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.

Santa Clara is planning a major facelift of its five-acre downtown after years of neglect, thanks to a determined group of residents.

The Santa Clara City Council on Tuesday unanimously approved rezoning for a new downtown plan and environmental impact report. Mayor Lisa Gillmor recused herself. The plan revitalizes the downtown grid, which can accommodate up to 1,071 new homes and more than 700,000 square feet of commercial space.

The redevelopment will be a mix of streets and public spaces that are pedestrian and service oriented, laid out in a restored grid pattern with at least one new bike lane. The new zoning allows increased heights for mixed-use development of residential and commercial projects.

Proposed mix-use development in downtown Santa Clara on Monroe Street. Rendering property of Lamb Partners LLC.

“It will be the beginning of our downtown,” resident Mary Grizzle said at the meeting.

Grizzle is a leading member of Reclaiming Our Downtown, a grassroots group formed about three years ago to kick-start a community-led effort to remake Santa Clara’s downtown.

Much of downtown Santa Clara—about 25 acres bounded by Benton and Lafayette streets, Homestead Road and Madison Street—was demolished in the 1960s, 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 the present, and much of what was once the city’s former downtown is still empty or hasn’t seen the redevelopment anticipated.

To rectify the damage, in 2019 the city set aside $400,000 and hired a consultant to create a new “downtown precise plan.” The proposal drew support from multiple community members at the Tuesday meeting.

“This is a rare opportunity where you’re hearing ‘yes in my backyard,’” resident Jonathon Evans said.

Main Street resident John Dietrich was the main detractor, saying that without more incentive for developers he believes the plan will fail.

“Developers want to do the cheapest thing they can to make money,” he said. “I’m a little bit worried about all of the small businesses that aren’t going to be able to live in the new digs.”

Reclaim Our Downtown has driven the project. Grizzle said before the meeting she expected an “electrifying” night after nearly seven years of work.

Mary Grizzle speaks to the Santa Clara City Council on Dec. 5, 2023. Screenshot.

“I’m on fire,” Grizzle told San José Spotlight. “We are almost 5,000 strong at Reclaim Our Downtown. This has taken 40 meetings with a task force dedicated to making this happen, to do a great precise plan, a great code, with public input.”

Funding for the new downtown comes at a difficult time.

“As you know, the banks aren’t lending,” she said. “Contractors are up a creek. But we have come forward with ideas for City Hall to take action.”

That includes negotiating with the state. Dan Ondrasek, chairman of Reclaim Our Downtown, told San José Spotlight the city is eligible for hundreds of thousands in grants and loans to complete the project, particularly to improve the area’s transit options, according to the Department of Transportation. But it depends on how councilmembers approach state funding process.

“It’s all about how they want to attack that other funding that’s available to them, that other cities are getting right now,” Ondrasek told San José Spotlight.

Grizzle agreed that it depends on how the city approaches the opportunities.

‘’The feds can come up with 80% of the funding, and the state has 20%—if the city will get off their duff and apply for grants and loans,” Grizzle said.

At Tuesday’s meeting, Councilmember Kathy Watanabe said she has concerns because developers are hesitant to take risks due to high project fees in many California cities.

Councilmember Karen Hardy said the plan has numerous restrictions, such as on parking spaces and building types.

“My worry is it’s less likely to happen,” Hardy said. “We’re less likely to have developers come in.”

However, Councilmember Anthony Becker said as a young person he laments how few spaces there are for downtown recreation in Santa Clara, and credited the grassroots group for making this issue its focus.

Councilmember Raj Chahal agreed, praising the engaged community for the results.

“It’s (the) beauty of the system, of the whole planning process, that we are coming up with an excellent precise plan,” he said.

Contact Natalie Hanson at [email protected] or @nhanson_reports on Twitter.

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