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The Cement of a City

By Dan Pulcrano

SAN JOSE MAYORS frequently use their annual address to suggest some Big Project, cementing their legacy with $100 million or so of San Jose's money. They'll pour it into a parcel the size of a city block or larger, in the shape of a convention center, sports arena, stadium, museum, hotel, city hall, performing arts facility or central library.

The polished stone facades of these complex edifices are invariably surrounded by sidewalks of granite tiles or colored pavers, set diagonally or in a pattern. And while a few blocks are beautified, a block away the sidewalks stay broken. Their curbs overflow during rains, litter collects in holes, tree roots buckle the walkways and pedestrians trip on the uneven surfaces. Still visible on some of these old sidewalks is a stamp that reads "WPA," which means it was last renovated by Franklin Roosevelt's Works Public Administration more than a half-century ago.

Sure, government's job is to distribute burdens and concentrate benefits, but you don't have to be a Trotskyite to figure out that while a handful of landlords were making bank, whole chunks of the city were crumbling. Of course it's nice to have a tech museum to draw visitors and celebrate the achievements of Intel and Apple. Call me boring, but I figure that if we can get a microprocessor to scream at speeds north of 1 gigahertz, then we can plug potholes, synchronize stoplights, bury electric wires, remove graffiti and get city officials to answer calls by the third ring.

Luckily, Mayor Ron Gonzales is a boring guy too. In his State of the City speech, he elevated sidewalk repair, graffiti removal and customer service to municipal priorities. He quantified management objectives and attached deadlines, a sexless but effective way of determining in the end whether the job gets done. Without clear, universally understood goals, you can find yourself scratching your head and saying, wait a second, didn't the Downtown Working Review Committee in the 1980s provide for the construction of 5,000 housing units in downtown San Jose by the turn of the century? A thousand or so got built, and we paid a stiff price for the shortfall. The Pavilion center failed. Nightclubs closed. The UA cinema operators slinked away in the dark. Hotels got sold off. Grocery stores foundered. Investors turned their backs on San Jose. Without places for people to live, downtown is just an expensive tourist and entertainment spectacle bereft of community and soul.

Gonzales' answer: Build 1,000 units a year downtown. Ba-da-bum.

Then there are some things that just can't be quantified. For sentimentalists who like green hills and old buildings, the new administration has put plans in place to save two historic theaters, rolled a hotel out of the wrecking ball's way and put its weight behind a greenbelt with teeth.

Oh, did I mention BART? Though a rail link and not a subway (yet), getting the governor to cough up $35 mil for right-of-way acquisition is a good start. Nice sale, Ron. There'll be a bonus on your next commission check.

Throw in another corporate headquarters, a dot-com district, a college prep school, Web-based permits and restrictions on gambling, and you can't help but feel that the city is moving in the right direction and being steered with a steady hand.

The Hammer administration, while deserving of credit for its fiscal responsibility in tough times, was characterized by stagnation and drift, in part due to an unwillingness to rock the boat. Gonzales isn't afraid to ruffle feathers. He has taken pet projects off the dole, put initiatives on hold while he refines his program, set a standard of accountability and hired a new city manager, redevelopment director and city attorney.

Last Thursday's speech generated a buzz and general accolades. It was the most substantive and comprehensive speech by a San Jose mayor that anyone can remember. He talked of the nuts and bolts of creating a better city, rather than just marquee projects and political grandstanding (though there was some, like his finger wagging at violent criminals).

With a solid program in place, a supportive council and his detractors on the margins, Gonzales must now create an atmosphere of inclusiveness. He'll have to win the confidence of the arts community (was punking off Cinequest really a good idea?), give other projects a fair hearing and codify a spirit of public access and accountability through a sunshine law.

Then, Gonzales' moment in the sun will take on more permanence and a truckload of concrete plans will coalesce into a foundation for a well-rounded, progressive, participatory city blessed with a great economy, pleasant weather and a low crime rate.

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From the February 24-March 1, 2000 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

Copyright © 1999 Metro Publishing Inc. Metroactive is affiliated with the Boulevards Network.

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