Preservationists fight to save former San Jose courthouse from demolition
The two-story, nearly 30,000-square-foot building at 170 Park Ave. was once was home to Bank of California, then to the Santa Clara County Superior Court. Now it sits vacant, but is expected to be demolished along with the rest of CityView Plaza. Photo courtesy of PAC SJ

The stout, yet distinct, former courthouse building at the corner of Park Avenue and Almaden Boulevard in downtown San Jose has been the focus of several redevelopment visions since the Santa Clara County Superior Court moved out years ago.

But the most recent vision, by Jay Paul Co. to build a 3.4 million-square-foot office campus in the place of an existing mixed-use plaza known as CityView Plaza, is the project that may actually bring down the building. Now local preservationists are working to save the building, built in 1973 with the rest of the plaza, once a central banking hub in the South Bay.

The San Jose Historic Landmarks Commission — an advisory board to the City Council — on Wednesday voted unanimously to start the process to recommend the concrete building at 170 Park Ave. be declared a city landmark. That could protect the long-vacant building from demolition, if approved by the City Council.

City officials say the building meets at least five criteria that could offer it a spot on the city’s historic landmark roster, including that it is an example of an important part of history for the city, it embodies distinguishing characteristics of San Jose modernism and brutalist architecture and was designed by a master architect.

Those characteristics haven’t made the building uniformly loved in the city, commission Chair Edward Saum acknowledged.

“I think it’s been kind of indicative of a lot of people’s reaction to brutalist architecture,” he said. “The architects and historians say ‘this is very much capturing an era or an architect’s work,’ and then there are members of the public that are saying ‘well, why would you want to keep that?’”

Even so, he supports saving the building.

“At any given time, each type of architectural style has been the one that had people going ‘why would you want to keep that?,’” he said.

Likewise, Mike Sodergren, a Preservation Action Council San Jose (PAC SJ) board member, told commissioners that the group is “receiving considerable input from experts — qualified — begging us to save this building.”

Jay Paul’s proposal to clear the site for a glassy, modern three-tower campus is also making its way through the approval process. It is set to be considered by the city’s planning commission later this month and will likely be up for a vote by the city council in early June.

Renderings show the proposed office towers at CityView Plaza in downtown San Jose. Courtesy of Jay Paul and Gensler.

San Jose planners are aiming to arrange the timeline so councilmembers can consider Jay Paul’s project during the same meeting they consider whether to designate the building on the corner of the development site a landmark worth saving.

But the timeline will be tight, as commissioners will need to vote once more on an official recommendation to preserve the building before the issue gets to councilmembers.

“If the (Jay Paul) project comes before council in advance of this designation process, then we will let council know that this process is going on,” Juliet Arroyo, the city’s historic preservation officer, told commissioners Wednesday. “I will be working with (city planner) Cassandra (van der Zweep) on how we can make this timing work for both processes.”

Councilmember Raul Peralez, who represents the city’s downtown, could not be reached for comment Thursday.

Ben Leech, executive director for PAC SJ, said the group has spoken to Jay Paul representatives about whether the building could be saved as part of the massive development on the site in the middle of San Jose’s downtown core.

So far, representatives for the San Francisco-based developer haven’t budged about needing to raze the building for the new project. Jay Paul has offered designs to PAC SJ that show even complex maneuvering couldn’t accommodate the building.

But Leech is convinced that a simpler option, like altering the spacing between the buildings or shifting angles of the development, could create a win-win.

“We really do believe that there are preservation options that they haven’t explored or demonstrated and we do not believe it is an either-or,” he said.

For now the group is working to drum up community support to save the building, which it has nicknamed the “Sphinx” for the design of the front of the structure. PAC SJ started a petition this week, which as of Wednesday night had gathered dozens of signatures.

And Historic Landmark Commission members are watching to see how fast their recommendation will head to the city council.

“I think the clear intent should be that both items need to be in the mind of the council and planning commission when they decide on either one,” Saum said. “So it isn’t a case of the landmark application running, trying to catch up and then it becomes an academic exercise because it’s too late.”

Contact Janice Bitters at [email protected] or follow @JaniceBitters on Twitter.

Editor’s note: This story has been updated to clarify the process of nominating a property to the city landmark roster.

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