Business / Economy

Loma Prieta: 25 years later, quake still leaves mark on downtown Hollister

Hollister was hard hit by the Loma Prieta earthquake in 1989, when it changed the face of downtown

October 17 marks 25 years since an earthquake epicentered in the Santa Cruz Mountains brought most of a block and several buildings in downtown Hollister to the ground, but the evidence of the temblor is still apparent in some sections of the city’s historic core today.

At 5:04 p.m. on Oct. 17, 1989, a 6.9 magnitude earthquake shook the San Francisco and Monterey Bay regions. The quake was centered along the San Andreas Fault system near the Loma Prieta peak in the Santa Cruz Mountains, 60 miles southeast of San Francisco and 9 miles northeast of Santa Cruz, according to the United States Geological Survey. It caused an estimated $100 million worth of damage in San Benito County.

Bill Mifsud, of Bill’s Bullpen Baseball Cards and Comics, said he was getting ready to close up his shop on the corner of 4th and San Benito streets early so the staff members could watch the Giants’ World Series game against the Oakland Athletics that evening.

“It was like a bomb went off downtown,” Mifsud said. “For part of the JC Penney building, the whole façade came off. You could look upstairs and see where rooms were.”

In downtown Hollister, nine buildings were damaged in the quake and 15 businesses suffered losses, according to Kathy Sheridan, then a new member of the board of directors for the Hollister Downtown Association. Hundreds of homes and businesses also suffered damage. Sheridan said the downtown was also hurt by fires in the years following the quake in some of the unoccupied spaces.

“It was just a turning point for our store,” Mifsud said, of the business that at the time had been opened for two years. “Do we reopen or not reopen?”

While the structural damage led to the former Bullpen location being red-tagged and razed along with several other buildings in what is now a grassy lot at the downtown’s busiest intersection, Mifsud said he and his father were able to salvage merchandise from their store as well as a glass pane that was painted with athletic legends.

“They ended up tearing the building down 10 days later and we realized how lucky we were to get out of there,” he said.

Sheridan said that after the quake, city officials had recommended tearing down several other of the damaged buildings on San Benito Street, including the space at Fifth and San Benito streets that now houses the La Catrina restaurant and the HDA offices, among others.

“We campaigned quite energetically to save them,” Sheridan said. “We contacted Coalinga, which had had a devastating earthquake not too long before Loma Prieta. We contacted them as a case study and got some data from them.”

Sheridan said the Central Valley town found in its experience, tearing down old buildings and putting up new buildings in their place made it difficult to keep up the character of the downtown. The group was able to successfully lobby to keep some of the buildings intact.

“People were very much about rolling up our sleeves and getting in there and making it right,” Sheridan said. “There was a tremendous sense of working together, but there were certainly conflicts and different opinions.”

She recalled during the rebuilding effort that truckloads of plywood were shipped in from Oregon to board up the buildings that were deemed not safe for occupation.

“It made it look like downtown was completely closed and businesses that were open were struggling,” Sheridan said. “Gordon Machado called me and had an idea to paint cartoon characters on the wall.”

She said they were going to use Disney characters, but the company wouldn’t give the okay to use the images.

“I ended up coming up with an Abominable snowman, or yeti, and a parade of animals with a big sign that said, ‘Come on downtown. We are open for business,’” she said.

Much of the 400 block of San Benito Street, where Mifsud’s shop shared space next to Mauro’s Stationery, the New China Café, and a photography shop is still vacant. It is owned by the city and is covered with grass.

“I tell people if they started digging up that ground, they may find some comic books,” Mifsud said.

The only development there has been the construction of the parking garage that houses the Gavilan Community College Satellite campus on the first floor.

“The parking structure had two purposes,” Sheridan said. “It was supposed to be long-term parking for whatever would develop there. The other was at the time the court system was considering moving out of downtown and north of the city and one reason was there was not adequate parking…It was always meant to be a part of the reconstruction, not just something in and of itself.”

Another victim of the quake included a movie theater at Seventh and San Benito streets, where the property owners planned to build a performing arts center. Before rebuilding could begin, the hull of the property burned down in a fire. The owners opted to leave the lot vacant as it remains to this day.

But Sheridan said many positive things came out of the disaster.

“There was definitely an emphasis on earthquake retrofitting,” she said.

The fire department worked on creating a fire map of the buildings downtown.

“Part of the problem was that there were multiple ceilings and roofs and a fire could run along one of those layers and no one would know it was there until it popped out somewhere else,” she said.

Out of the mapping effort, the fire department also got a comprehensive schematic of entrances and exits for the buildings.

The rebuilding efforts in the early 90s were successful, Sheridan said. From 1994-1997, 90 percent of the storefronts in downtown Hollister were occupied.

Mifsud relocated Bill’s Bullpen to 207 Fourth St., into a building owned by Paul Brown’s family, where his shop remains today. He said the shop opened two weeks after the quake.

“The National Guard was in town,” Mifsud said, of the week after the earthquake. “The Governor (George Deukmejian) was walking downtown and stopped by our store.”

He noted that the Giants are again on the verge of a World Series run.

“When they are in the World Series, we always associate the Giants’ World Series with the earthquake,” he said.

Though it has been 25 years since the earthquake, Sheridan said downtown Hollister is undergoing another transition related to changing retail trends.

“Since that time so much of how we buy things and how we shop has changed,” she said. “I and other people who are supportive of downtown consider it to be a flagship and the heart of the community. I believe in the importance of taking care of it, keeping it healthy and strong, and growing it over time.”

Melissa Anderson

Melissa (Flores) Anderson is the former city editor of the Weekend Pinnacle and Hollister Free Lance, where she covered education, county government and more. She currently works for the College of Applied Sciences and Arts at San Jose State University, where she manages the College blog, newsletter and website updates. She has a master's in print journalism from the University of Southern California, Annenberg School for Communications and Journalism.