Hollister City Councilman and Vice Mayor Victor Gomez commented that he knew he and three other council members who voted (Mayor Ignacio Velazquez recused himself) May 2 to pass the resolution to proceed with negotiations to sell the 400 block on San Benito Street, would take a beating on social media.
That was a major understatement.
The vote had barely been completed when Facebook exploded with accusations ranging from collusion to incompetence. Lupe Guerrero-Downing wrote: “Sounds like they already had their minds made up. Very disappointing. Just remember, some of them are up for re-election in November and they certainly aren’t getting my vote.”
Though his Facebook account identifies him as Hollister Mayor-Ignacio Velazquez (even though he has repeatedly said he is speaking as a private citizen on this matter), he wrote on May 3: “I'm EXTREMELY disappointed in my fellow council members’ decision to give away the most important property in our city to developers to build more housing. The city's portion of the sale will be a whopping $50k. The 400 block is the heart of downtown and of the city and now it will become apartments. The 400 block could have been a public plaza that would have provided entertainment for hundreds of people every weekend and during the week also. When are we going to learn that giving away our community and souls to developers is not the answer to our future?”
At the heart of the matter, the council was considering the approval of an exclusive negotiation agreement with the Del Curto Brothers Group to acquire the entire 400 Block at the corner of Fourth and San Benito streets in order to build four mixed-use buildings, as well as a 7,420-square-foot philanthropic center—to be paid for by a private donor—in partnership with the Community Foundation for San Benito County. There would also be a central parcel of open space.
Gomez set the tone of the discussion by telling approximately 30 people who handed in speakers’ cards that they would only have one minute each, and cautioned them, “The longer you take, the longer you’re delaying this process and if it extends too long we may cut it off. So be respectful of the people that are going to be speaking after you.”
After Mary Paxton, program manager for the city’s Development Services Department, gave a lengthy presentation of the convoluted history of what she termed the “red light, green light” development, or lack thereof, of the 400 Block, Gomez invited the public to speak. He instructed the clerk to call three names at a time in order to keep the ball rolling.
The first three speakers up to bat were: Phil Fortino, Juli Vieira and Marty Richman. Fortino, a local banker who used to operate a furniture store in Hollister, said the lot had been empty for 30 years and that he felt that the proposed development was the best option for the city. Vieira, CEO of the San Benito County Chamber of Commerce, recognized the “us and them” vibe in the room, but said the project would be good for the community. She said no matter what side prevailed, it doesn’t mean that all sides can’t work together, “…to get a good project for downtown…that will be good all year and not just for one event here and one event there.” Richman, a Hollister resident and former mayoral candidate who frequently comments at council meetings, said he had no objection to a building on the site, but said the inside needed to be designed as a large event center.
From speaker to speaker, the views basically took two views: the city needs the economic base the project would bring or there is a need for green space that can host numerous events or simply attract people who appreciate “open space.”
Tim Foley, who said his family has opened two businesses in downtown in the past year and that he had worked for 13 years as county superintendent of schools, spoke in favor of more open space. He said town squares are cultural assets, and added: “I want to invite you to have an opportunity to have a gathering place in San Benito County and Hollister that we can all share rather than just a mediocre building.”
Angel Leal, a member of the city's youth committee, said she felt the 400 Block is meant for children and youth activities. “At the moment we don’t have much for the youth to do,” she said. “A plaza would be nice with youth activities, probably music for anyone who would like to dance, or we could have art activities.”
Some felt the development will only assure that empty buildings along San Benito Street will remain empty. One challenged the request for proposal process because it was offered in English only. Christopher Sweeny said, “…we don’t have a shortage of commercial real estate, we have a shortage of consumers.”
Rolan Resendiz, an organizer for public art projects who has been a long-standing advocate to keep the 400 Block green, said nonprofits deserve respect, but said his issue was the location for the philanthropic center. He said he thought the city’s move toward a more pedestrian-friendly environment was contradictory in, “…trying to build a humongous building right on that corner rather than an open-space plaza. I also want to remind you when you have an issue like this and this many people come out to speak in front of you, we’re the people that elected you to be our voice and represent us as your constituents, so I’m asking you tonight to please listen us….”
On May 3, Resendiz followed up by scolding on Facebook: “Shame on the city council! We will be gathering signatures to put the issue up for a vote in November! Also when you vote, remember Ray Friend and Victor Gomez are up for re-election. They sold us all out last night. Bad Call.”
Cesar Flores, from San Juan Bautista, said that as the president of the local LULAC chapter that it supports the development project. Cathy Flores also supported the project, stating that it would being private investment to the city and benefit the non-profits.
Darin Del Curto, one of the developers of the proposed project, reminded the council that it put out the RFP for the 400 Block and his company followed it and it was approved. “The green area has not revitalized downtown,” he said. “I believe housing will revitalize downtown. The south end of town is doing fine and we want the same to continue for the north end of town, and I’m requesting for your vote for approval of this project.”
Realtor Jason Noble of Tres Pinos said he has known the Del Curtos for more than 34 years and that they have a reputation of quality. “Not like the courthouse, they are a local builders building with local subcontractors,” he said. “This is and has always been downtown commercial property. The city has never re-zoned it or inferred that this land would stay as lawn area. Our community has invested millions of dollars in the restoration of Veterans' Memorial Building and the grounds in front of it. We have many parks, schools, baseball fields with more public open space coming in the future.”
Kay Filice spoke about the unique opportunity to build a philanthropic center that was being totally funded by a donor that she described as a “world-class builder” willing to invest in downtown Hollister. She said the building will be a cornerstone building, open to all who want to hold any sort of event.
Keith Snow and Bob Tiffany were polar opposites, with Snow speaking against the project and quipping that a donated table that the city had removed should be brought back. Tiffany, owner of a local car dealership, was for it and said the community has been waiting for 30 years. “I love green spaces as much as anybody else, but what we need is a vibrant, economically viable downtown,” Tiffany said. “This is the project that will bring that finally. This reason we need this is to get rid of the vacant buildings. We need something that will bring people downtown. This is the perfect project, multi-use with residential, retail, a philanthropic center. If you walk away from this project we will be waiting probably another 30 years.”
The cordial debate, sometimes laced with humorous zingers slung at opponents, continued for another 13 speakers. Then the council had its say and it was obvious from the opening salvo which way each member would ultimately vote.
And cordiality went out the window with Councilwoman Mickie Luna’s eight-minute speech. She reminded anyone in the room who was not familiar with her history that she has lived in Hollister her entire life. She said she was here during the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake that brought down the buildings that had been on the 400 block. She told them how the earthquake affected her emotionally, and how she worked with the Red Cross and opened city hall on a Sunday. She reminded the crowd that when a fire devastated the 600 block of San Benito Street, citizens insisted on rebuilding. She said she studied the project and it was needed and pointed out the various empty lots in town were not being used. Then she scolded some citizens, “When we’ve had community meetings throughout the districts, you haven’t been there.”
In the background, Keith Snow chimed in, “I’ve been there.”
“When it comes to the historical part of the city, I know it, I worked it,” Luna continued enthusiastically. “I paid the bills. I know what we had and what we lost.”
She said when the condemned buildings on the 400 Block came down it was the city that removed the wreckage; it was the city that relocated the businesses; and the city has always been for the business sector. She told them the community needs to use Dunne Park and Park Hill more.
“These meetings are going to continue,” she added. “I hope you take into consideration our position. You don’t have to remind us that we are elected officials. You don’t have to remind us that elections are coming up. We know that very well. It’s not easy being here, reading agendas 400 pages, 300 pages. This was a short one; 162. But you don’t think about it. It takes a lot of our efforts to do this.”
After her comments, she received a lengthy and enthusiastic applause. Gomez tempered the moment by reminding the audience to control the “cheerleading.”
Councilman Karson Klauer was subdued compared to Luna as he thanked everyone for their emails and Facebook comments. He said he had had nearly 50 conversations and was “all over the board” when it came to the issue.
“It’s been, by far, the toughest item that I’ve come across in the year and a half that I’ve been on the council,” he said, adding that when he met with the CEO of the Community Foundation that part of the project, the philanthropic center, was going to be donated.
“That’s unheard of,” he said. “In my eyes, it’s (400 Block) not being utilized to its full potential. We have a plaza in front of the Vets building. We have a plaza in front of the county courthouse. We have Dunne Park, three blocks away. We have Park Hill four blocks away. As a council, we’ve been pouring money into these parks to make them better.”
He said he wanted to make it clear that the 400 Block has never been designated as a park and shouldn’t be one because of the busy roads. He said while it is used periodically, it is vacant the majority of the time.
“Another thing, there are 16 multi-family units” proposed at the site, he added. “I don’t think we have any condos in the whole county, especially not downtown. Sixteen multi-family units is probably the same as have been built in the last 10 years. Everybody’s been focused on the fact that it is a commercial building, but really the majority of the space of those four buildings is for residential. This would be a major step for downtown.”
Councilman Raymond Friend seemed hesitant to add his comment and tried to defer until after Gomez made his, but Gomez joked, “Nice strategic move, but as chair I’m going to make the last comments."
Friend said: “This is one of those times when I look out at the room and think half these people aren’t going to like me and half will. I didn’t come here for a popularity contest. I’ve changed my mind 15 times over the last week. I originally was against building anything on the 400 block because I thought we could use it to do something and I’ve been trying for 10 years to get something built there and all we’ve accomplished is one table that somebody donated.”
Friend said he is heavily involved in the Veterans' Memorial Building and the only people who use the plaza in front of it are skateboarders.
“It’s a beautiful plaza and nobody uses it,” he said. “There are restaurants across the street from it and nobody uses it. I don’t understand why people don’t want to go to Dunne Park. We’ve spent $200,000 on Park Hill. It’s really something to take your family to now.”
Friend said it was hard to look at a gift horse in the mouth and that the project is a good thing.
“If we deny this project we don’t have a plan what to do with it,” he said. “Who knows how long it will sit there as a field? We’re not growing crops on it, so let’s doing something with it.”
Gomez said he shared a lot of the same sentiments as the other council members and then shared his family history in Hollister.
“Over the years, we’ve done a lot to invest in our open space and I’m proud of that,” he said. “I know once we take this vote we’re going to get ridiculed on social media, as we always do. And I know someone is going to post a picture of me as this crazy, lunatic politician. There’s been discussion on social media about an amphitheater. Where’s the money for that? I’ve never heard that proposal brought to council before. You can have all these dreams you want, but I’m not going to lie to my constituents. We don’t have the money.”
Gomez said, he, too liked open space and hated urban sprawl and said one way to prevent it was to build the condos downtown.
“If what you care about is open space then you’ll allow the development of those condos to preserve the spirit of influence of the City of Hollister,” he said. “This is a great way to reignite our downtown.”
To possibly mollify the audience, he suggested that the approximately $50,000 that the city would clear from the sale of the land perhaps could be used to finance an amphitheater.
When Luna made the motion to pass the resolution approving the development of the 400 Block, she modified it by adding the possibility of using the profits of the sale to pay for an amphitheater. The council, minus the mayor, passed the resolution.
After the meeting, outside city hall, a local political official told BenitoLink on the condition of anonymity that those who oppose the project now need to launch a referendum to be placed on the November ballot; and if they do so he would support them.
Late Tuesday evening, Velazquez again took to Facebook, posting that he would support a referendum taking the proposed 400 Block development "to a vote of the people." He wrote:
"For almost 20 years, I've been advocating passionately for a project on the 400 block that we can enjoy with our families. I've had many great times and memories on the 400 block over the years with friends and family. In the early 2000's, I was part of the volunteer team that installed the sod with hopes that we can turn the 400 block into something special for our downtown. I'm extremely frustrated with the lack of vision and the shortsightedness last night at the council meeting when they decided to turn the 400 block into offices and apartments, especially when hundreds of citizens made their feelings known. I ran for Mayor to make positive changes and not to fall into the same trap of just building more houses. I need everyone's help to turn around this decision by the council. As an individual I'm asking for your help to launch a referendum to take this issue to a vote of the people. If you want to make a difference, please comment with a simple, YES!"
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