COMMENTARY: A Proposal for a 400 Block Development

Downtown Hollister's busiest intersection needs a draw

I have long been concerned that the wrong type of development of downtown Hollister’s 400 Block, the open space at the corner of San Benito and Fourth streets, would harm a downtown still struggling after decades of problems – new competition, earthquake damage, and recession just to name just a few.

On Monday, Nov. 2, the Hollister City Council is expected to approve a resolution authorizing a Request for Proposal for development of a catalyst project at the 400 block. I’m OK with that; I just hope they get good options and make the right selection. Any project at this essential point must help the entire area, not just itself.

When all things are equal I prefer to let the market forces determine what projects go where within planning boundaries, but in this case all things are not equal. My fear is that to be economically viable a “conventional” project such as a hotel, office structure, retail space, or a combination of the three, will need to use up almost all the footprint area with a multi-story structure.

That corner is especially problematic because it is visually and functionally critical; a large footprint, multistory building with small setbacks will make the street look narrow and more importantly hide, rather than accent, the rest of San Benito Street. It will not welcome shoppers approaching from out of town, but function as visual barrier instead; the canyon feeling works for New York City, but not for small towns.

Whatever project goes there needs to nestle to the southwest (near The Vault or perhaps replacing that building as part of the design) leaving adequate open sight and access lines along both San Benito and Fourth streets.

A short walk around the area shows that we already have more than enough, in fact too much, unused and under-used commercial space in the area. Will renters flock to a new building just two steps away that will have higher rents?  The best answer is maybe, but it’s a fair question. Additionally, downtown boutique hotels are not popular except in big cities, travelers prefer name-brand drive in motels such as the one being constructed near the Highway 25 intersection. The choices to supplement those motels for most travelers are Bed and Breakfasts and we certainly need more of those.

All that being said, the corner badly needs a “draw” like a mall needs anchor stores. One of the key questions is, who do we want to draw? The primary answer is our present and future population. Hollister and its surroundings are in the process of adding approximately 2,000 homes with more than 6,000 people and the vast majority are middle- and upper-middle class; meaning they have disposable income.

Combine that with the population that stopped shopping downtown due to the Internet, the Outlet Center and the Big Box stores and you have enormous economic power and potential, but we can’t compete head to head.  We have to offer something they don’t and that would be instant events such as the best lunch, specialty shops, and the indoor-outdoor ambience shoppers can enjoy as the “anti-mall.”  With the best weather and clean air in the area for much of the year, it would be criminal not to use those attributes in any project at that location.

Whatever goes on the 400 Block needs to meet certain criteria: It cannot cramp the corner and must serve as the gateway to the downtown area; It has to have adequate open (non-building) space to take advantage of the outside – a plaza look and feel;  It needs to generate and support events and we have to be able to integrate it into other plans for the area. A structure that is as open as possible at the ground level can be used to marry the inside with the outside and provide almost unlimited flexibility.

Finally, we have to give the area a name, “the 400 Block” won’t do it. We have to do a legal search, but how about Hollister Plaza, or San Benito Plaza, either will be known locally as the plaza and the project should reflect a plaza-like atmosphere.

Marty Richman

Born and raised in Brooklyn, NY, Marty (Martin G.) spent his teen years in northern New Jersey. He served more than 22 years on active military duty, mostly in Europe, and is a retired U.S. Army Chief Warrant Officer 4, Nuclear Weapons Technical Officer. Marty then worked 25 years in various engineering and management positions in the electronics and energetic materials industries supporting the communications, computer, aerospace, defense and automotive sectors. He is a graduate, summa cum laude, from The College of Hard Knocks, among his numerous awards and accomplishments. He was a regular weekly Op/Ed columnist and feature writer for The Hollister Free Lance for seven years and a member of its editorial board for five years. Marty is a frequent commentator and contributor to BenitoLink on a wide variety of local, state, national and international subjects.   Marty was elected to represent the City of Hollister District 4 on the City Council in November, 2018. Marty and his wife, Joyce, have been residents of Hollister since 1996.