With the defeat of Measure N, also known as the Strada Verde project, it would seem the idea of building an automotive research facility in San Benito County is dead on arrival. Or perhaps not.
While the project elicited heated debate, there is yet another massive project on the horizon: the Hollister Research Campus (HRC) with a minimum investment of $100 million, that at least in its early stage is supported by the Hollister City Council.
Council members unanimously approved a resolution on Oct. 19 to pre-zone properties where the development is planned to be located.
At first glance, the project seems similar to the Strada Verde. But according to Pinnacle Strategy President Victor Gomez, who is acting as the land-use and community outreach consultant for the project, it’s quite different.
Gomez said while the Strada Verde concept focused on autonomous vehicle testing, the HRC project will concentrate on research of automotive systems in a broad sense, covering the entire gamut of vehicle development.
Unlike the Strada Verde project—which would have been located on the Floriani Ranch property along Highway 25—plans for HRC call for construction within Hollister’s city limits, which would require an amendment to the Hollister General Plan. The city is currently in the process of updating the guiding document.
Mayor Ignacio Velazquez said the difference between Strada Verde and Hollister Research Campus is that it’s already located within a commercial industrial zone that would be able to take advantage of the city’s infrastructure. Also in its favor, he said, is that it does not include any plans for new homes, which was a major concern for opponents of Strada Verde.
“The pre-zoning allows them to start the environmental process and show the city exactly what they are doing,” Velazquez said. “The infrastructure is already there. This is an area we had ready for these types of projects.”
The proposed project site of 229.32 acres is on two properties located at the intersection of Highway 156 and San Felipe Road. The property is owned by Bill Christopher, president and CEO of Christopher Ranch Garlic in Gilroy.
“I’m excited to work with the city of Hollister on our Hollister Research Campus project,” Christopher said. “Hollister residents deserve good quality jobs that keep them off Highway 25, stuck in commuter traffic. We look forward to bringing much needed research and development jobs to San Benito County.”
The city did not have a zoning designation prior to the approval of the resolution, according to city manager Brett Miller.
“After the approval of the resolution to initiate the General Plan amendment and to initiate the pre-zone, the property can now be processed for a pre-zone and the pre-zone would process a zoning designation of Industrial Business Park,” he said.
Gomez said the research campus could bring together major private sector auto, truck and motorcycle manufacturers, autonomous and controlled transportation technologies and research, independent concept design companies, trade schools and other associated multidisciplinary businesses for the ever-changing automotive sector.
A number of concepts have been presented to the Hollister Planning Department for eventual site and architectural approval, Gomez said, adding that a 22-acre portion in the southeast corner of the Christopher property is being developed as a commercial site focused on travelers that will contain a 150- to 200-room hotel, restaurant, and gas station.
“We are in discussions with a large dining franchise that is interested in the location,” Gomez said, “along with a couple of other destination-type businesses.”
The 210-acre portion across Highway 156 would include the testing facility focusing on research and development of automotive sensors and mechanical systems, including engines, suspensions, shock absorbers, and even tires.
“Autonomous vehicles will be part of our concept,” he said. “We will have a two-and-a-half-mile circular testing track with about 15 turns. We’re also looking at a mile-long track, what some people would consider to be a drag strip, for straight-away velocity testing. This is not going to be a Laguna Seca and won’t be open to the public.”
Gomez said there would also be approximately 80 to 100 private, commercial working lofts or garages and offices focused on automotive research and development situated along the straight track for easy accessibility. He said the largest component of the project would be the research campus and a 500-seat event center to host conferences, along with its own 150- to 200-room hotel.
There are also plans for a 25-acre simulated city, similar to a Hollywood movie set of mock buildings and city streets to test autonomous vehicles. Both the Hollister Police and Fire departments expressed interest in that part of the project for first-responder training. Bob Martin del Campo, Hollister fire chief, said he told 50 fire and police chiefs from San Benito and Monterey counties at a recent meeting about the project.
“I told them about the potential of it providing training support for public safety to utilize the track and the city simulation center as far as emergency vehicle operations. One of the most dangerous things we do is responding to calls in town and high-speed pursuits for the police. Those chiefs were thrilled to find out about this.”
While Gomez said he could not reveal names, he did indicate that a major Japanese electric car manufacturer has expressed interest in “taking a substantial amount of the space.”
Gomez said the idea for the project came through discussions with Ralph Borelli, a San Jose real estate investor who owns the Club Auto Sport, an event center and condominiums for car buffs. He said the HRC concept would combine Borelli’s model and Laguna Seca for both research and testing on one site.
“This is going to be a $100-million plus project and the good thing is you have the Christopher family who is successful and integrated into the community,” he said. “They have a lot at stake because their name is behind this. We want a successful project that creates jobs, and that the community supports.”
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