Jim Salata is helping build San Jose’s future while saving its past
Garden City Construction owner Jim Salata sits with his collection of antiques and art during an interview. Photo by Carina Woudenberg.

While Silicon Valley is obsessed with everything shiny and new, Jim Salata has an unapologetic love affair with the old and nostalgic.

“I’m a sick person,” said Salata, owner of Garden City Construction in downtown San Jose. “I always look at (these objects) and I have an idea… So I don’t throw it away.”

His studio at 724 First Street is filled with remnants of San Jose’s deep history and past, including an old bookshelf from Notre Dame High School and glass doors from the Le Baron Hotel. He found and preserved these local treasures while on the job at his demolition company, Buccaneer Demolition.

Salata believes he developed his sense of nostalgia from growing up on a farm in Pennsylvania. His family moved to Orange County when he was a teenager and it was nothing like his rural upbringing.

“(Orange County) is totally pristine and nothing’s old — they tear it all down,” Salata told San José Spotlight.

But when he moved to San Jose in his 20s, he began to appreciate the history.

“Seeing the old buildings that were underutilized and the potential there, I just fell in love with it,” Salata said. “It’s basically what started my career. Falling in love with the old buildings.”

Salata and his wife Suzanne started Garden City Construction in 1988. The firm offers an array of construction-related services from historic preservation to building improvements and seismic retrofits. The name itself plays to Salata’s love of history since San Jose was once known as the Garden City.

The trailblazer has spent decades revitalizing San Jose’s downtown, contributing to some of its most important development projects, while spearheading renovation projects that include the Jose Theatre, the city’s oldest theater built in 1904, and the St. Claire Building.

Brian Grayson, who served as the chief executive officer of the Preservation Action Council, honored Salata and his wife for their contributions to historical preservation at a council event a few years ago. Grayson highlighted Salata’s meticulous work on historical developments, such as the Jose Theatre.

Grayson said Salata was instrumental in the fight to save the nostalgic theater from demolition. Instead of getting struck by a wrecking ball, the building was renovated by Salata’s company and now it’s home to an improv comedy group.

“Generally anything worth saving we know he’s going to save and keep it safe,” Grayson said. “A few more Jim Salatas out there would not be a bad thing.”

In addition to his historical contributions, Salata is prolific in his construction business, helping to build the Mezcal restaurant on San Fernando Street, Silicon Valley Organization’s headquarters on West Santa Clara Street and the office space located at 505 South Market Street, which earned him a Green Project of the Year Award in 2011 from the Silicon Valley Business Journal.

Nanci Klein, San Jose’s assistant economic development director, credits Salata for helping to build the city we know and love today — while still devoting his energy to volunteer work and philanthropy, even working with business owners and law enforcement to reduce neighborhood crime.

“He has been known for his willingness to go the extra mile,” Klein said. “For his passion, for all things historic and just a sense of integrity.”

The 64-year-old is also known to dress up as a pirate for some occasions — paying homage to his pirate-themed demolition company — and leading history tours through the city. Salata also plays guitar in the Black Pearl Band, which primarily performs Doors covers.

“I love singing Morrison,” he said.

The prolific construction leader doesn’t shy away from involving himself in local politics either.

Last year, Salata led the fight to convert the old San Jose City Hall annex into transitional housing for the homeless. Despite his best efforts, the idea was shot down by county lawmakers who supported a longer-term plan to renovate the entire civic center.

Salata counts this as one of the region’s worst failures.

“We had $16 million brought to the table with John Sobrato and the county rejected it,” Salata wrote in an email. “We could have provided transitional housing for 160 people.”

But as Silicon Valley trades in the old for the new, Salata says he’s not overly concerned about historical preservation in San Jose because there are a lot of good watchdogs out there.

“There’s certain things that are going to go and it’s inevitable in the way of progress and it’s sad, but sometimes that has to happen in order to get to the next level or to increase density that we need,” Salata said. “There’s definitely not as much left as we’d like to have, but we’ve got to take good care of what we have left.”

Contact Carina Woudenberg at carinaw86@gmail.com or follow @carinaew on Twitter.

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