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[whitespace] Who Built Downtown?

By Dan Pulcrano

FOR THE PAST DECADE AND A HALF, I've had a ringside seat for one of the century's last great urban experiments. Since 1984, I've lived, shopped, worked and played in San Jose's downtown. And I've watched it turn from a seedy, forgotten backwater to an emerging hub of social, commercial and artistic activity. Two powerful trends converged to birth this transformation: a popular rebellion against suburban sprawl that created a renewed interest in traditional downtowns and the explosive growth in wealth and population that resulted from the local electronic industry's role in the global technology revolution.

Who could have projected those changes when, back in 1972, a 29-year-old newly hired city budget analyst recommended to her boss that the city take over a private redevelopment corporation, with the council sitting as the agency's board? A few years later, she helped craft an innovative structure under which downtown redevelopment districts were merged with industrial areas to the north and south.

As orchards and berry fields became valuable industrial properties, new taxes created a river of money that could be directed downtown. "It had a much bigger impact than any of us had envisioned," reflects the former analyst, Sally Reed, who later became the county's manager and now is Monterey County's chief exec.

Enter two ambitious gentlemen, an East Coast architect named Frank Taylor and newly elected mayor Tom McEnery, a former bartender and amateur historian with a gift of gab. Blessed with an '80s octane economy and a pliable City Council, the two Irishmen mustered the support to build some office buildings, a hotel, a kids' museum and a convention center, then an arena.

Taylor was a mediocre architect with bland tastes, flawed urban planning ideas and poor project management skills. He held his cards close to his chest, running a public corporation like a private business, and he consistently let projects run behind schedule and over budget. Nonetheless, he became the area's most powerful public figure because, in the end, the job got done, and because he had inherited the town's largest unencumbered money pot, thanks to Reed, the council headed by Mayor Janet Gray Hayes and a bunch of high-tech wealth producers.

Taylor's added value lay in his plan to extend public financing to private projects and in figuring out how to leverage the tax stream through aggressive bonding by pledging the district's next three decades of public tax dollars to pay off the debt and accrued interest. To keep the tide rising, he strategically sprinkled projects around to keep land values--and their associated property taxes--rising. As rents shot up in the gentrified areas, small businesses and lower-income residents would be replaced by out-of-town corporate players and monied downtown dwellers.

Taylor proved particularly competent at the animalistic art of politics: herding cats, trading horses and emerging as the 800-pound guerrilla wrapped around every downtown highrise. He carefully marshaled votes by helping his patrons bring home political bacon. Were his private one-on-one meetings with councilmembers really serial meetings improperly skirting California's Brown Act, the open-meeting law that keeps public business conducted in public? It was hard to tell, since Taylor hired an army of handlers to frustrate the efforts of the press and the activist community to monitor agency behavior. He thumbed his nose at the city auditor when the public watchdog had the audacity to ask for fiscal accountability and better planning. And when things weren't going his way, he threatened to quit, a bluff that usually seemed to work.

He dodged more bullets than King Hussein, displaying an uncanny knack for survival in the political jungle. And while his tenure saw many failures, there were many high points as well. Interestingly, the public venues--the Repertory Theater, the neighborhood streetscapes, the Tech Museum, the Arena and the artesian fountains in Plaza de Cesar Chavez--won widespread praise, while the so-called public-private partnerships were often economic failures whose benefits to the city were less apparent.

Many of the things that bring joy to city life--pocket parks, murals, bike lanes, good public art, eclectic stores, funky old buildings, adequate parking, affordable housing--are missing. And they are absent because of a narrow vision that tried to build an economy around conventioneers, office workers and suburban customers, rather than emphasize a urban tapestry of residents, students, young adults, artists and entrepreneurs.

We lost historical structures like the Weir Building, the Pestana Building, Costa Hall and St. Joseph's, as well as longtime businesses like Manny's Cellar, Sal & Luigi Pizzeria and Recycle Book Store. The Fox Theater languished, and the Jose Theater and Montgomery Hotel fought for their lives.

Many of the best things about downtown--the nightclubs, the farmers market, good signage, public restrooms, free concerts, sidewalk cafes--are only there because individuals fought for them in the face of opposition or indifference from the Redevelopment Agency.

Mayor Ron Gonzales described Frank Taylor as the "architect of downtown" and the media refers to the city's skyline as the "downtown that Frank built." That is the gracious thing to do after 20 years of public service.

In truth, however, downtown's rebirth has many parents. The foundation was laid before Taylor unpacked his bags from Cincinnati, and downtown will blossom like a Prague Spring if Mayor Gonzales delivers on his promise to open up the process and build bridges between the diverse stakeholders in a community-wide effort.

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From the February 25-March 3, 1999 issue of Metro.

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