Renewed measure, renewed interest

Natalie Everett

Is Measure A a panacea?

Proponents seem to think so, saying the move, which would increase housing density in the downtown by allowing for multi-use, urban building projects, would solve almost every problem the city has with growth control and downtown business success.

Measure A will preserve the greenbelt and Morgan Hill’s rural appeal. Measure A will provide housing that is “affordable by design,” but not subsidized. Measure A will boost retail by providing foot traffic and perhaps even lower rents for retailers. Measure A will make the city more environmentally friendly.

Measure A is also heavily endorsed, with the Morgan Hill Downtown Association Board of Directors, the Morgan Hill Chamber of Commerce, the Greenbelt Alliance and the Sierra Club all backing it. And of course the Morgan Hill City Council approved Measure A with a unanimous vote in February to have a city election alongside the state’s special ballot May 19, at an estimated cost of $133,000. The downtown association board approved forming the Committee for Measure A, a political action committee chaired by former mayor Dennis Kennedy.

Councilmembers see the measure as the linchpin to their vision of a bustling downtown, which includes mixed-use housing with retail or offices on the ground floor and residences above.

The city’s downtown redevelopment measure would put 500 residential units in the 18-block area surrounding Monterey Road between Dunne and Main avenues.

A near-identical measure, H, failed by 10 votes in November, and didn’t have an organized campaign to support it. In February, the Morgan Hill City Council approved a city election on the state’s special ballot May 19, to try again for the measure, which would exempt 500 residential units in the downtown from the city’s strict growth control ordinance while maintaining the population cap.

When the growth control ordinance was designed, no one was talking about mixed-use, urban core or smart growth, committee member and downtown property owner Gary Walton said, and so getting housing downtown is “like fitting a square peg in a round hole.”

Walton said this was one of the shortcomings of growth control in Morgan Hill. Downtown housing meets growth control’s intentions, he says, it’s just not built into the current ordinance. But Walton, who owns the Citibank building and the Depot Center that houses BookSmart and Jesus Restaurant, says it should be.

“What you should want to happen should be the easiest thing to do,” Walton said.

The infrastructure like water and electrical lines are already in place. Having denser housing downtown leaves the green fields on the outer reaches of Morgan Hill untouched by development, so rural purists should be happy. And environmentalists endorse Measure A because not only will there be a healthy “green belt” hugging the city, but it would purportedly increase Caltrain’s ridership since the station is near Morgan Hill’s downtown.

Not everyone is convinced of Measure A’s curative powers. Hot Java owner Bill Quenneville said he thought the measure would result in too many housing units in too little an area with not enough parking.

Measure A leads to the city’s Downtown Specific Plan, which Quenneville says is “thoroughly out of touch with what people want downtown.”

The downtown plan, which includes denser housing in mixed-use projects, is not representative of what Morgan Hill residents want in a downtown, Quenneville said.

“Morgan Hill wants a quaint downtown, with better parking and an open Granada,” Quenneville said. “That could all be done within six months.”

Shishir Mathur, a land use planning and urban design professor at San Jose State University, said mixed-use developments in downtowns are a good thing.

“Providing a lot of retail, including restaurants, in a downtown makes good urban planning sense because a mixed-use development (a mix of residential and office/commercial), also provides residents-customers who would use the retail businesses and the restaurants. Typically in a downtown, offices close at 6 p.m. and after that, the downtown is a rather dead place. If you provide a mixed-use development, the businesses are open till late and you can have a lively 24-hour downtown,” he said.

Mathur said Measure A proponents do have their work cut out for them. They’ll have to change the public’s perception of what “density” means for Morgan Hill.

“In people’s minds mixed-use development it’s synonymous with high density, which in turn is synonymous with tall buildings. You need to break those mental connections.”

The same goes for high-density residences, Mathur said.

“Whenever existing residents think about new high or moderate density residential development, they think of lower-income, apartments — they worry about the socio-economic demographic of the residents who would live in the new residential units. Are they going to look very different from me? Are they going to be of a very different socio-economic class?”

Mathur recalled a project in another city where residents voiced these concerns — until one of them pointed out that the condominiums being built sold for more than single-family homes in the area, so the new residents weren’t likely to be very different from the old ones.

Kennedy pointed out that Morgan Hill’s growth control created two levels of housing: big, expensive housing and homes made affordable through government subsidies. But there’s a “big gap” in between for mid-housing, an “unintended consequence of Measures E, P and C,” the measures bounding the city’s growth control, he said.

But Measure A “fills that void,” providing housing desirable to young professionals, empty nesters and singles, Kennedy said.

Walton said the housing created through a passed Measure A would be the most expensive real estate in the city based on price per square foot. But with few square feet to pay for, the homes will be “affordable by design,” he said.

Committee Chair Dennis Kennedy said, contrary to how it might appear with the dilapidated housing market and economy, now is a good time for Measure A. Once the market turns back around and developers are ready to build, the units will be available, he said. Kennedy estimated that the turnaround from the passage of Measure A and the first downtown mixed-use project breaking ground was between two and three years. The first step, the city sending out a request for developers’ proposals, takes at least three to six months, he said.

“It’s not as if all of these will be built at once,” Kennedy said, also noting that the goal was not to have one big monolithic project, but several smaller ones.

Still, any construction that does happen downtown will be worth it in the end, proponents say. According to Walton, 500 residential units in the downtown would save 100 acres of farmland in Morgan Hill’s open space areas.

Not only are proponents of the downtown measure taking more interest this time, so are downtown residents, who met with city and downtown association officials at The Granary on Thursday to learn more about Measure A.

“It’s a good thing we’re coming together,” said Laura Gonzalez-Escoto, leader of a loosely organized downtown residents’ group. Gonzalez-Escoto is also a member of the downtown association’s board. “This wasn’t a meeting to take a vote, or even a pulse.”

Gonzalez said downtown residents — there are almost 100 homes in the 18-block area — want to “protect the integrity of the downtown.”

Marieke Ruys has lived in downtown Morgan Hill for about three years, and in other downtown areas for most of her life. She said Measure A sounded like a good idea, as long as it was well-thought-out.

“It doesn’t have to happen all at once,” Ruys said.

Ruys said she moved to the Morgan Hill area specifically for the action and the small-town experience.

“For this sound,” she said, pointing out the window as the evening Caltrain blew through town. “Changes need to come. That’s part of the life of a downtown, having new waves coming in.”

The next resident’s meeting on Measure A will be tentatively at 6:30 p.m. Thursday, April 16. The location has not yet been decided.

Measure A will also be discussed at upcoming meetings of the Downtown Association, South County Realtors Association and the Chamber of Commerce.


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