Residents rally to ‘reclaim’ demolished downtown Santa Clara
An early rendering shows what the Reclaiming Our Downtown grassroots group is envisioning for part of downtown Santa Clara. Image credit: Dan Ondrasek

Mary Grizzle still gets emotional when she remembers the old downtown Santa Clara, torn down decades ago after spending much of her youth there.

“Just thinking about it, I cry to see the wrecking ball wrecking the City Hall,” she said. “To see all my memories in a week or two just bulldozed.”

An aerial view of the boundary around downtown Santa Clara, where the city is targeting for a precise plan now. Photo courtesy of the city of Santa Clara.

Much of downtown, about 25 acres bounded by Benton Street, Lafayette Street, Homestead Road, and Madison Street, was demolished in the 1960’s, a victim of a trend known as urban renewal. The essential ideology around urban renewal was that the wrecking ball would bring new opportunities to tired or blighted areas. Fast forward to 2019, and much of what was once Santa Clara’s downtown is still empty or hasn’t seen the redevelopment anticipated.

That’s why Grizzle was eager to get involved with Reclaiming Our Downtown, a grassroots group formed about three years ago to kick-start a community-led effort to remake Santa Clara’s downtown.

She remembers working in downtown at a Bank of America and a men’s clothing store. As a kid, she and her friends would go to movies at the theater that had a grand marquee with the city’s name on it. She still talks fondly about the treats at Wilson’s Bakery, a once popular shop in downtown. She hopes those types of businesses can come back.

Before and after images juxtapose what downtown Santa Clara looked like before urban renewal versus today. Image provided by Reclaiming Our Downtown. Photo courtesy of Dan Ondrasek.

Residents Rod Dunham and Dan Ondrasek have largely led the charge in the Reclaiming Our Downtown group, but the effort has picked up steam in recent years. The group’s Facebook page, where members are most active, has more than 3,300 ‘likes’ and a dedicated group of downtown boosters show up at most community events to spread the word.

In June, Santa Clara set aside $400,000 to create a new precise plan for the 10-block radius that was once the city’s downtown. And while the city has taken up the discussion of revitalizing the area many times in the past, Assistant City Manager Manuel Pineda said the most recent push seems to have the most momentum.

“I think a lot of that momentum has to with the community excitement,” he said.

‘We don’t have a downtown’

Santa Clara resident Jim Crouch is also part of that momentum. He has known for years that Santa Clara was missing something critical, but the moment that really drove the point home for him came in 2016.

Super Bowl 50 came to the city’s then newly built $1.3 billion Levi’s Stadium, but everything else related to the monumental event seemed to be happening elsewhere.

“I worked and I was a greeter,” Crouch said. “They (visitors) wanted to know what to do and where the downtown was and … I said, ‘Well, we don’t have one.’”

An image of the old theater that once stood in downtown Santa Clara. It was torn down in the 1960s. Image provided by Reclaiming Our Downtown. Photo courtesy of Dan Ondrasek.

He’s hoping to help change that by being heavily involved in Reclaiming Our Downtown.

The group, which he said consists of about 10 core members that meet regularly, research other cities across the country that have revamped their downtowns. They reach out to residents and the media and have created clear goals for what they want to see when a downtown begins to rebuild, ideally starting around 2022.

Those goals are straightforward:

  1. Bring back the downtown’s original street grid
  2. Create a comprehensive plan that encourages “unique” development
  3. Allow a mix of uses
  4. Protect existing retailers and residents
  5. Implement a modernized version of the old trolley system in downtown

Ondrasek has sketched drawings of what he hopes downtown will look and feel like one day.

He’s researched nitty-gritty details like whether it would be possible to reconstruct the old theater sign that Grizzle remembers fondly. He’s nervously called people at the Federal Transit Administration to learn about how to get a trolley system funded.

Ondrasek even tracked down a clock that was once donated and installed into the facade of Santa Clara’s old City Hall and he hopes it, too, can be recreated.

The push for momentum

When he talks about those details, Ondrasek admits the group may be getting “way ahead of ourselves.” But he’s pushing for even more momentum, particularly from the city.

“What we are asking for is a champion and mainly from city management, like Deanna Santana, coming forward and saying, ‘This is a huge focus for us,’” he said. “The only group that is going to have the power to bring this thing back the right way is City Hall.”

City officials say they are committed to creating a new plan for the downtown area. The city hired an additional planner a couple of years ago, and one of the planner’s main projects is shepherding the downtown precise plan along.

Even so, the enthusiasm that Reclaiming Our Downtown shows is helpful, Pineda said.

An old image shows what the former Santa Clara City Hall in downtown looked like, including the clock built into the facade of the building that the Reclaiming Our Downtown group tracked down. Image provided by Reclaiming Our Downtown. Photo courtesy of Dan Ondrasek.

“In many cases we try to get people engaged to provide us feedback, and in his case they’re proactively helping us through the process,” he said.

So far, city officials have set aside money to create a precise plan, and appointed a Downtown Community Task Force to help guide the vision. The task force’s next meeting will be Sept. 12 at City Hall and it is open to the public.

In October the City Council is expected to vote on whether to appoint consultant Wallace, Roberts & Todd, known as WRT, to lead the process, including community engagement.

The precise plan may take between 18 months and two years to finish — a fairly typical timeline. Such plans are often complex and include parameters for what can and cannot be built, typically touching on height limits, square footage limits, requirements around affordable housing and community amenities.

Precise plans can also help speed up redevelopment because they often address and clear certain development hurdles — particularly ones related to environmental studies and traffic mitigation — in advance of a specific developer showing up.

For those who are passionate about what a new downtown could bring to residents, getting the development moving sooner is better.

“We have no heart, we have no soul,” Grizzle said. “Until that downtown is built, we are a bunch of individuals living in a city with nothing to connect them.”

Contact Janice Bitters at janice@sanjosespotlight.com or follow @JaniceBitters on Twitter.

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