had owned the land since 1991, but the 2011 Dissolution Act abolished redevelopment agencies in the state. The city sold the property to the foundation and the Del Curto developers in June 2017.

Velazquez had been vocal about his opposition to the sale of the property to the foundation and Del Curto Brothers, not just because of the concept of the development but also because the city sold it for $300,000 below the most recent appraised value of the property.

A 2015 appraisal had valued the land at downtown Hollister’s busiest corner at $390,000. In September 2016, an updated appraisal placed the property’s market value at $690,000. The property was sold to the developers and the foundation in June 2017 for $390,000.

The sale was blocked last year when the mayor pushed for a ballot initiative that would have brought the issue of the 400 block development to the voters. He collected nearly 25,000 signatures to request a public vote.

Four council members, with Velazquez abstaining, stalled referendum plans by asking California Attorney General Xavier Becerra whether the city’s resolution to sell the 400 block could be subject to a referendum. Becerra ruled this spring that a referendum on the sale could not go forward, because it was technically an urban development project, not a straight sale by the city.

The current project is made up of two phases: The first is the philanthropic center, which will serve as office space for various nonprofits in San Benito County, including BenitoLink, a non-profit news website funded in part by the foundation. The second phase includes ground-floor commercial space with second-floor apartments.

With the site and architectural application approved by the commission, Hollister Planning Manager Abraham Prado said the commission will not vote on the tentative map for a few months.

Although the developers have two years to produce a final map, following a tentative map approval, Prado said, they “can submit the final map after the 15-day appeal period.”

If a final map is not produced by the two-year deadline and no extension is given, then the developer would have to go back to the Planning Commission to get plans re-approved, beginning the process anew.

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