Grassroots group pushes for rebuilding of downtown Santa Clara

Santa Clara residents want to rebuild their downtown after tearing it down more than 50 years ago.

Members of Reclaiming Our Downtown, a Santa Clara grassroots group, has led the push to revitalize the once-bustling six-block downtown. They want to return the city’s downtown to its original street grid of mixed-use businesses in the downtown area and a trolley system. Today the downtown core is a ghost town.

Business owners are hoping Reclaiming our Downtown’s efforts also mean reclaiming space for small businesses. Part of the downtown is now home to an office building that houses a yoga studio, a few restaurants and a taproom. A few storefronts are empty, including a former cafe and restaurant. A “for lease” sign now hangs in the window.

The former site of City Lights Espresso along Homestead Road. Photo by Lloyd Alaban.

The original downtown was torn down in the 1960s in an effort to clear blight for housing and businesses. But that meant losing some of the area’s charm. That razing eliminated its movie theater and its small business character.

Since August, the group has consulted with other cities across the nation with similar issues. Fort Worth, Texas; Chattanooga, Tennessee; Tucson, Arizona; West Palm Beach, Florida and Jacksonville, Florida have worked to revive their downtowns.

“They all did the same thing to their downtown,” Dan Ondrasek, a member of Reclaiming Our Downtown, told San José Spotlight. “They opened up their streets, but they also generated a huge amount of development after they did what they did.”

The former Santa Clara Theater, located in downtown. Photo courtesy of Reclaiming Our Downtown.

The group plans to bring its findings to the city in the next few months, and the few eateries and businesses in the area are thrilled.

“I think the plans are great.  It used to be a true downtown, now it’s pretty quiet,” Jiraen Cafe & Yoga owner Jaden Zhao told San José Spotlight.

Ondrasek and Reclaiming Our Downtown member Mary Grizzle have passed by the cafe and surrounding businesses multiple times, said Zhao, who called them “passionate.”

A look inside Jiraen Cafe & Yoga in 2019. Photo courtesy of Jaden Zhao.

Residents are seeking to move the city’s nearby courthouse to make room for downtown redevelopment, but it’s highly unlikely the state will agree to move Santa Clara Courthouse, which is part of The Superior Court of California, to a new location.

Much of the almost 25-acre downtown bounded by Benton, Lafayette and Madison streets and Homestead Road was demolished in the 1960s to make way for commercial buildings.

In June 2019, the city set aside $400,000 to create a new “downtown precise plan” for the 10-block radius—including the six-block core—that was once the city’s downtown.

Andrew Crabtree, the city’s director of community development, has been working closely with Reclaiming Our Downtown and Santa Clara’s downtown community task force. Crabtree estimates that plans for downtown should be done within the next year. According to Crabtree, the city is working on land-use policies and an environmental impact report for the plan.

“There’s a lot of overlap with Reclaiming Our Downtown,” Crabtree told San José Spotlight. “They’re continuing to be involved in the planning process.”

In the end, residents still need buy-in from the city. Santa Clara intentionally tore down the downtown area in the 1960s. Ondrasek believes it’s time they make up for what he calls the “worst mistake a Bay Area council has ever made.”

“Only city hall has the power to tear down downtown,” he said. “Only city hall has the power to bring it back.”

Contact Lloyd Alaban at [email protected] or follow @lloydalaban on Twitter.

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