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Larry Carr

At the March 20 Morgan Hill City Council meeting, the body approved the Depot Street Realignment, also known as the Hale Lumber/Latala project. This project would construct 49 residential units on the lumber yard site. But most importantly, it would realign Depot Street to connect it to Church Avenue.

The street realignment will temporally disrupt the Community and Cultural Center parking lot. I must admit, I have been reluctant about this project for a long time.

As matter of fact, I delayed the project as I requested more information — from the impact on the mature trees on the Hale Lumber site to the design elements that would make the project more pedestrian friendly.

My greatest reservation was the impact to the Community and Cultural Center as the new street would have to cut through the parking lot and inevitably inconvenience the operations of and the community events at the center for a few months.

Was the design of the street realignment the best design possible? Would it reduce cut-through traffic and speeding? Could we handle one more construction project in downtown, while we’re still finishing up other projects and about to start the Granada hotel? All these questions were rattling around in my head as I was considering my decision.

I am happy to share with you that at the end of the day, the decision was easy. After analyzing the pros and cons of the project, it was clear to me the project was good for Morgan Hill. In a classic public/private partnership the city gains from developing together with an adjacent property owner.

Morgan Hill has a unique opportunity to do the right thing and save money. First, we know the street realignment is needed. It is called for in our Downtown Specific Plan and in the city’s Transportation Element of the General Plan.

As our downtown grows, we need to ensure we have safe street connections. The new residents on Depot Street and the downtown visitors will benefit. Today, many people cut through the community center parking lot, which is not only illegal but also unsafe. The new street realignment will enhance pedestrian safety and improve circulation in and around downtown.

The project has a few more benefits. It replaces an industrial use with housing. While the lumber yard has been a good neighbor, the large semi-trucks from the lumber yard will eventually conflict with new residents and retail downtown.  The project allows Morgan Hill to better integrate the street realignment with the project — this is just good planning.

Finally, this project saves the city more than $1 million. In addition, the developer will provide the city a 3,000-square-foot office building at a third of the cost, allowing the city to expand the use of the community center or provide space to nonprofits. The project is good for the city.  The council could have chosen not to realign the street at this time and punt to years forward, to another council.

Had we done this, two things would happen. One, the city would have to come up with more than $1 million itself, with no developer contribution, to pay for the street alignment. And two, the developer could have gone ahead with a housing-only project on the property he controls.  Together we were able to achieve much more.

While I am happy about the council’s leadership to realign the street now and to save money with the opportunity of the Lalata housing project, I remain concerned by the construction impacts.

We need to make sure we manage the construction in a way that allows the community center to operate efficiently with as little disruption as possible. We need to minimize the inconveniences to the users and neighbors. And, as we improve circulation on Depot Street, we need to make sure Depot Street is a “pedestrian-first” street.

We need to make sure that the entire length of Depot Street is pedestrian friendly, safe for kids going to the park or people on bikes going to Bike Therapy and pleasant for the many new families that will live on Depot Street.

The heavy lifting is still ahead of us. I am happy to lead this charge and work with my colleagues and the community to explore solutions to make the most out of the construction and to create a pedestrian-first Depot Street.

Larry Carr is a member of the Morgan Hill City Council. He wrote this column for Morgan Hill Life.

Marty Cheek