The tragic story of Santa Clara, the only Bay Area city to destroy its downtown, began and ended with its City Hall.
In August 1957, Santa Clara City Manager Lloyd Brady applied for urban renewal funds for “The (Downtown) Franklin Street Facelift.” The city received grants and loans totaling $65 million in 2021 dollars. The “facelift” ended in disaster, as the only money used for downtown Santa Clara was to demolish it.
Some city leaders announced their desire to move the downtown City Hall to a site in a residential area nearly a mile to the north. To tap into the new federal funding, they announced a “new” downtown that would balloon its quaint eight blocks to 35 blocks. The plan included replacement of “run down old properties” (Victorians) with apartments that they called “good properties;” the demolition of most of the downtown buildings and the City Hall move. Merchants and citizens revolted, sued and won. The City Council announced a truce indicating they would have hearings to spare downtown buildings and a vote on City Hall’s location.
Neither happened. City Hall and the downtown were doomed.
“If you remove City Hall from downtown, it will spell the death of all of the retailers and downtown Santa Clara itself,” Santa Clara Mayor Anthony R. Toledo prophetically said. He was right: within a year, City Hall moved and in 1965, the last building fell in downtown Santa Clara.
Fifty years of citizen anger followed until 2016 when a citizens group formed to return a vibrant downtown back to Santa Clara. After five years of volunteer work combined with strong advocacy from our last two City Councils, city management and staff, Santa Clara is very close to a Downtown Precise Plan.
The question now is how to implement this plan and return a vibrant downtown. Evidence indicates the return of City Hall could be the catalyst.
Since April, Reclaiming Our Downtown’s research team conducted interviews with seven cities in five states, all of who have moved their city halls back to their downtowns. Our goal was to understand their results. In each case, city officials confirmed the return of their city halls “led the way” to their revitalized downtowns by generating hundreds of millions of dollars of economic development, private investment and increased city revenue.
Downtown New Rochelle, New York, once estimated to generate $97 million in tax receipts over a 20-year period, will now bring in over $530 million. Mayor Noam Branson summed it up best: “City Hall moving back downtown put the people’s house back in the heart of our city, making a bold statement of confidence in our downtown’s future.” Importantly, New Rochelle is one of many built with a private/public partnership sharing mixed-use buildings and garages—saving additional millions in city construction costs.
Santa Clara’s current City Hall is outdated and failing. The city’s population has quadrupled since its construction. City employees are crammed into small cubicles and some work in closets. There are only five conference rooms for more than 500 employees. Even Santa Clara councilmembers cannot fit into the room allocated for them due to Brown Act concerns. It is not a matter of if there will be a new City Hall, it’s when.
A future City Hall returned to downtown Santa Clara would stimulate the same economic investment and city income American downtowns are generating right now. In addition, a “mixed-use” City Hall building would vastly reduce costs. There also will be no need for a second parking garage, as downtown will have a garage which city employees will use during non-peak hours.
Santa Clara city management and staff have studied a second City Hall location, but have not yet studied the economic and construction cost benefits of a downtown site. The millions of dollars in revenue generation and construction savings far outweigh the small cost of this analysis.
The 1962 relocation of City Hall was a death sentence for our downtown. Like so many American cities, the return of City Hall in the next decade will lead to downtown’s rebirth.
To quote former Mayor Gary Gillmor back in February 1970: “The city could make money leasing… the civic center,” and the return of City Hall downtown “would sparkplug development there.”
Reclaiming Our Downtown asks the City Council to request the downtown urban planner, WRT, begin this research immediately.
Dan Ondrasek and Rod Dunham are co-chairs of Reclaiming Our Downtown, a group aiming to recreate a downtown in Santa Clara.