The dream of recreating a downtown in Santa Clara has run into another roadblock — literally.
Members of the grass-roots group Reclaiming Our Downtown petitioned the City Council Aug. 18 to take up the idea of moving the Santa Clara County Superior Courthouse, arguing relocation would open up more land to develop into a proper, expansive downtown space.
Led by residents Dan Ondrasek, Rod Dunham, Ana Vargis-Smith, Donna West and others, the group’s aim is to create a six-block development, as opposed to another disconnected two-block project, such as Franklin Square Mall off Monroe Street.
“If you only have a mall at each end, it is not a downtown,” said resident Mary Grizzle, who remembers working, watching movies and eating sweet treats in the former downtown. “It’s tacky, and that’s not what we want.”
The courthouse, at 1095 Homestead Road, was built directly on top of Main Street after a 1960s urban renewal project bulldozed existing streets and businesses along Main and Franklin streets, the town’s main drags.
Ondrasek, one of the driving members, requested the city and Downtown Task Force immediately start bimonthly talks with courthouse officials and get a study done by mid-September — especially while other regional courthouses remain closed due to COVID-19.
He argued no creative solutions, compromises or decisions would be made in time for the first phase of development without an active conversation with state officials now.
“All we’re asking is for the city to sit down and start talking, and nothing may come out of it or something may come out of it,” Ondrasek told San José Spotlight ahead of the Aug. 18 meeting. “What we don’t want to have happen is to build two beautiful blocks of what would be a downtown, and then it stops for 15 or 20 years because of this thing that only has two traffic courts.”
By getting back to the original grid system, residents say pedestrian traffic would open up and allow direct access back to Park Plaza, the city’s first park where Mission Library Family Reading Center is located.
“It was all designed to have community gatherings there on Main Street leading to the park,” said Skip Pearson, a resident who also remembers the downtown prior to demolition. “When the city bulldozed back in the mid 1960s, they destroyed our Main Street, and the courthouse straddles where Main Street used to be.”
According to a Superior Court spokesperson, the Homestead Road location is “vital to the processing of traffic arraignments and trials in our county.” Traffic case filings, which include issues of speeding, automobile equipment needing repair and expired licenses, accounted for more than 80% of all criminal case filings in 2017-18.
Despite civic engagement around the issue, conversations about relocation won’t happen anytime soon.
Consultants from Wallace, Roberts & Todd, known as WRT, will share baseline financial feasibility of the overall downtown redevelopment with the Downtown Task Force over the next few meetings, according to Assistant City Manager Manuel Pineda. But because that study never included the scope of costs and concerns associated with relocating a courthouse, even a January deadline wouldn’t be possible, let alone the requested September date.
Instead, city staff will now draft a letter to state officials in the coming weeks about the availability of selling or moving the courthouse. The state’s response will be brought back to the council and public, so the Downtown Task Force could be involved in next steps.
The decision was unanimously approved by councilmembers Debi Davis, Raj Chahal, Teresa O’Neill, Kathy Watanabe and Vice Mayor Karen Hardy.
Mayor Lisa Gillmor recused herself from the 90-minute discussion because the office of Gillmor & Associates, her real estate and property management firm, is located downtown in Franklin Mall.
Ondrasek was disheartened by the vote, saying a letter could get a dead-end “no” answer. He said this action failed to show the council’s full support behind the task force’s recommendations.
“We can say as a Downtown Task Force ‘We want the courthouse (moved),’ but again it comes back to … without council, we don’t have teeth,” Ondrasek said, adding that his team has volunteered thousands of hours to this cause. “I’m trying to stay positive here and not be angry, but to say that we can’t sit down and begin just discussing with them is unconscionable to me.”
The next Downtown Task Force meeting is 6-8 p.m. Sept. 19, the first meeting since March.