City officials this week explained proposed changes to San Benito Street, highlighted by plans to reduce the four-lane road to two lanes in an effort to encourage people to slow down and shop in the historic heart of the city. While some business owners welcomed the idea of getting potential shoppers to take a slower path through the business district, others expressed concern about the potential financial hit to them associated with the closing the street for modifications during the holidays.
David Rubcic, Hollister’s interim city engineer, along with representatives from TJKM, a Pleasanton-based consulting company that specializes in transportation, parking and land use, on Oct. 21 laid out proposed changes for business owners and other interested individuals who gathered at the Veterans' Memorial Building. Those modifications are designed to slow down traffic and provide a more pedestrian-friendly environment.
Rubcic said the evening’s discussion would concern Phase I of the planned changes that were expected to cost around $100,000, and would be comprised of re-stripping the street to transform it from four lanes to two lanes, with mid-block crosswalks, among other enhancements. The proposed changes were approved by the Hollister City Council in February.
“This started with the relinquishment of State Route 25, and Highway 25 is now the bypass,” he said. “That gave the city the opportunity to be able to do a lot of the things that have been talked about. Now we’re moving forward and making San Benito Street something that we can be proud of, with the goal that cars will slow down, pedestrians will come downtown and it will be easier for people to cross the street.”
The corridor study by TJKM, showed how this could be done.
“This will be the first of many phases that we’re looking at and there will be plenty of things to do after this striping plan,” Rubcic said.
Mayor Ignacio Velazquez said the project was not something that the current city council came up with.
“It’s been in the works for over 30 years,” he said. “When I was the president of the Downtown Association in 2003, this was the dream; how do we get around downtown so we can have those traveling through actually park and shop? As you know, downtown is used by people in a hurry to get home. From my office, every time we hear an engine roar we know what that means: someone is going to blow the stoplight. And sure enough the car will go by at 50 miles per hour through the red light.”
He said there are a lot of dangerous situations along San Benito Street.
“The goal is to turn our downtown into a shopping area,” Velazquez said. “This is the first step to get there. We want to see more restaurants opening. We want to see restaurants using part of the street eventually. Today, we’re focused on Third Street through Hawkins as the first phase. We’re not tearing up the street. We’re just resurfacing and re-striping. A lot of work went into this study to understand our traffic patterns.”
Ruta Jariwala, a principal engineer at TJKM, and the project engineer, said the scope of the project was to come up with a “complete street” design at minimal cost. She explained the complete streets concept makes it easy for bicycles and pedestrians to get around and to feel safe about the community by improving safety and installing landscape zones.
“For the first phase of the project we’re just going to stripe it from Third Street to South Street,” she said. “That increases foot traffic and visibility to the downtown business community. We want people to walk and bike through the community, and not just drive through at 50 miles per hour.”
Crucial to reducing speeds, she said, is reducing the number lanes, from four to two. She said bicycle lanes will run north of Fourth Street, and there will be shared lanes (vehicles and bikes) south of Fourth Street. There will be high-visibility crosswalks and there will be no reduction of the number of parking spaces.
“There will be left-turn pockets along San Benito Street so cars behind you don’t get stuck,” Jariwala said. “More congestion creates more safety issues through the corridor and we don’t want to do that.”
During the presentation, Jariwala described, street-by-street, how the work would change traffic downtown.
“We’re going to make it as a primary gateway, so it gives you a feeling that you’re entering a downtown,” she said. “We were able to accommodate bicycle lanes, but right now they’re just striped and not landscape buffered.”
She said the segment between Fourth and South streets will be treated as a “convertible street,” to continue to accommodate the Farmers’ Market, rallies and parades. Between South and Hawkins streets, she re-striping would match existing conditions.
“Looking forward, we are going to extend our design towards the north and have a roundabout at Gateway Drive,” Jariwala said. “We would also do some hardscape improvements and some landscaping, with lighting on the mid-block crosswalks and bulb-out at each intersection. Those would reduce the distance between intersections for pedestrians to cross.”
She then opened up the meeting for questions. The first questioner wanted to know when the project would take place.
“The intent is to be able to do the striping in November,” Rubcic said. “What we will do at the next city council meeting is get an authorization to go to bid with the project. Then we’ll open it and then go back to the council for authorization to initiate the contract. It will probably be towards the end of November before work can get done. The first thing we’re going to do is wipe out existing striping and cover it with a slurry seal of liquefied asphalt. It will take one or two days to cure. Then the contractor will come back and stripe the street.”
The two procedures could take from two to four days and Rubcic said the contractor may close down half the street at a time.
“November-December is the height of the commercial business,” noted Marty Richman, who called the project "the ultimate answer for saving downtown". Richman asked, "Have you looked into incremental cost would be to doing it off-hours, either at night or on days where most of the businesses are? If there’s a weather delay, you’re going to be sitting right on top of the Christmas shopping.”
“He brings up a good point,” said Norma Rendon, owner of Cheap Seats Pub and Grub Bar & Grill. “For you guys to make that decision to close the street during that time is going to kill a lot of our restaurants because a lot of the college kids come home to see their families and they like to go out to eat and drink. I don’t know why it cannot be postponed to after that time to January. We are a sports bar and this is our busiest time. Why does it have to be right now? You say it’s two to four days. You guys closed down the street last month for three days and I had absolutely no people coming into my business. When you do that you’re not only hurting our businesses, you’re hurting the people we employ.”
Rubcic answered that it was not possible to do the work at night because it would be too cold, which would prevent the slurry from curing quickly.
“We’ve been directed by the city council to get this done as soon as we can,” he said. “At that time it will be open to public comment, so the council can direct us to delay the project if they see fit to do so. We’re moving forward to get it done as soon as we can. That’s our plan and it’s the city council that needs to make a decision.”
Bill Mifsud, owner of Bill’s Bullpen Baseball Cards & Comics, said, “The Farmers Market goes on for five months and we wait for that to get over with and here comes our season at Christmas, which is our big time. We have one small window. Maybe the weather will be good and the project will be done in a week. We’re trying to rush this project and we’re supposed to absorb it. You should be kind to the people who have to live here. This can't wait until January first?"
Kathina Szeto, owner of San Benito Bene, said she understands about losing business.
“My perspective and that of my customers is that they want to bring their families downtown, especially during the holidays, but at this time there is high-speed traffic and they don’t feel safe,” she said. “I’d love to have it done sooner for families that are going to be here during Thanksgiving and Christmas. It would be nice if they could walk their baby strollers down the sidewalks. They really want to support downtown, but right now they are not able to bring their families down and walk across the street. It’s just unsafe right now.”
Mayor Velazquez acknowledged the frustration being voiced in the room.
“Obviously, some people want it now, some people don’t,” he said. “We can all agree that our streets are in bad shape. It is very important that we’re putting an emphasis on repairing our streets throughout the city. Let’s focus on what we’re doing here. How do we get the downtown more active with foot traffic? No matter what we decide today, we’re going to have issues. The future that we all need to work together on is to bring more people here.
“You who have businesses here are 'the downtown.’ We have to change the mindset of downtown as a highway to get home to ‘let’s go downtown and shop.’ Whatever we do is going to inconvenience some of us. Should it have been done before? Yes, it should have, but it wasn’t. We have to decide on getting this project done as soon as we can. It might be November. It might be December. It might be January. I can’t give you that date right now because we have to go through this process called ‘government.’”
To see what the proposed San Benito Street corridor plan looks like, click here.
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