Through a grassroots effort, Santa Clara is looking to revitalize its downtown.
Through a grassroots effort, Santa Clara is looking to revitalize its downtown. Photo by Jason Torres Iraheta.

On Sept. 29, 1960, the most infamous Santa Clara City Council vote in the history of the city took place.

One month before, the San Jose Mercury News reported that, “Illegal closed door Council meetings were occurring without Santa Clara citizens present.” Surveys of Santa Clara business owners showed 82.7% wanted the downtown saved. Citizens packed the chamber that night and a majority spoke passionately in opposition to the demolition of the downtown.

When Bill Wilson, the owner of one of the most iconic businesses in the city, was physically removed off the podium by police, the citizens rose and walked out of the building. After which, Councilmember James Viso motioned to approve the death sentence for downtown Santa Clara.

Within five years, the wrecking ball had demolished the heart of Santa Clara and more than 100 years of memories.

When our city’s downtown was removed, citizens changed. Santa Clarans became divided and suspicious of our local government. This division still exists today. Our citizens argue on social media, in the press, on our streets, even in our council chambers. Those I have spoken with over these last decades do not trust City Hall. Time and time again their skepticisms are confirmed when an issue or development the citizens oppose is then approved by the council.

Past councils felt “they knew best.” Just like in 1960 when Viso, Councilmembers Robert Simons, Maurice Dullea, Joseph Rebeiro, Matt Talia and Mayor Al Levin all thought “they knew best.” They didn’t. Every man who approved it has gone down in history as championing the “worst vote in this city’s history.” To again quote the Mercury News from an article on April 25, 2017: “No land-use decision of the last half-century has damaged the urban fabric of a city more than Santa Clara’s decision to tear down its eight-block downtown in the 1960s.”

On Dec. 5, our current city council signaled a change by voting unanimously to approve the new Downtown Precise Plan and Form Based Code. The code provides “objective design standards” that protects the city from state-mandated housing. This plan was conceived and developed by Santa Clara’s citizens for more than four and a half years. Led by urban planners, financial real estate consultants, property owners and the community, the downtown plan that has been created could lead to a nationally recognized “destination point.” After 60 years, our citizenry deserves it.

A new downtown is not a panacea that will heal all wounds and make citizens believe in their government immediately. But it is one hell of a step forward to that goal.

What past councils did not seem to “get” is that the return of the downtown is the No. 1 goal of the voters of Santa Clara. Our 2019 survey of 1,900 citizens from every city district showed 87.4% wanted this project prioritized over other developments by city management. This must be remembered by candidates and citizens alike as we approach our next election cycle. If this city council and City Manager Jovan Grogan really want to make citizens “believe” again, they will make the return of the downtown their No. 1 priority for 2024.

We see City Manager Grogan as the quarterback of this effort. Our message to him: a quarterback alone cannot win games—you need a strong team to back you. With the recent opening of the director of community development position, we highly recommend the individual that fills this role not only knows the Form-Based Code but has executed it in other cities. Multiple candidates are available right now. We also ask that those citizens who have worked for this downtown be involved in the selection process.

We and thousands of Santa Clarans deeply thank this council for approving this plan and are hopeful the city management and staff have the tools necessary to correctly implement it.  The citizens have brought this to you. They have spent thousands of volunteer hours to get this downtown plan. They should be included in these next critical steps.

By doing this, you will help to heal this city and finally give it an incredible downtown after 60 long years.

Mary Grizzle and Dan Ondrasek are co-chairs of Reclaiming Our Downtown.

Comment Policy (updated 5/10/2023): Readers are required to log in through a social media or email platform to confirm authenticity. We reserve the right to delete comments or ban users who engage in personal attacks, hate speech, excess profanity or make verifiably false statements. Comments are moderated and approved by admin.

Leave a Reply