Downtown is Where the Heart Is

By Carolyn Schuk
Work Daze

It may not look like a group of Silicon Valley movers and shakers, but the group of eight or so people having coffee some weeks ago at City Lights might just turn out to be among this decade’s biggest paradigm-shifters.

It’s Reclaiming Downtown, a grassroots group that has put its collective heart into restoring Santa Clara’s historical downtown. Literally. Reclaiming Downtown wants to restore the area’s original street grid—established when Santa Clara was founded in 1852—and progressively reconstructing the buildings that used to be there.

But don’t confuse this with the “creative destruction” that took a wrecking ball to downtown in the 1960s.

“Everybody thinks we’re out to demolish the Franklin Mall,” said the group’s founder and co-chair Rod Dunham, who prefers not to have any title except ‘team member.’ “We’re not proposing even touching that.” Dunham explains that the Franklin Mall is also a piece of history, an example of 1960s architecture that itself is being displaced by New Urbanism.

The group’s vision is to create a plan that plays out over decades—the organic way downtowns actually develop. “Downtown don’t grow up overnight,” Dunham says frequently.

The group is focused on the area bounded by Lafayette and Monroe, Benton and Homestead. Franklin St. ran between Monroe and Lafayette, and was bisected by Jackson, Main and Washington. Reclaiming’s initial goal reaches from Lafayette St. to what used to be Washington St. (currently a parking lot).

Restoration is more than the architecture coming back into a downtown, said co-founder Dan Ondrasek. “It’s the street grid. That’s the key. It starts with Main St. Had the buildings survived it would have been possible to build organically around it. But even if all the buildings are destroyed, the street plan is still there.”

Reclaiming Downtown isn’t driven by today’s master-planned New Urbanism. You could say that Reclaiming’s passion is Old Urbanism. This includes the grid street pattern with the kind of mass transit that fosters riding a few blocks and multiple stops—think trolley cars—mixed uses, buildings of different eras and styles, and all of it developing over time, and with interesting randomness, rather than springing in sterile perfection from the cover of Harvard Design Magazine.

Santa Clara Stories That Begin with “I Remember”

It’s a multi-generational bond with the physical geography of the City of Santa Clara.

“I recall my grandpa talking about the Parade of Champions, going to Netos, Wilson’s bakery,” said Dunham, who grew up in the Rose Garden neighborhood of San Jose and now lives in his grandparents’ Santa Clara house. Dunham works for Western Digital on Cottle Rd. in San José—the same plant where he father once worked when it was IBM.

Mary Grizzle came to came to Santa Clara from the Azores as a small child in 1949. She worked for Underwriters Lab and was a foot soldier in the urban renewal opposition, saving her grandmother’s house from the wrecking ball. After time away from Santa Clara, when she was in her 20s, she returned home to discover that an important part of that home was gone.

“I moved back from Southern California and the downtown was gone,” she said. “I didn’t know it got torn down. I just cried and I still get emotional when I think what it was and what it is now.”

Ana Vargas-Smith is a first generation Santa Claran whose ancestors, like Grizzle came from the Azores. Too young to have ever seen downtown, Vargas-Smith spent time as a business planner for SONY before returning to Santa Clara.

“In 2016 I saw the ‘You Know You’re From Santa Clara’ Facebook page,” she said. “I got involved posting pictures I found on Facebook and got a lot of hits. A lot of people were talking about getting downtown back.” Then she saw a 1960s photo of City Council Members with shovels on the land that used to be the downtown. “I thought, ‘This city was taken away. We want to reclaim our downtown.'”

Reclaiming’s co-chair Ondrasek grew up in Santa Clara, and worked for AMD for many years. His daily commute was an excursion through a town that had ceased to exist in concrete, but was very enduring in his heart. “As I drove down Monroe every morning I remembered my parents taking me to the A&W. I remembered the theater, remembered the neon. I remembered the parades.”

Movie theaters are a passion for Ondrasek. When he was in his 20s, he traveled around California restoring theaters. And his vision of a restored downtown, unsurprisingly, is anchored by a theater.

Reclaiming isn’t Ondrasek’s first foray into community activism. A decade ago he got interested in the Coyote Hills in Fremont and protecting open land adjacent to the Coyote Hills Regional Park.

“I saw a sign, ‘Save Coyote Hills,’ and I went to a meeting,” he recalled.  “I thought there would be 200 people there and there were only four. But I learned the truth of what Margaret Meade said, ‘Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world.'” The group was able to preserve nearly 300 acres of land as permanent open space.

Donna West, a tour guide, loves history and when she first moved to Santa Clara in the 1960s, she found distant cousins who had lived here. She tracked their addresses via phone directories, and that path proved to be a rough map of the wrecking ball through the historical downtown, she explained.

“I’m at the convention center a lot with trade groups and would like to send people to Santa Clara, but there isn’t any place to send out-of-towners to.” Instead, she said, she directs them to Santana Row, and they love the experience.

West got involved with Reclaiming after hearing Dunham and Ondrasek speak about the lost downtown at a Council meeting. “The before and after, that’s what tugged at my heart,” she said.

Jim Crouch calls himself an “immigrant” because he comes from Campbell and moved to Santa Clara in 1979. “I saw some pictures from old downtown and they just blew my mind,” he said. “I knew Wilson’s Bakery but I always wondered why there was no downtown.”

Reclaiming Downtown isn’t just a matter of sentiment or nostalgia. Things that speak to the social heart of a community also, unsurprisingly, speak to its economic heart as well.

Campbell officials peg economic activity from that city’s downtown Campbell Ave. area at about $80 million in 2016.

Los Gatos estimates that its downtown—University and Santa Cruz Ave. area—drives between $180 and $200 million in economic activity.

Palo Alto reported that $3.4 million in sales tax revenue came from that city’s University Ave. area in 2015.

Mountain View’s Castro St. downtown area retail revenues in 2015 were $85 million—$31 million higher than estimates.

And this circles back to Ondrasek’s passion for theaters. He references a 2010 Film Journal article, Small towns, big picture: Cinemas at the heart of downtown revivals.

Movie theatres are perfect catalysts for economic growth and urban redevelopment because they bring the numbers of people needed to support a successful downtown core according to the article.

The next step, Dunham and Ondrasek say, is forming a downtown task force and a financial model for redevelopment. The group has started having regular meetings and has discussed incorporating formally. “We’re going to keep doing what we’re doing,” said Dunham. “Our goal is to have a task force and we’re making sure that happens.”

He points to the success of the Taplands brewpub, which opened in early 2016 and has garnered a devoted and enthusiastic following. “If you build it, they will come.”